Escape to Chocolate Town, USA: A Guide to Hershey, Penn.

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Escape to Chocolate Town, USA: A Guide to Hershey, Penn.

In 1938, William F. B. Murrie, then president of the Milton Hershey Corporation, issued the following invitation on official Hershey stationery:

To people everywhere and especially children:

The people of the United States are the largest consumers of cocoa products in the world. Children and grown-ups like to eat chocolate because it is so delightful. Wouldn’t you like to see how it is made? Then come to Hershey, Pennsylvania, some day and our guides will take you through the factory and explain it. Sixty to seventy thousand people go through our plant each year. Why not you? We will welcome you.

According to Temple Professor Carolyn Kitch, who came across Murrie’s note at the Hershey-Derry Township Historical Society, Hershey was among a wave of factories that sought to put its best foot forward in the early 20th century. Manufacturers had good reason to throw open the doors. As industrialization took hold, food was slowly being separated from its source. The Depression had inspired distrust of big business, while a rash of food-safety scandals eroded trust.

In her book, Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past, Kitch writes that “tours were meant to reassure the public that such products, even if mass-manufactured, were made by wholesome, careful individuals who took pride in the details of their work.” And what lends itself more to fantasies of wholesomeness than a chocolate factory nestled away in bucolic Pennsylvania Dutch Country?

not-to-be-trusted.jpgPhoto by Jenn Hall

Even today, it’s easy to feel transported when standing at the intersection of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues. More than the center of a chocolate-production empire, this 114-year-old company town reflects the utopian vision of its founder, Milton S. Hershey. A groundbreaking industrialist who brought milk chocolate to the masses using adapted Swiss techniques and modern sales strategies, Hershey aspired to build a civilized and self-sustaining community where residents could enjoy the fruits (and profits) of the cocoa bean.

Then he went ahead and did it, breaking ground in 1903.

His employees found affordable access to housing that far exceeded the bar set by other factory towns like Pullman, Chicago. Managers and their employees were to live side-by-side in houses that still stand today. In his man-made paradise amid the dairy farms, Hershey made all kinds of infrastructure and lifestyle investments, from a 23-acre garden to a state-of-the-art sports arena. It inspired great loyalty, and in turn stabilized his business.

Provided you stayed on the good side of the chocolate man at the top, life in Hershey was indeed sweet. Though if you dig into the backstory a bit, cracks in the façade emerge. There are stories of capricious firings through the years. (Reserved, Hershey could be impulsive both in the chocolate lab and on the factory floor.) A 1937 labor strike revealed strong anti-immigrant attitudes, in this case against Italians. Perfection, it would seem, is a high (chocolate) bar to maintain.

More recently, according to Michael D’Antonio’s book, Hershey, the town erupted into protest when controlling interest in the Hershey Corporation was almost sold to private investors in 2002. With that skirted, the $12 billion company remains helmed by a perpetual trust Hershey designed to benefit the Milton Hershey School—a private, free institution he and his wife established in 1909 to benefit low-income and orphaned students. Though not without its critics, or scandals, the school’s existence reflects the importance Hershey placed on his legacy.

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It’s an unusual narrative. But the more you learn about Hershey the man, the more sense it makes. He married late, to the love of his life Catherine, and then lost her to progressive illness. (Rumor has it that Kit Kats were named in her honor). A native of the area, Hershey had Mennonite roots—but he enjoyed the good life afforded to him as a successful industrialist. During numerous travels abroad, he stayed only in the finest hotels and was an avid gambler. Nevertheless, he aimed to inspire social, physical, and moral well-being at home, living conservatively to set an example for his townspeople and employees.

Aspirational, the town was also smart business.

“The factory was the equivalent of an oil field, sending a rich, dark product into a market with an ever-growing appetite,” D’Antonio writes. “Once costs and profit were taken care of, the money was distributed to workers, who, given the relative isolation of their community, had a tendency to spend it right in town.”

Fast-forward, and while the Hershey of today may look a little different, it maintains a decidedly old-fashioned vibe. Perhaps that’s why more than 4 million visitors arrive annually, eager to delight in America’s great chocolate success story. Though things have changed, you can still tap into the wide-eyed wonder Murrie evoked in his invitation letter so many years back.

Here are a few ways to find your sugar rush.

The Hershey Story Museum
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For a jaunty introduction to Hershey’s story—one that unfolds to a Big Band soundtrack, and involves precious few strobe lights—head here first. Upon entry, you’ll spy an enormous, anachronistic mural of Milton and modern-day children from his school. A guard said the work took nine months to paint, pride evident.

There’s definite Hershey worship going on here, but as you learn his story, you can see how people get there. Ever tenacious, Hershey launched his empire after spectacular failures in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. It’s a tale of relentless innovation and idealism, in candy-making and in the creation of his utopian town.

Artifacts from Hershey’s “grand experiment” abound, from equipment sourced at the Columbia World’s Fair in 1893 to early Hersheypark mementos. You’ll even learn about Hershey’s sugar plantation in Cuba, which allowed him to thrive during WWI, when sugar was in short supply. With persistence, one man transformed a rich man’s pleasure into a treat that anyone could enjoy. Whatever your feelings about chocolate, it’s an impressive example of early-20th-century ingenuity.

Chocolate from Around the World Tasting
In the lobby of The Hershey Story, stop and do a tasting of single-origin chocolates from Mexico, Java around other chocolate-producing nations. If you’re nice, they’ll even explain how to conduct your own tasting at home. Start with chocolate from a single source, and then mix about a cup and two-thirds of it with two cups of milk over low heat. Stir until you’ve achieved a luscious drinking chocolate, gather some friends, and then slow down and pay attention.

Dark chocolate in particular boasts a range of flavor notes, from jasmine to red wine. Half the fun is seeing what you uncover.

Hershey Trolley Works
Continuing in an old-timey vein, the Hershey Chocolate & History Trolley Tour offers a close-up view of Hershey’s factories, town and school. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a conductor like mine, quick with the quips. The Hershey Kiss streetlamps along the route provide ample fodder. They’re the only “light chocolate” Hershey makes. If they burn out? Then they’re “dark chocolate.” (It goes on in this manner.)

Rolling through town, you’ll see the Hershey homestead and spy the world’s largest chocolate production facility. There, 94% of Hershey’s product is produced to this day, with thanks due to the 50,000 local cows who keep the getting a sense of understand just how far a $12 billion endowment can go.

Hershey’s Chocolate World
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Before you enter this attraction, stop and take a deep breath. Said to be the most visited corporate visitor’s center in the world. this is a different animal than the historic attractions above. As for the vibe? Fans of late-80s cult film UHF might understand it best with a carefully selected quote: “You’re a lucky, lucky, lucky little boy. Do you know why? You get to drink from the fire hose!!!” Only here, the fire hose is chocolate. And you’re the lucky winner. And it feels a little like Willy Wonka’s wonderland taken to its modern-day conclusion, fully and deeply overwhelming.

Kids run in every direction, sugar-addled and giggling. Their parents do the same. Hershey characters grin down maniacally from every direction, as if whispering: “You want the chocolate, don’t you? We know you want the chocolate…” Time stops as you board a Hershey-Kiss shaped car and take a trippy virtual factory tour where cows sing, music booms, and everything is CGI hallucinogenic.

Shockingly, no one anywhere seems to be crying. Less shockingly, the gift shop winds through the space, seemingly endless.

Hershey’s Chocolate Tasting Experience
Found within Chocolate World, this fast-track experience trains you to be an official “Hershey’s Palateer,”—aka, a taste tester. Your training is a four-bar tasting, during which you compare your observations to those of the experts, using a flavor and aroma wheel as your guide. It’s every bit as frantic as the rest of the space, though to be fair, it’s educational. See if you’re sensitive enough to uncover Hershey’s signature flavor note, which relates to the company’s use of fresh milk.

Then listen to the kids shout out in horror as they try dark chocolate for the first time. It’s kind of hilarious. Don’t forget to collect your certificate of accomplishment at the end.

The Hotel Hershey / Biergarten at Escape Room Hershey
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At this point, you’ve earned—or may just need—a drink. Your old-school option is to hit the Iberian Bar at The Hotel Hershey, a lavish 1930s confection that sits high on a hill overlooking town. Inspired by Hershey’s travels to the Mediterranean, the lobby transports you to a warmer place, all Spanish tile and gushing fountains. After so much Americana, it’s decidedly refreshing. If your pockets are deep, book a chocolate-themed treatment at the hotel spa.

To drown your nostalgia in something more modern, head to the Biergarten at Escape Room Hershey, located right on Chocolate Ave. Sure, there’s probably a chocolate-themed beer on the list, but the vibe is refreshingly laid back. It serves as a welcome reset before you return to the real world.

Jenn Hall writes about food and culture from a Jersey-side suburb of Philly. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @jennsarahhall.

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