Two neat things about chocolate town, USA.

Trip Start Aug 30, 2012
Trip End Oct 19, 2012

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Friday, September 21, 2012

I don’t want you to think that Hershey is a horrible place. Chocolatetown USA, as it’s known, is pretty, neat, and overall quite pleasant. There are surrounding dairy fields and rolling meadows full of corn. There are big red barns and there are the Amish. The air no longer smells like chocolate as the main plant has moved from the town centre proper (yes it was named for its founder Milton Hershey and his chocolate) but if like many people from outside the area you dislike Hershey’s chocolate… maybe that’s a good thing.

It’s a hard place to be sad. There’s chocolate. The streets have cute names. People constantly tell you to ‘have a sweet day’. The street lights on the main drag “chocolate avenue” are even shaped like Hershey’s kisses. They’re the only diet kisses Hershey ever created. Being made of ‘light’ chocolate. Until the bulbs go out. Those ones are ‘dark’ chocolate. And if you steal them. Then they become ‘hot’ chocolate. Badoom-tish.

Do enough of the family/couple oriented activities on your own, particularly when you’d envisaged doing them not-alone, and it can be quite a lonely city. No. Not quite. Very. A very lonely city. Hersheypark, chocolate world and the many lovely restaurants are not that exciting on your own. Waitresses and hostesses are baffled you’re dining alone (it’s THAT kind of town). Hiking in the Pennsylvania backwoods is downright spooky with no one beside you. Without pepper spray OR a gun.

All this is coming from a girl who usually has no problem whatsoever being on her onesie. As you’ve well read, in fact.

Before you form any opinions on the place and its inhabitants (and the inhabitants of nearby towns), I do want to tell you two interesting things about Hershey. The first being the Amish community that exists in nearby Lancaster and surrounds. It baffles me that they accommodate tourists coming through in so many ways, but maybe by providing these facilitated activities (bake shops, quilt stores, buggy rides, farm visits) it stops tourists from charging through the backroads into private places we’re not welcome .

On my visit to Amish country, I take the quick 40 minute drive from Hershey to ‘Intercourse’, PA. That’s the other thing about the Amish. ‘Intercourse’ is not far from ‘Blue Ball’ and ‘Paradise’… hmmmm… Anyhow, I opt to take a buggy ride with a local guide, using a company recommended to me by Will, who runs the first bed and breakfast I stayed in. The company is renowned for its personalized tours and knowledgeable guides so I jump in one led by Lonny the pony driven by Daveid, my Amish guide. I don’t know if Daveid was having an off day, or if he thought I wasn’t interested, or if the American reviewers didn’t want as much information as me… but I DID notice the cows he pointed out to me already. And that there was a dairy farm ahead. And that we were passing corn. I didn’t know there was tobacco in the barn we passed though. So that was one tidbit he did give me.

I shouldn’t be so hard on him. He did take me to an Amish house where I could view some arts and crafts and when I pressed him a little on Amish life he got talking a tad. Also, he is Amish after all. There could potentially be quite a problem here with the buggies and a FOUR DONKEY TRACTOR I get stuck behind in my car later in the day (though I’m politely waved past when it’s safe) but Daveid assures me there aren’t usually any bingles!

The other neat thing about Hershey is actually to do with Milton Hershey himself. He’s the founder of Hershey’s chocolate, and the town. He only completed grade 4. He didn’t come from a rich family. His story is pretty typical ‘American Dream’ ‘Rags to Riches’ type stuff, and I won‘t go into it. The thing about Hershey though is he actually did some pretty neat stuff and had a really unique way of thinking (shame his chocolate tastes like mouldy ass).

He really won me over, this guy. So listen up.

Firstly, Milton Hershey’s lasting legacy is in the Milton Hershey School. Unable to have kids with the love of his life, Kitty, they set up the school for underprivileged boys. The boys were housed, fed, clothed and all their schooling was paid for as well as their medical expenses (important in this wacky country).

After Kitty died, Hershey invested more and more in the school. It grew and grew (it and the housing for the kids take up a fair chunk of the town!) eventually going co-ed and welcoming kids in real need from all over the nation. Graduates receive the same traditional gifts today that the original kids did - $100, a suit and a set of luggage. They now receive more though - if they continue their schooling into University they receive a laptop computer for their studies, and if they have a C average or better and have exhibited good behavior they also get an $88,000 scholarship to any university they wish to attend in the whole world. The goal is to set these kids up to have a better life than they would have in their birth circumstances, and some of these kids have gone on to be among the nation’s best and brightest.

When he died, Hershey left his entire fortune to the school in a trust that is now worth tens of billions of dollars. The school owns 100% of the entertainment, arena, stadium, Hershey park and chocolate profits. And 100% of those profits go into the school - helping underprivileged American kids today get started on the road to a better life. Next time you buy a Hershey bar (not likely), lift the flap at the back before you tear it open, and you’ll find a thank you from the school. It did make me go buy a few bars of ass-chocolate for sharing later. I’ll admit. I held my nose and wolfed it down. You know. For the kids.

Hershey was big on getting people back on their feet. He didn’t think Reese’s peanut butter cups would sell (Reese worked for him) but he still helped him get set up to mass produce them and provided all the chocolate at a hugely discounted cost (Hershey later bought Reese’s company in the 1960s and the peanut butter cup is still the Hershey company’s number one selling product… OOPS MILTON). There is also a town in Cuba called Central Hershey. Devastated by Kitty’s death, Milton traveled there to get away from it all. Appalled by the living conditions, he bought the sugar fields, created a business and jobs, built a hospital and a school and helped the town become independent again.

When he came back to Hershey during the depression he didn’t want people to suffer so he created more work where he could, building and expanding the Hotel Hershey and Hershey Park (which housed his pet elephant named what else but “Cocoa“). A famous story from the time is when a business associate came to him with word of a new invention. “Milton!” he exclaimed, “there’s this great new machine we can get hold of to help build the Hotel Hershey! The steam shovel! It does the work of 40 men!!”
“Brilliant!” Hershey replied. “Get rid of it, and give jobs to 40 men!”

It’s this hotel, the Hotel Hershey, where I find myself at dinner one night. I chose to eat here because I was won over by one final story about Mr Hershey. It really resonated with me.

You see, the dining room at the Hotel Hershey is circular.

There are no corners.

If there’s one thing Milton Hershey hated, it was being shoved away by the hostess in the corner of a restaurant just because he was dining alone. He created his circular dining room so that there were no corners to stow lonely diners away in, and you would never feel bad eating there by yourself. He was the original Patrick Swayze. Nobody puts Baby in the corner at the Hotel Hershey!

So there I was. Alone in Chocolatetown. On the verge of tears every time a hostess had said “Oh just one?!?”.

But somehow… a long-dead, brilliant-minded, elephant-loving chocolate entrepreneur from deep Pennsyl-tuckey had foreseen this. He knew what it was to be alone in this town. He had felt what I felt. And he had my back.

So I took my seat in his circular dining room, raised my glass, held my nose… and sucked down my Hershey’s kiss martini. Cheers to you, dear old Mr Hershey.

Have a sweet day.
Your B. xx
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