There is a town in Pennsylvania where the street lamps are shaped like giant foil candies and the streets have names like Chocolate and Cocoa. One cul–de–sac is named after Caracas, where the raw beans come from. There’s an old factory whose brick smokestacks bear the word “Hershey” in faded white paint, grand vertical lettering—though if you try to take a photograph, a Hershey security guard will tell you to put away your camera. By you, I mean me. I was told. He said, “You’re on private property and you need to get off.”
I said, “Where should I go?”
He said, “Anywhere else.”
“No,” I said, “I mean—where should I go? What should I see in town?”
“Oh!” he smiles. “Chocolate World.”
But I don’t go to Chocolate World. Chocolate World is all shops and I want information. I want information and I want to design my own chocolate bar, which I’ve heard you can do here. So I go to the museum.
I drive under fluttering banners showing the local cartoon chocolate bar mascot. He looks happy. And bendy! Nearly molten. He is wearing sneakers that are maybe also made of chocolate. All the banners here in Hershey say: The sweetest place on Earth.
I pay more money than I’m willing to admit for a ticket to the museum. I see a model of Milton Hershey’s little wooden crib. I see photographs of Philadelphia street urchins. I learn that there was a time when chocolate was only for the rich. I know what those little urchins don’t: Hershey is going to make chocolate an option for everyone.
Turns out Hershey went bankrupt twice — with two different candy shops — before he struck gold with caramel. He made it with fresh milk. When he got his first loan check, he ran to the bank still wearing his apron. Caramel was just the beginning. I pick up an old–fashioned telephone and hear his fake voice saying: “The future’s not caramel … it’s chocolate!” This was just around the turn of the century. He’d seen a group of kids sucking all the chocolate off their caramels and tossing out the rest. He was the quintessential capitalist hero: he followed a hunch. He had the balls to choose away from caramel just when it seemed like a sure thing.
“Nobody told Mr. Hershey how to make milk chocolate,” said one of his employees. “He just learned the hard way.” He learned spending long nights experimenting with milk and cocoa butter to get his ratios right. He made chocolate an industrial process supported by production lines. His bars were the Model T’s of the candy world. His factory opened in 1905.
The exhibit includes a computer game where you try to escort a Hershey’s Kiss all the way from birth to shipping. I spend about ten minutes fucking it up, over and over again. Back in the day, this was the part you had to do by hand. An employee tells the little girl next to me what to do. I’m eavesdropping and trying not to be obvious. It’s obvious. The employee comes over to help me. He says kids are usually better at this game than adults. I think about wrapping thousands of little Hershey Kisses by hand. I think I would go insane. A woman’s voice speaks from underneath her photograph: “I am Anna!” She sounds cheery. “I wrap chocolate.”
Hershey built his workers a company town. It wasn’t like Pullman Town, where workers were treated badly. This town had waterslides. Hershey made a park for his workers full of picnic pavilions and playgrounds. There was a man–made lake for boating. At night, it sparkled with electric lights powered by the chocolate factory generators. There were trolley rides and vaudeville acts and flower beds as far as the eye could see. You could hear the carousel music for many blocks, as far away as the corner of Chocolate and Cocoa.
Milton Hershey married a woman named Kitty. He was 44. She was 26. He built them a mansion called High Point. It sat on a hill overlooking the town he built for his workers. The Hersheys had a maid who spoke seven languages and a landscaper named Oglesby. We are told that the Hershey Press “kept the community up to date concerning the development of High Point’s gardens.” Hershey didn’t much care for fine things, we are told, except for a towering cut–glass torchiere he saw at the World’s Fair in 1893 and bought for $5,000. The exhibit is very clear on one point: Hershey used his profits to help others. When asked his religion, he would reply “The Golden Rule.” Much is made of how modest his mansion was—how it pales in comparison to the mansions built by other captains of industry. Much is made of its fountain. Kitty used to “sit there for hours, moving only when a gust of wind blew the spray over her.” Down below, each Kiss was wrapped by hand. Eventually the spray grew so annoying that Kitty had the fountain moved, and then dismantled entirely.
Tucked away in one corner of the exhibit, I see a display case labeled “Hershey Store Company.” But the “Hershey Store Company” exhibit isn’t about the store at all. It’s about a 1937 strike. One placard, called “Trouble In Paradise?” reads as follows: Even in “the sweetest place on Earth,” bitterness sometimes intrudes. Strikers were beaten with table legs from the Hershey Lumber Company. You can see one of the legs preserved in the case. We are told that striking employees weren’t beaten by management or police but by “loyalist” employees. We are told it was hard on everyone: Close bonds between town and company made labor disputes particularly wrenching.
Next we hear about Cuba. We’re getting closer to the heart of all these metaphors: the sugar itself. In 1916 Hershey visited Cuba for the first time and a few months later he bought a sugar plantation and a sugar mill. He built another town like Hershey Town, only in Cuba. He built a railroad. He built a vocational school for orphan boys. The first students were boys who’d lost their fathers in an accident on the Hershey Railroad in 1923. The exhibit presents these facts in cheerful succession. No mention is made of waterslides. I am told Hershey was given the Grand Cross of the National Order of the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes by Cuban president Gerardo Machado. Usually when people talk about Machado they say “dictator” instead of “president,” but technically that’s what he was.
Around here, the Cuban connection remains strong. At the local Chocolate Spa, you can even get a Cuban mojito sugar scrub. You can also get a chocolate fondue wrap or an edible chocolate facial. You can even get a special Hershey combo, dipping your feet into a warm bath while someone tells you a bit of company history: Milton went bankrupt twice before he hit the big time.
Sixty minutes of sweet talk later, I’m still jonesing for a shot at my own chocolate bar. I find myself sitting in a “lab” wearing a plastic apron and a hairnet, waiting to pour molten chocolate in a mold. Two women in white coats are running the show. My companions are elderly couples on weekend getaways. It’s palpably weird that I’m here alone. We will be able to customize our bars, we are told, by adding spoonfuls of whatever we choose: marshmallows, sprinkles, raisins, Rice Krispies. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a jar of ground chili pepper. Am I allowed to use it? One of our lab ladies eyes her companion and turns back to me, nodding. I am.
We earn our right to make chocolate by listening to a lecture on its origins. Our lab lady is here to tell us: chocolate really does grow on trees. She pauses so we can laugh. We don’t. We are suited up in our hairnets, unlaughing.
We hear a lot about the internal structure of cocoa pods and not a lot about the guys who pick them. We are proudly told, “It does not happen by machine.” Real men crouch quietly in the negative margins of that statement. We learn about one of Hershey’s greatest inventions: a paper slip packaged with every bar that offered a piece of information about how it was made—maybe a fun fact about cows, or big bathtub melting machines. It was the beginning of farm–to–table.
A woman in a wheelchair is given a special seat in front—closer to the open kitchen—and her husband takes a photograph of her at each stage of the process: inspecting ingredients, choosing ingredients, spooning molten chocolate into the mold, spooning molten chocolate into her mouth, tapping out air bubbles, and finally smiling with the thing itself, pocked with its small goodies. The man next to me puts so many fillings in his bar that one of the lab ladies tells him to stop. “Sir,” she says, “that’s all that will fit.”
In the summer of 2011, a Moldovan exchange student named Tudor Ureche came to the Hershey packing plant for a summer internship. In June, after two weeks on the job, he sent the US State Department an email that read: pleas hellp. He told them about the miserable situation in which I’ve find myself cought. By which he meant: night shifts, chronic pain, hours of lifting sixty–pound boxes full of chocolate. Not what he felt he’d been promised. He’d imagined he would come to see America, make friends, and learn something about the structure of US industry. He’d imagined wrong. Somewhere in the fine print, his visa had mentioned he would be “standing, stooping, or lifting” for 100% of each shift. Students in his program had paid as much as six thousand dollars to sign up for it. On August 17, two hundred of them walked out of the Hershey packing plant on strike.
What do I really know about Milton Hershey? Not much. I know he made a great big company and I’ve eaten a lot of his chocolate. Maybe he was an industrialist who wanted to treat his employees right, or an industrialist smart enough to pretend like he did, or an industrialist whose good intentions eventually came up against the bottom line, whose profits hit a low bar made of chocolate, who couldn’t stand a strike any better than the next guy, who couldn’t single–handedly reverse the Great Depression. That’s fine. What bothers me isn’t necessarily Milton Hershey in particular, or how he handled his company. It’s the cloying sweetness everywhere.
All this sugar! Around here, irony really does grow on trees. The sheer abundance makes you want to harvest it, extract it, condense and melt and reshape it; I imagine an Amazonian cocoa picker getting a warm foot bath and hearing the history of Milton Hershey. I imagine a Cuban orphan getting trained for the job that killed his father. I imagine Kitty getting so fed up with the water spray she demands her fountain run on chocolate instead. I imagine millions of candy bars shipped across the nation, rattling in their wrappers, each one packaged with a paper slip reading: Pleas Hellp.