A Real-Life Willy Wonka


Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life

of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams

By Michael D'Antonio

Simon & Schuster; 305pp; $25

( below)

Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good A richly detailed biography of the founder of chocolatier Hershey Co.

The Bad Readers may wish for more comparison among company-created communities.

The Bottom Line An absorbing history of the man, his business, and philanthropic endeavors.

The American landscape is littered with towns named for their corporate landlords: Alcoa, Tenn.; Kohler, Wis.; Corning, N.Y.; Kennecott, Alaska. Perhaps none is more clearly identified with a company than Hershey, Pa., where Chocolate Avenue intersects Cocoa Avenue and the very air is redolent of Hershey's Kisses. Built by Milton S. Hershey as a planned utopia in the early 1900s, the manicured burg featured electrified, centrally heated homes owned by well-paid company workers and a state-of-the-art milk-chocolate factory. There was a free playground and zoo, a medical clinic, and athletic teams outfitted by the company. A model school for orphan boys, supported by a foundation that held the majority of company stock, was the centerpiece.

But humanity has had an ambivalent relationship with utopias: After a while, some people want change while others insist things should always stay the same. In 1937, Hershey workers decided their pay was too low. They organized a union, took over the plant, and halted production. Four days into the strike, a mob of several thousand Hersheyites, joined by dairy farmers who were losing milk sales, stormed the factory and drove the strikers out, attacking them with clubs, stones, and pitchforks. Within two years, the company had agreed to a union contract. Then in 2002, an even more dire threat appeared: The foundation decided to sell its Hershey stock, now worth as much as $10 billion, and diversify its portfolio. But once the idea of the stock sale became public, the 13,000 townspeople worried that it could mean a shuttered factory and the end of a way of life. A highly politicized struggle followed, complete with protest marches and a legal challenge from the state of Pennsylvania. In the end, the board backed down -- and utopia dodged a bullet.

The dramatic events are recounted in Michael D'Antonio's Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. The book is a richly detailed biography of the founder and an absorbing history of the Hershey company, its two model towns, philanthropy, and business success. On the negative side, readers might wish for more comparison with other company-created communities.

Milton Hershey began in the candy business with stores in Philadelphia and New York. Both were failures. Then, during a trip to Denver, he learned how to make caramels, which he began producing and selling on the streets of Lancaster, Pa. A British importer happened to sample them, and then placed a huge order. By the early 1890s, Hershey employed 1,400 men in three factories. But it was apparent to Hershey that the future lay not in caramels but in chocolate, which was already claiming a mass market in Europe. By 1896, chocolate candy had become Hershey's primary focus.

Britain's Cadbury was particularly instructive. Not only had that company found riches in large-scale production of chocolate, but its Quaker owners were benevolence personified. Among other things, the Cadbury family were generous employers who built a model town, Bournville. The combination of an affordable, wholesome product -- backed by British temperance groups and the teetotaler Cadburys as an alternative to alcohol -- and the founders' perpetual do-goodism combined to make Cadbury "perhaps the single most beloved brand in Great Britain," says the author.

It's hardly a stretch to see Hershey, Pa., as a U.S. version of Bournville, particularly since imitation was key to Hershey's methods. He perfected his wares by luring skilled workers from other successful chocolatiers and even sending spies into the plants of rivals. All the same, Hershey was an innovator, says D'Antonio: After years of experimentation, he came up with his own method for making a distinctive milk chocolate that could be stored for months without spoiling. Sales soared, topping $7.7 million by 1913.

Hershey again blended commerce and good works in Cuba, where the company built a giant sugar mill, a railroad, and another model town. Then, in the 1920s, new rivals including Mars Inc. captured three-quarters of the candy-bar market. Still, Hershey remained so profitable that it seemed to defy the Great Depression, providing jobs for hundreds with ambitious hometown construction projects.

After Milton Hershey's death in 1945, the town lost some of its novelty. In the 1960s, the foundation used its considerable resources to build a medical school and large hospital center. But even as newcomers swelled the town's population, many continued to feel that the old ways had been the best. In Hershey, said longtime resident Monroe Stover, "we live under...a philanthropic dictatorship. We would have a much better world if there were more of them."

Corrections and Clarifications "A real-life Willy Wonka" (Books, Jan. 23) refers to Corning, N.Y., as a town named for its corporate landlord. Actually, the glass company took on the name of its town.

By Hardy Green

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