In Chocolate We Trust: The Hershey Company Town Unwrapped by Peter Kurie
A Review by Pam Munter
The dawn of the 20th century intersected The Gilded Age, an era of escalating American entrepreneurial spirit, replete with untethered greed and rapacious business practices. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford and others amassed fortunes that would dwarf anything that had come before. They were urban dwellers, unlike Milton Hershey (b. 1857), who set up production of his pioneering chocolate plant on farm land in the middle of Pennsylvania. To avoid inevitable staffing difficulties, Hershey envisioned and created a utopian community, more closely resembling a benevolent family than a business, a folksy antidote to the impersonality of urban life. Peter Kurie has written In Chocolate We Trust: The Hershey Company Town Unwrapped (University of Pennsylvania, 2018), depicting the transformation from chocolate factory to destination resort. Because there are already multiple biographies of Milton Hershey, Kurie has focused his attention on the evolution and distortion of Hershey’s vision after his death in 1945. An anthropologist, he interviewed many of those directly involved: residents (“Hersheyites”), trustees and students, past and present.
Hershey’s Mennonite upbringing infused him with a sense of duty to provide for the less fortunate. Even before the factory opened, he had designed the beautiful, self-contained town of Hershey, with its countless services and amenities. Factory workers were paid generously, and provided with benefits unusual for the times – health care, pensions, inexpensive housing, even free admission to what was then a modest amusement park. Hershey devised a model of employee-employer cooperation, a “company town” run by a board of trustees, who were initially personal associates of the founder. Within a few years, Hershey founded and endowed The Milton Hershey School for orphan boys, with free tuition and housing. The mass production of chocolate, once a luxury for the rich, was immediately popular. True to his values, Hershey consistently reinvested profits into the commonwealth and into the school.
Following Hershey’s death in 1945, however, the snakes emerged from the woodpile. He had left no heirs, only a treacherous power vacuum. Over time, the trustees – who ran everything Hershey – drew increasingly bloated salaries and reveled in flagrant self-dealing. The board sold off many of the amenities and invested in activities outside the community. Kurie writes, “All too often, these funds lend themselves to appropriation by powerful, unaccountable interests.”
The community was rife with rumor and growing discontent but it was only a murmur until, in 2002, the trust abruptly announced it was selling the company. The right-leaning, conservative community uncharacteristically organized a rebellion—a risk, given as one interviewee told Kurie, “You were beholden…for your job, so you didn’t question the way things were done.” The radical and persistent “Derail the Sale” campaign was successful, which seemed to preserve the fluctuating status quo for nearly another decade. More scandals would soon plague the trust and there would be legal complications that oozed over decades.
The personal stories of the disparate community groups are colorfully drawn and engaging, making this complicated story more relatable. It’s easy to see how and why the “old-timers” resented change; their evanescent memory of Milton Hershey’s vision was their bible. It’s reminiscent of those who seek the amorphous “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution for guidance in today’s complex society. The reality is subject to interpretation and easily bent to a foreordained, political end.
This book is most absorbing when Kurie describes the ways a prototypical small town struggled to adapt to the incursion of technology, urban life, and diversity. Over time, the school morphed from an orphanage into a haven for “social orphans,” kids whose parents were unable to support them; the small park grew into Hersheypark, a cash cow, which admitted its 100,000,000 visitors in 2016. Many of them likely stayed in the upscale Hershey Hotel, and purchased souvenirs in well-appointed Hershey stores. The implicit question amid this change and the insistent incursion from the outside world is, can a small town survive without being Disneyfied?
Kurie’s dense research is undeniable but his academic curiosity can be distracting. The history – unfamiliar to many of his readers – lacks linearity, interrupted by discussions of the legalities of trusts, the composition of a Hershey bar, even a pedantic discussion of the appeal of chocolate. In the course of such a lengthy and rich corporate history, there are just too many scandals and U-turns for adequate coverage. There are times when a broader context would have been welcome. How did the evolution of Hershey, the company and the community, compare to what was happening in the country? And how did Hershey’s character differ from, say, a Henry Ford, who was a contemporary and a friend? The trust is a powerful protagonist in this drama. Has it been bad or good for the town? Should a trust have such overweening influence over an entire community? One thing is clear: no matter what happens to Hershey in all its incarnations, the trust will continue in perpetuity. What are the ramifications if the company is sold?
Kurie ventures to link The Gilded Age of the early 20th century with what he calls today’s “Second Gilded Age,” referencing affluent entrepreneurs Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffet, who conspicuously use their wealth for the public good. It’s an optimistic but imperfect parallel. For Hershey, the altruism was a part of his dream; today, it’s more of an afterthought. Kurie’s view of the Gilded Age entrepreneurs seems romanticized, given the later need for trust-busting, disclosed by robust muckraking journalism. Hershey, however, was a pragmatic idealist, not really a member of this coarse, predatory class.
In Chocolate We Trust is about personal ethics, corporate evolution, as well as economic and cultural transformation. It’s not always an easy read, but worth plowing through some of the diversionary sections. It’s a reminder of the power of one man’s vision and its power to change people’s lives for the better. In the final section of the book, Kurie asks, “Can business take care of people? Can it save lives? Can it build and sustain communities?” He believes that the values exemplified by Hershey are central to contemporary American life.
The future of Hershey remains uncertain. The population of Hershey was 14,257 in 2010 and has likely declined. Cutbacks in production due to outsourcing have led to lower employment at the factory. Will the park and the school be sufficient to maintain the unincorporated town of Hershey and the legacy of its founder? Kurie notes, “How Hershey’s deed of trust is executed in the future will depend on the judgment and actions of generations increasingly removed from its author.” Alumni and staff of the school, he tells us, believe they’ve been given a gift and have a mission to pass it on. Hershey was a forerunner of what Kurie hopes is a trend, using wealth to serve the noble and public-spirited goals of civilization.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Recently, her essays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 130 publications. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, her sixth college degree. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published in 2018 by Adelaide Books. Her work can be found at http://www.pammunter.com.