The Chocolate King
Philanthropist and Candy Maker Milton Hershey Believed in Three Things: Chocolate, Children and Cigars
W. Greg Rothman
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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In 1918, Hershey put his $60 million fortune in trust for the school. The bequest was held in confidence until 1923, when it was discovered and revealed by The New York Times. Despite his efforts at altruistic anonymity, Hershey was also known locally for his generosity. Hershey community archivist Pamela Cassidy notes that "many who knew Hershey said his essence was evident in his town and school." He would often sit down with the Derry Township School District at year's end and write a check to balance its books. The enormity of his donations contrasts to the $54,000 price tag of his mansion, "Highpoint," which he had built for himself and Kitty. Ultimately, after Kitty's death, he even donated Highpoint to the Hershey Country Club to be used as its clubhouse. While golfers roamed the dining rooms below, Hershey used three small rooms upstairs. After he died, his personal effects were auctioned for a mere $20,000.
If Hershey had one personal indulgence, it was his cigars. Longtime Hershey associate Henry King noted, "I always admired the smell of his cigars. When we were at the Mansion, the butler brought out cigars and Hershey passed them around." James D. McMahon Jr., curator of collections for the Hershey Museum, remarks, "People would say that Hershey's home always had the aroma of cigar smoke." Tom Jones, a graduate of The Industrial School and lifetime employee of the Hershey Corp., fondly remembers sitting on Hershey's lap as a boy in the early 1940s. "Hershey always had a cigar in his mouth," he says.
Some time after the school was created, Kitty took ill with a rare neurological disease. She grew increasingly weaker as she fought the illness with traditional and nontraditional remedies. During her illness, Milton brought roses for her every day. When she died in 1915 at the age of 42, her nurse reported that Hershey was "like a madman." For 17 years, he had tasted that sweetness for which he had longed. Once again, at 58, Hershey became the austere, duty-driven man of his earlier years. He never remarried.
His attentions now turned toward Cuba. Hershey traveled there in 1916 with his mother, who eventually maintained an apartment in Havana. He was enchanted by the country. He strolled through the streets, viewing the old fortifications of Havana Harbor, the city wall, the Spanish Cathedral. Here, he also discovered an avenue for uninterrupted, autonomous sugar production, acquiring numerous sugar cane plantations and mills. By the time Hershey died, his company's Cuban operations exceeded 65,000 acres.
Undoubtedly, the time Hershey spent in Cuba enhanced his passion for cigars. It was here that he switched from his preferred Golden Lion brand to Cuban Corona-Coronas, smoking eight to 10 a day. Every morning after breakfast he walked to The Sugar House (his production factory built on a plateau above Santa Cruz del Norte) smoking a Corona-Corona. There were "No Smoking" signs at the door and Hershey would put his cigar on the window sill when he entered. Without fail, the cigar would have disappeared into the hands of a native by the time he returned.
At first, the Cubans watched Hershey's business acquisitions with suspicion. He had sugar districts in Central San Juan Bautista, Central Rosario, Central Carmen, Central San Antonio and Central Jesus Maria. Hershey opened the Hershey Cuban Railroad and bought a 100-year-old Spanish hacienda at Rosario for his personal use. The house was beautifully tiled and furnished and had a 10-acre garden. Hershey started a school, the Cuban Orphan School, at Central Rosario, which served the same purpose as his school in Pennsylvania. He also provided well for his Cuban workers, as he had for his other employees.
In 1933, at the Presidential Palace in Havana, Cuban president Gerardo Machado awarded Hershey the country's highest honor for a non-national, the Grand Cross of the National Order of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. In presenting it, Machado said, "With this medal we give a bit of our soul; with it goes our lasting admiration."
Thomas Cabrerra, the manager of the Hershey Havana operations, would regularly send his boss boxes of cigars. He arranged with the cigar manufacturer to have Hershey's picture printed on the cigar bands. An executive of the Hershey Chocolate Corp., L.W. Majer, recalls, "He used to serve two kinds of cigars. I heard of an occasion at the Mansion when the waiter gave Hershey the Coronas, and then pulled the [box] back and passed the Golden Lions to the rest of the boys." Hershey purchased his cigars two hundred at a time.
During the early 1900s, cigars were sold around the town of Hershey with a "Hershey" band. The cigars were produced by Yorkana Cigar Co. of York, Pennsylvania, and were sold for five or six cents apiece in the town drugstore, at the golf course and at Hersheypark. There were also the Hershey Invincible, Hershey Park Golf Club Special, Hersheytown and Havana Perfecto brands. Until the early 1980s at Hersheypark, the amusement park created by Hershey, cigar rollers demonstrated their skills at a kiosk in the craft area and sold the hand-rolled products to park patrons.
Today at The Hotel Hershey, beverage manager Bernie Strackhouse says Hershey's cigar legacy lives on. "Keeping in the highest tradition of Hershey, the hotel is a cigar friendly place. In the Iberian Lounge at the Hotel Hershey, we sell over 100 top-shelf cigars per week." Strackhouse himself is a cigar connoisseur.
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