Milton S. Hershey, 1857–1945
In the early 1900s, Milton Hershey made one of the great American fortunes through dogged persistence and the courage to pursue a dream. Though he was modest and unassuming in appearance, it was said Mr. Hershey was a shrewd and determined businessman. A great entrepreneur and philanthropist, he measured success, not in dollars, but in terms of a good product to pass on to the public, and still more in the usefulness of those dollars for the benefit of his fellow men.
I Was a Poor Boy Myself Once
The memories of what it was like to have been a poor boy stayed with Milton Hershey throughout his life. They influenced him strongly when he later founded a school for needy children.
Milton S. Hershey was born shortly before the American Civil War on a farm in Central Pennsylvania. Like most of the people whom he knew, he was the descendant of people who had come to Pennsylvania from Switzerland and Germany in the 1700s. He grew up speaking the "Pennsylvania Dutch" dialect and inherited from these people characteristics such as a zest for hard work, diligence, and thriftiness.
Both sides of his family were originally Mennonite. Though Milton's mother was a staunch member of the Reformed Mennonite Church and wore plain clothes and a bonnet throughout her life, formal religion was never a part of Milton Hershey's life. When he was asked once what his religion was, he is said to have replied, "The Golden Rule."
As to schooling, Mr. Hershey had very little. He attended several schools as his family moved from their original home in Derry Township to Lancaster County, but his mother did not seem to emphasize learning. In fact, she felt that books would ruin her son. Although Hershey became successful without the benefit of a good education, the fact that, later on, he insisted the boys in his school have a "sound education" gives the impression that he felt the lack of it in himself.
The First Million Is the Hardest
At first it seemed that Milton Hershey had no talents for business. He failed at numerous ventures before he finally succeeded at making caramel candy. By then he was almost forty years old.
Milton first went to work as an apprentice to the editor of a small, German newspaper in Lancaster. He was clumsy, though, and hated the work. Soon he got himself fired by dropping his straw hat into the printing press.
Next, his mother found him an apprenticeship with Joe Royer, a candy and ice cream maker in Lancaster. It was here that he learned the basics of candymaking.
But Milton was ambitious, and in 1876, decided to move to Philadelphia where celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence were taking place. Hoping to cash in on the money that people would bring to the Centennial, he set himself up in the candy and confectioner's business. Hershey borrowed considerable sums of money from his Uncle Abraham Snavely and printed elaborate business cards and stationery to advertise himself. He brought his mother and his Aunt Mattie to Philadelphia to help him. But though they all worked terribly hard, Milton was never able to make enough money to pay either his suppliers or his debts.
Hershey was persistent, however, and having failed in Philadelphia, went off to seek his fortune in Denver, New York, Chicago, and even New Orleans. He had no more success in any of these places but he did come back with one important thing: the knowledge, learned from a candymaker in Denver, that fresh milk makes good candy.
This was the secret that would make his fortune but for the moment, in 1886, he was penniless. He went back to Lancaster but did not even have the money to have his possessions shipped after him. When he walked out to his uncle's farm, he found himself shunned as an irresponsible drifter by most of his relatives.
This time, though, fortune finally smiled on Mr. Hershey. William Henry Lebkicher, who had worked for Hershey in Philadelphia, stored his things and helped him pay the shipping charges. Aunt Mattie and his mother began once again to help him and Milton started experiments which led to the recipe for "Hershey's Crystal A" a "melt in your mouth" caramel candy made with milk.
The Lancaster Caramel Company
A large order from an English candy importer led Hershey to ask the Lancaster National Bank for a loan. The bank's cashier was so impressed by Hershey that he lent him the money, backing the loan with his own signature. When the Englishman actually paid for the goods with a check for 500 English pounds, Hershey was so excited that he ran down the street to the bank with his apron still on.
From that time on, Hershey was extremely successful, and by 1894 he was considered one of Lancaster's most substantial citizens.
The success of his caramel business enabled Mr. Hershey, for the first time in his life, to spend money for his own pleasure. While he was never ostentatious, he clearly had a longing and a taste for beauty and elegance. He always enjoyed being able to spend money when and how he pleased. "It's my money," he would say in later years if anyone raised a question.
As was fashionable among other well-to-do Americans of the time, Mr. Hershey began to travel to Mexico, Europe, England, the Continent, and Egypt. Always curious and always picking up ideas from what he saw, he visited museums, shops, and tourist attractions, walked the streets, watched the people, and is said to have kissed the Blarney Stone and gambled in Monte Carlo.
I'm Going to Make Chocolate
Caramels gave Mr. Hershey his first million, but chocolate gave him his real fortune. His first taste of it came on a visit to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he became fascinated by a set of German chocolate-making machinery. Hershey bought the equipment and had it installed in Lancaster where he began producing his own chocolate, 114 varieties in all.
By the late 1800's, Hershey, who was now aware of the growing market for chocolate, was convinced that his future lay in producing it rather than caramels. In 1900, he sold his Lancaster Caramel Company to competitors for $1 million (a sum which was then worth considerably more than now) and began to devote all his energies to making chocolate.
His search for the perfect site to build a complete chocolate factory led Hershey back to Derry Township. He had already repurchased the house where he had been born for his father. Now he was convinced that the Central Pennsylvania countryside would provide everything he needed for a factory: a plentiful water supply, fresh milk, and industrious workers. Ground was broken in 1903 and by 1905 the new factory was completed.
"The Man Behind the Chocolate Bar," Hershey Museum, exhibit catalog, 1988.