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Milton S. Hershey, Candy Tycoon and Compassionate Capitalist: An American Story

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When eating a bar of Hershey’s chocolate, the last thing one probably thinks about is the man whose last name is printed across its wrapper. What a wasted moment.

The story of Milton Snavely Hershey is Pennsylvanian to its very core. Born in 1857 to a family of affluent Mennonites in the Harrisburg area, he spent a childhood on the go due to his father’s job as a salesman. Consequently, his level of formal education only reached the fourth grade. However, he received extensive training in entrepreneurship while accompanying his father on business trips up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but he always called Central Pennsylvania his home and moved back in his twenties to start a company of his own.

He soon was a hugely successful caramel confectioner with a secret recipe that kept his customers coming back time and again, and from which he gained an unshakable reputation for superior candy making. In 1900, he sold his confectionary and did a very curious thing: he bought a thousand-plus acre farm outside of Lancaster, and his business associates soon learned that he did it to perfect his formula for milk chocolate, until then considered a luxury Swiss import, and Hershey’s development of a comparatively cheap American version was big news.

By 1903, Hershey had struck cocoa’s equivalent of gold. He built his own factory on the farm, and it quickly grew into a plant, while the farm became a town for his workers who flocked in for the readily available employment opportunities. Determined to expand the market for the solely upper-class product to the masses, Hershey solidified his reputation with blue collar Americans by turning his boomtown into a model community. Hershey built comfortable homes, good public schools, an affordable public transportation infrastructure, and centers for safe recreational activities. Unsurprisingly, the town soon became known as Hershey.

Still, this was not enough for Milton. Seeing the opportunity for a totally unexpected source of revenue, he decided to commission a theme park. Opening in 1907, it was an instant hit with his employees and tourists alike. In operation to this very day, Hersheypark is one of the country’s foremost amusement attractions. After its construction, Hershey became a full time philanthropist especially interested in presenting cultural and educational opportunities to the less fortunate, and he placed the majority of his fortune in a trust fund to accomplish this worthy aim.

Hershey married late in life, as did most men of substantial means during his time. He would dearly love Catherine, his first and only wife, until her untimely death in 1915. The couple never had children, so Hershey was able to devote full attention to his business and charitable interests during his later years. One of his proudest accomplishments was supplying American soldiers with stocks of candies in the midst of World War II’s strict food rationing. He lived to see the end of the war, and died 88 on October 13, 1945.

Hershey was a very unique mogul for the turn of the century. While many of his contemporaries, including the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and DuPonts, engaged in wondrous philanthropic works, they did so from afar, but Hershey never left the company town he built, forsaking the typical gilded, rustic estate in a fashionable suburb favored by his peers. He personally oversaw his plans to better the world around him, and those who knew him proclaimed his humility and concern to the world. Hershey was truly genuine, succeeding not only in building a culinary icon, but a community without parallel. Success for him meant that one could not be divorced from the other.

Milton Snavely Hershey exemplified the American Dream in the most comprehensive manner imaginable.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Hershey is still a popular product a century after the founder crafted this most chocolate bar. In addition, Hershey’s is one of the premier employers in the candy making industry. I hope that a manufacturer can devise a chocolate product with fewer sugar grams.