The Chocolate King

Philanthropist and Candy Maker Milton Hershey Believed in Three Things: Chocolate, Children and Cigars
| By W. Greg Rothman | From Danny DeVito, Winter 96

The terms "industrial magnate" and "factory town" conjure up turn-of-the century names like Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller, and images of opulent living contrasted to the miserable working conditions of the era. Yet one man of that time who fit the broader stereotype behaved differently than his wealthy contemporaries.

Milton Snavely Hershey, commonly referred to as "The Chocolate King," was born in 1857 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, and raised among the "Plain People" of the Mennonite faith. Hershey was to chocolate what Henry Ford was tothe automobile, and he can rightfully be called the founder of the American chocolate industry. Today, the Hershey empire in southeastern Pennsylvania includes a school, university medical center, amusement park, museum, zoo, semiprofessional hockey team, hotel, two world-class golf courses and the world's largest manufacturer of chocolate. The town of Hershey itself is a legacy to a very successful man who provided for his workers. It stemmed rom his desire to create a kind of paradise that met all his factory workers' needs.

Milton Hershey had three lifelong passions--chocolate, children and cigars. Though it is not clear when he began smoking cigars, it was in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that he first became known for them. He purchased his preferred Golden Lion brand in the DeMuth Tobacco Store, which is still in operation. Lyman Windolph, a friend of Hershey's from Lancaster, said, "He was one of the biggest smokers I ever knew. I never saw him without a cigar. He must have had a wonderful constitution." Indeed he did; Hershey smoked eight to 10 cigars a day until his death in 1945 at the age of 88.

Hershey's passion for cigars was matched by his love for children. Having come from a broken household and unable to have children with his wife, he founded a school for disadvantaged youth that aimed to provide a solid education in a warm, reassuring atmosphere. The school flourishes to this day, thanks to the $60 million Hershey put in trust for it.

Hershey began life as the only son of an unlikely and ultimately incompatible couple, Henry Hershey and Fanny Snavely. Henry was an unreliable but innovative father who loved books and spent his life wandering, enthralled with the new. His life was filled with ideas, many of which came to pass, though not by his hand. Henry Hershey's life was marked by failure and a lack of perseverance.

Fanny, on the other hand, was a forceful, hardworking, some would say humorless woman who one day was left with no one but Milton to whom to dedicate her life. Henry left her when Milton was young; their daughter, Serena, died at the age of four. Fanny believed, like her fellow Mennonites, that working hard represented devotion to God and that wealth was a sign of God's grace. To his benefit and perhaps unwittingly, Milton united these disparate strains and became both innovative and hardworking.

For a time, the Hersheys traveled where Henry's wanderings took them, which meant that Milton's education was sporadic. He did not do well in school, nor did he enjoy it. After the fourth grade, with encouragement from his book-suspicious mother, Milton left school. His distaste for reading and writing left him essentially illiterate and left the world without a personal written record of his life or beliefs. However, his life, full of deeds, serves as a text for what was important to Hershey. Ronald D. Glosser, president and chief executive officer for the Hershey Trust Co., calls Milton Hershey "a common man with an uncommon touch."

After a four-year apprenticeship to Lancaster confectioner Joseph Royer, Milton was encouraged to go out on his own. His Aunt Mattie provided $150 in venture capital. On June 1, 1876, as America prepared for its centennial celebration, the 18-year-old Hershey opened his first candy business, choosing Philadelphia over Lancaster. He set up shop in a little brick house at 935 Spring Garden Street. M.S., as he was called, worked all night making candy that he sold by day, with his mother and aunt often laboring by his side. Despite his hard work and the success of the penny candy, called French Secrets (a message was wrapped with the candy), it was not enough to pay his expenses. Sugar dealers were unwilling to give him credit and the price of cane was high. (This experience forged in Hershey a lifelong concern about the cost of sugar cane.) After seven struggling years, and in debt to his relatives, he closed his shop.

Hershey moved to Denver, where his father was working in the silver mines. He found a job with another candy maker, where he learned the priceless secret of mixing fresh milk into caramels, which extended the shelf life and enhanced the flavor of the candy. From Denver, Hershey moved briefly to Chicago with his father, where he found too much competition in the industry. He also tried New Orleans, but discovered that it would be too expensive to move his candy-making machines from Philadelphia. Concluding that it would be cheaper to open a shop in New York City, Hershey moved there and began working at Huyler's, a well-known confectioner. Every evening he made batches of taffy in his landlady's kitchen. He put the wrapped taffy pieces in a basket and sold them on the streets. His mother and Aunt Mattie again arrived to help with the business.

Hershey decided to take a risk and acquire cough drop machinery on credit. Though he learned the manufacturing steps that he would later use to mass-produce chocolate (which up until then had been a handmade luxury item), the cough drop business failed; he had only enough money to send his mother and aunt home. When he later returned to Lancaster, his uncles (and former patrons) refused to give him any more money or a place to stay. His friend and former employee, William "Lebbie" Lebkicher, took him in and paid for the shipping of his machinery. (Years later, at Lebkicher's funeral, Hershey said, "We just buried the best friend I ever had.")

With five failures behind him and out of money (a self-described "unbroken string of failures"), Hershey could easily have given up. But his lifelong affinity for sweets, coupled with his persevering nature, caused him to press on.

He tried again in his native countryside of Lancaster. Here, he finally had his first success, "Crystal A Caramels," in 1886. His luck had turned when a mysterious British importer placed a large order and Hershey persuaded a skeptical local bank to loan him the money to fill it. By the 1890s, Hershey's caramels company had made him a millionaire. His factory covered a Lancaster city block. Hershey's only advertising was the product itself: "Give them quality," he would say. "That's the best advertising in the world."

In 1899, a group of competing caramel manufacturers approached Hershey about creating a broad alliance to take control of the industry. While he had no interest in merging, Hershey had become increasingly interested in chocolate and offered to sell his company, which he did the following year for a million dollars, sagaciously retaining the rights to make his chocolate.

Hershey invested all the profits from the sale to expand his chocolate making, saying, "I'll stake everything on chocolate." He confided in friends, "Caramels are just a fad. The chocolate market will be a permanent one."

While Hershey was on the verge of success in revolutionizing the chocolate industry, his personal life was less sweet. Often lonely, with few friends, the 41-year-old Hershey seemed destined to remain the eternal bachelor. Hershey reportedly looked in the mirror one day and said: "M.S., you're a damned fool, a diamond covered fop in a loud suit." But shortly after, his luck changed when he met and fell in love with the beautiful Catherine Elizabeth "Kitty" Sweeney of Jamestown, New York. Sweeney, a 25-year-old from an Irish Catholic family of modest means, was gay and witty, with a disarming smile and bright blue eyes. The two were married in the rectory at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in May 1898.

Unlike her husband, Kitty was full of joie de vivre. Hershey was raised by a woman whose view of the world did not easily include this refreshing quality of indulgence. Indeed, he may never have encountered such spirit until meeting Kitty. Predictably, she received a cool reception from Fanny, who asked upon meeting her, "Were you ever on the stage?"

In 1903, the couple returned to Hershey's birthplace of Derry Township, 13 miles east of Harrisburg, where Hershey, his business prospering, set out to build the ideal town for his factory workers. He included every amenity, creating what could be called a "New Jerusalem," with perfectly executed streets, parks, homes, rail service, trolley lines--even an amusement park. This unprecedented endeavor found his contemporaries, even associates, unfavorably dumbstruck at Hershey's gargantuan vision and "wasted" money. But Hershey's life was ruled by the long-instilled Biblical maxim of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. He believed that there was a greater good than personal success and comfort.

Success was a new dance for Hershey. When he found it, he was relentless in retaining it. Democratizing chocolate was not enough; he continued to perfect production, creating new machines, from mixing to wrapping. With each new triumph, workers would hear his voice ring out, "We've got it!" (They would also hear Hershey say, "Boys, don't rock the boat, row it.")

Industrial success alone was not enough for Kitty, either. After sadly realizing that they would never have children, Kitty urged M.S. to create a school for disadvantaged children. In what they considered the capstone of their lives, the Hersheys founded The Industrial School on Nov. 15, 1909; it admitted its first pupils, four orphan boys, the following year, using Hershey's birthplace, The Homestead, as both home and school.

With his unstable, nomadic childhood and separated parents, Hershey empathized with orphans. His goal for the school was to provide for children an opportunity for a quality education, a wholesome environment and a loving, caring atmosphere. Still thriving today, the Milton Hershey School has 1,100 students enrolled from throughout the United States. The central campus encompasses more than 3,000 acres, including farmland, streams, ponds and woodlands. Ninety-seven student homes are located throughout the campus, staffed by houseparents whose job is to create stability, express love, and instill discipline, moral values and a work ethic in a family atmosphere. The Hershey School Trust, created to preserve Kitty and Milton's vision, administers their fortune according to their guidelines. Hershey once said his life would be complete if just 50 young people benefited from his school. Today, the school boasts 7,100 alumni. One former student and employee remarks, "If Hershey were here today, I would get down on my knees and thank him for the good he did in my life."

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.

The Hotel Hershey was built during the Great Depression. Overlooking the town, it is magnificent with its marble corridors, royal suites, grandiose fountains and botanical gardens. The gardens overflow with roses, including one created in Kitty's name. As the rest of the country struggled to find jobs, Hershey insisted on putting people to work, breaking ground for the substantial structures of "Chocolatetown, U.S.A." during the depths of the Depression. In addition to the hotel, Hershey ordered built a community center, a senior hall (the present Milton Hershey High School), his administration offices, the Hershey Arena and the Parkview Golf Course Club House, all constructed between 1929 and 1933. Hershey employees never missed a payday. During the construction of the hotel, Hershey often ventured out to the job site (he was always at work before anyone else). On one occasion, the foreman approached Hershey and proudly reported that a newly acquired machine was doing the work of 40 men. "Then get rid of it and get those men back," Hershey commanded.

Hershey continued producing chocolate during the Depression with the intention of maintaining an affordable product that would brighten a discouraged country's day. With the onset of the Second World War, Hershey's staff created non-melting chocolate bars for the military, called Field Ration "D." The D represented "daily," and as the United States entered the war, the Hershey Chocolate Factory was making half a million chocolate bars per day. Arman F. Leo, a highly decorated veteran and native of Dauphin County, has fond memories of the Ration "D" bar: "Sitting alone in a foxhole was the best time to eat the 'D' bar. They seemed to last all night. We gave them out to the children in Africa, Italy and France. We were greeted like Santa Claus." The Hershey name and GI goodwill was spread throughout the world by the Ration "D" bar. Hershey was particularly pleased when the company was given the Army Navy "E" Production Award from the U.S. Government, the first of only five such awards.

Nearly a month and a half after Japan's surrender ended the war, the 88-year-old Hershey died of heart failure on Oct. 13, 1945. He had enjoyed his cigars until the end. His nurse, Elizabeth Rupp, said, "During his later years he must have smoked six to seven Coronas a day." One Hershey intimate recalled, "He was a great smoker. He smoked eight to ten a day until he died. Even at the end, when he knew he had a bad heart, he would smoke four or five a day."

Today, visitors to the town of Hershey are greeted by the tantalizing smell of fresh milk chocolate being produced in the heart of town. Chocolate Avenue remains a quiet yet active commercial main artery, with eclectic architectural tributes to the man who built it. Since 1963, the street has been lined with lights topped with large Hershey Kiss replicas. Each year, thousands of eager tourists make their way through the model factory, "Chocolate World," in mechanized boats that take them through a pictorial journey of the chocolate manufacturing process. Throughout the town, the motto of the Milton Hershey School is repeated: "His deeds are his monument. His life is our inspiration."

Norman Vincent Peale, visiting the town in 1989 to give a speech, was touring the Founder's Hall (the Hershey school auditorium built in 1970) when a teacher asked him if he would take a minute to address his students. With the life-sized bronze statue of Hershey with one of his schoolboys as the backdrop, Peale asked, "How many of you would like to have millions of dollars someday?" The children all raised their hands high in the air. "And, how many of you would, 25 years before you die, give it all away to strangers?" After seeing that not a single hand was raised, Peale looked over his shoulder and said, "Hershey did just that."

Milton Hershey gave away money as freely as he smoked cigars. On Sept. 13, 1995, the 138th anniversary of Hershey's birth (and 50 years after his death), the U.S. Postal Service honored him with a stamp. More than 5,000 children, alumni, Hershey employees and admirers joined Postmaster General Marvin Runyon in officially dedicating the stamp at a ceremony at the Hersheypark Arena. Runyon said of the honoree, "He possessed the one thing sweeter and more pure than even his chocolate--a loving heart." The likeness on the stamp of the walrus-mustached philanthropist was a good one--but it was missing his trademark cigar.

W. Greg Rothman lives outside of Hershey, Pennsylvania.