Milton Hershey: Happy Birthday to the Man Who Gave Us Inspiration and Innovation

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Pam Whitenack
Director, Hershey Community Archives

Caramels gave Milton Hershey his first million, but chocolate gave him his real fortune. An innovator from the beginning, and 160 years after his birth, Milton Hershey remains a fixture of The Hershey Company and the town in Pennsylvania that bears his name.

His vision for the potential of chocolate was shaped by a visit to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he became fascinated by an exhibit of German chocolate‑making machinery. It wasn’t long until Milton was convinced that his future lay in producing chocolate rather than caramels. This led him to sell his Lancaster Caramel Company to competitors for $1 million in 1900, devoting all his energy to his quickly expanding chocolate business.

Hershey first produced sweet chocolate coatings for his caramels in the 1890s. But in late 1900, he introduced Hershey’s Milk Chocolate. The product enjoyed immediate success. And by 1902, it was obvious that a new, larger factory was needed. After inspecting possible sites in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, Hershey decided to build his new factory in rural, central Pennsylvania. Why? Because of all the cows! Central PA is home to many dairy farms.

Today Hershey, Pa., remains home to The Hershey Company and two manufacturing facilities, including the company’s largest chocolate factory and the plant that produces the iconic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kat® bars. The importance of farm-fresh milk continues to be at the core of what makes Hershey’s Milk Chocolate so delicious – with hundreds of thousands of gallons delivered to our West Hershey plant every day.

Milton Hershey was more than an innovator. He was a risk-taker. His belief in the future success of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate led him to commit to building a new factory before the product was a proven success and before the manufacturing methods that would be incorporated in the new factory had been determined. 

Hershey’s emergence as a national brand stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the confectionery industry that was dominated by many small- to medium-size local and regional confectionery companies. 

His approach to his employees also differed from the norm at the time. Milton Hershey viewed his employees as essential to the success of his company. The town he built for his employees was a testament to Milton Hershey’s belief that a happy life required balance between work and recreation.

Milton Hershey was a doer, not a philosopher. He rarely wrote and seldom talked about his beliefs. Nevertheless, he obviously thought a lot about such matters as success and the value and purposes of money. He believed wealth should be used for the benefit of others and he practiced what he preached.  He also understood that doing good works was also good for business. 

He and his wife, Catherine, also established a school for orphaned children and endowed it with his entire fortune. Today, it serves more than 2,000 children in financial and social need from across the country and is free to those who attend.

Until his death in 1945, Milton Hershey’s interest in new ideas and his concern for the well-being of others remained a constant thread in his life. True to his priorities, his will directed that his estate be used to establish a trust fund benefitting Hershey’s public school system.

Gordon Rentschler, who had worked with Milton Hershey for 30 years and was chairman of the Board for National City Bank of New York, sent a telegram of condolences which included this memory of the man:

“I admired him from the beginning. It was always an inspiration to see the way he calmly and quietly and tenaciously fought his way through one obstacle after the other until he achieved his big success. And it was an inspiration, too, to find that 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. His life and work will always remain a great inspiration to us all.”

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