Milton Hershey was born in 1857 into a deeply religious Mennonite family that lived on a farm in south-central Pennsylvania. His ancestors had been part of the great migration of Europeans who, during the late 1600s, came to the shores of the New World looking for freedom from religious persecution. Hershey’s parents instilled in their son a strong work ethic and a belief that he should always think big and pursue his dreams. That upbringing would greatly aid young Milton throughout his life as he dealt with a series of business failures before finally striking it rich in the candy business.
Milton Hershey’s Early Life
Milton was a less than average student in school and moved from job to job as a young man while trying to find his place in life. He eventually became an apprentice for a local candymaker where he learned the basics of the trade. By the age of 19 Hershey had struck out on his own and was operating his own candy shop with money secured from his mother and aunt. But long hours making and selling his candies eventually wore down Hershey’s health and he gave up the business six years later after accruing a pile of debts.
Hershey then headed west with his father in 1882, planning to take part in the silver mining boom. Instead of mining, Hershey took a job with another candymaker who taught him some useful secrets that improved the flavor and shelf-life of the product. When his father moved to Chicago, Hershey went with him and there opened his second candy store. That business failed just as the first had and family members who had helped finance him finally began suggesting young Milton Hershey give up on the candy business.
Hershey Achieves Success
But Hershey was determined to give his dream one more shot and in 1886 started another candy business in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which specialized in caramel candies. Hershey’s big break came when an English importer placed an order for his “Crystal A Caramel” candies that was large enough to pay off all his outstanding loans. Hershey’s candies quickly grew in popularity with the public and his Lancaster Caramel Company soon expanded to Chicago.
In 1900 Hershey sold the caramel candy part of his business but maintained control of the chocolate making business, the Hershey Chocolate Company. Hershey saw chocolate as the future of the candy business which, up until then, was seen as an expensive luxury only available to the rich. Through mass production Hershey became the Henry Ford of the candy business, producing chocolate candies that everyone could afford. Sales of his candies, cocoa, and baking chocolate soared thanks to the skillful merchandising efforts of his head salesman, Bill Murrie.
Hershey, Pennsylvania and the Hershey Industrial School
In 1903 Hershey broke ground on a state of the art candy factory and worker’s village that provided his employees with stores, restaurants, a bank, and hospital, along with water, sewer, and telephone services. The $2 million investment was strategically located in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country which gave Hershey access to rail lines, dairy farms, and a large water supply.
As he turned 50 in 1907 Hershey had become a recognized captain of American industry having exceeded his wildest dreams of success. His plants were considered clean, safe places to work where employees were paid a good wage.
Hershey’s company took a financial hit when the stock market crashed in 1929, but the company weathered the Great Depression fairly well and maintained excellent profits from their five cent Hershey Bar. During this time Hershey put money into refurbishing his candy plants and other properties in Hershey, Pennsylvania, while providing work to tradesmen who might otherwise have been out of work.
One of Hershey’s proudest accomplishments was the work he did with the US government to develop ration bars for soldiers during World War II. His Field Ration D Bar and Tropical Bar won five Army-Navy Production awards for achievement. When he died a month after his 88th birthday in 1945, he left nearly his entire fortune to the Hershey Industrial School for underprivileged boys who had lost a parent, which he founded in 1910.
- Erdman, Timothy M., Hershey: Sweet Smell of Success, American History Illustrated, March/April 1994