MILTON S. HERSHEY
In 1857 an economic bubble in the transport industry burst. Too many resources had been committed to the construction of railroads. Banks and investors were going bankrupt and works across the country were suddenly halted. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, commerce withered as the local bank, locomotive works, and other businesses were forced to close as a recession sunk in. Against this backdrop, on September 13th, Milton S. Hershey was born to parents Henry and Fanny Hershey on a small farm twenty miles north of the Lebanon Valley.
Henry Hershey was a man of big dreams and little talent. Seduced by rags-to-riches tales, he moved his young family to The Oil Creek Valley in Titusville, Pennsylvania, to partake in an oil rush. Over a half million people would join the Hersheys that year in an flurry of speculative exploration. This unsuccessful venture set a precedent which would characterise Henry Hershey’s life: one failed get-rich-quick scheme after another.
At the behest of Fanny’s brothers, the Hersheys returned to Lancaster to escape the fruitless undertaking which had reduced them to poverty. It was among his mother’s strict Mennonite family that Milton grew up, and perhaps where he developed a strong work ethic that would later serve him well. Meanwhile, Henry Hershey felt stifled by his wife‘s family and regimented farming lifestyle. Although they never divorced, Henry and Fanny eventually separated. Fanny would thereafter call herself a widow.
After the 1876 Centennial Exhibition opened on May 10th, almost two hundred-thousand people flooded into Philadelphia over the following twelve months; Milton Hershey was waiting for them at his new Spring Garden Confectionary Works.
Milton had learned the confectionary trade while working at Royer’s Ice Cream Parlour in Lancaster and, at nineteen, convinced his mother’s family to invest in plans to open a store in Philadelphia. At its beginning, the store was a roaring success, but as the crowds of the Centennial Exhibition dwindled, confectioners throughout the city competed fiercely for what few customers remained. Despite Milton’s determined efforts, debts soared, and his mother’s family eventually refused to support the business any further.
Spring Garden Confectionary Works was not to be the last of Milton Hershey’s failures, and this was, in part, thanks to his father. Whenever Milton’s businesses threatened to succeed, Henry would turn up with some scheme and try to convince his son to invest. Milton would dutifully oblige but soon after watch the red ink flow. At both Philadelphia and New York, Henry Hershey would play an integral role in pushing his son’s stores into bankruptcy.
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Milton Hershey was resolute in defeat. With each failure, Milton learned his lesson and, undaunted, tried again.
Following his failure in New York, Milton returned home to Lancaster, broke and hounded by outstanding debts. Armed with a new recipe for caramels that he had learned in Chicago, Milton started selling door-to-door and street-by-street. After considerable hard work and significant good luck, his one-man operation became the Lancaster Caramel Company. It was a turning point in Milton’s career, which, thereafter, would be marked with abundant successes.
It is difficult to discern much about Milton’s character: he had few close friends, hardly wrote anything, and rarely spoke publicly. His story is entangled with apocryphal anecdotes and corporate propaganda, but among those characteristics revealed by his acts was a willingness to take risks.
Later in life, Milton would lose millions gambling in the casinos of Cuba, but his biggest gamble was on the Hershey company itself. After selling the Lancaster Caramel Company, Hershey embarked on his most ambitious project: a plan to build a model community. In a previously uninhabited corner of Pennsylvania, he ordered the construction of a milk chocolate factory, streets, homes, and amenities for residents. But there was one problem: Milton Hershey did not know how to mass-produce milk chocolate.
Milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland. In the late 19th Century, Swiss chocolate manufacturers were the only mass-producers of milk chocolate in the world, and they guarded their secret recipes jealously. Manufacturers from elsewhere had to discover their own methods for mass-producing milk chocolate (which is why today chocolate from each country has its own distinct flavour). Milton Hershey was faced with this daunting task while his chocolate factory was under construction, and it was a gamble he almost lost.
Although Milton’s chocolate was poor quality by European standards, most of his customers had never tasted the competition. Hershey’s chocolate owes its unique flavour to slightly soured milk--a consequence of its peculiar method of manufacture. But the Hershey taste came to define chocolate for Americans. With its low price and meagre competition, the Hershey brand quickly established itself as a national institution.
With newfound wealth, Milton and Kitty (his ailing wife) toured the world for months on end. After Kitty passed away, Milton led a double life. In Pennsylvania he was Milton the Mennonite: egalitarian, frugal, and modest, like the Dutch people who originally settled the area. In Cuba he was Milton the Millionaire: extravagant, luxurious, and magnificent, like the wealthy Americans who flocked to the popular island getaway.
The town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, was to be Milton’s lasting legacy; he spent lavishly to provide residents--most of whom worked at his factory--with entertainment and conveniences. Although Hershey’s profit is today insufficient to support the town as it once did, Hershey still attracts tourists who come to wander the streets where the air smells of chocolate.
Before his death, and with no heir to his vast fortune, Milton Hershey transferred ownership of Hershey to the Milton Hershey School Trust.
The Hershey Industrial School was established in 1910 at the old Hershey homestead, and since then has accepted orphans from around the United States. (It now serves almost two thousand students in Hershey itself.) When Milton Hershey died, he owned nothing but the clothes on his back and the content of his pockets: his fortune would be left to the then and future orphans of the Hershey Industrial School.