Hershey, Pennsylvania, or “Chocolatetown, USA,” is a town known all over the world. It’s a magical town with chocolate kiss-shaped streetlights, and streets named Chocolate and Cocoa Avenue, a town literally built on chocolate. The town exists because founder Milton S. Hershey chose the spot near his birthplace for his chocolate empire – first a factory at the heart of the town, and then many amenities for the factory workers. In many ways it was a classic company town.
Hershey first owned a successful caramel company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania about 30 miles away. Inspired by a German chocolate maker’s exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, he saw potential in chocolate for the masses. He would transform a luxury product into one that anyone could afford. Hershey purchased about 30 acres of farmland in southern Pennsylvania and after a period of experimentation, came up with a formula for milk chocolate. He produced his first chocolate bar in 1900. In 1903 the Hershey Chocolate Company began construction on what would one day be the largest chocolate manufacturing facility in the world.
I grew up visiting my grandmother and my aunt and uncle and cousins in Hershey. Family members still live in a house on Chocolate Avenue (and run their own candy company!). On many visits, when the wind was blowing just right, the amazing smell of chocolate wafted in the air. In the summertime we’d go to Hersheypark, an amusement park founded originally by Hershey for his employees.
My family has stories of an encounter or two with Mr. Hershey himself, and various family members worked in some of the factories over the years. At Christmas we’d enjoy the large holiday lights on the factory’s exterior walls. And, the shrubbery spelling “Hershey Cocoa” on the factory’s green lawn was an iconic symbol of the town, along with the factory smokestacks.
The public could take tours of the factory until 1973 when the tours were no longer offered, and a faux-tour ride called Chocolate World took their place. I can just barely remember going through the factory as a child… truly a Willy Wonka-esque experience. Chocolate World was more like the Small World ride at Disney and just couldn’t match the authenticity of a tour through the center of chocolate making.
Sadly, the factory has just been torn down, production moved to newer facilities in the area. I have not closely followed the sad saga of the factory’s demise. Officials say they tried to find a developer to work with the factory site, but failed. The company is renovating the oldest part of the factory on the west end, dating from about 1915, into state-of-the-art office space. Even so, it seems that the heart has been ripped from the town. Thankfully the iconic smoke stacks have been saved, along with the “Hershey Cocoa” bushes, but sadly no investors wanted the factory. I wish some investor would have had the vision of adaptive reuse. If Boston can adapt a prison to a luxury hotel, couldn’t Hershey save a factory? Loft apartments? A new hotel? I realize that there must be return on investment.
A recent drive down Chocolate Avenue made me sad. Clearly, in my opinion, this is a loss for the town.