December 6, 2014

Shutting Down a Chocolate Factory—The Bittersweet Truth about Losing US Manufacturing.

Hershey smokestack

You’re not a sucker.

People always believe that at Hershey High we really did drink chocolate milk out of the water fountains. Hershey, Pennsylvania is “The Sweetest Place On Earth.”

I lived directly across the street from the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. When I look back on my childhood, I see how privileged I was to grow up in such a safe place, where I could walk down an alley at 3am with zero fear.

Milton Hershey was a beloved man who provided thousands of jobs and plenty of amusement for his workers. He started Hersheypark so that his employees had something to do on their days off. My mom grew up in Hershey as well and on Sunday afternoons she, her siblings and my grandmother would walk straight through the park because there was no fence. Back then, people paid by the ride with nickels and dimes.

My friends and I used to have summer park passes but when we got older and didn’t want to fork over the money, we found out that if you showed up at the park a half-hour before closing, they’d let you in for free.

So we’d just run to our favorite roller coaster and ride it three or four times before they shut everything down.

My first job was at Hersheypark. I was 14 years old and worked in the employee cafeteria. I quit after three days but many of my high school friends happily worked at the park for their entire high school career, operating rides or concessions.

There used to be public tours of the Chocolate Factory but it is rumored that people started throwing LSD into the chocolate and other safety concerned surfaced. In 1973 they ceased tours and built a replica of the touring experience at Hershey’s Chocolate World, a building next to the park.

It was a slow ride, narrated through a speaker. Today, the ride has singing, dancing cow puppets in pink feather boas with lots of pizazz. My friends and I used to go there after school because you got a free piece of chocolate at the end of the ride.

After the ride, we’d find the secret door where they did free taste testing for new products. We’d sample the new offerings and fill out a survey. After they remodeled I never could find the secret door again.

My mom could tell you exactly which kind of candy the factory was making based on the smell in air.

And speaking of smells, there was a certain part of town on certain days and times when the Reese’s factory peanut smell mixed perfectly with the sewage treatment plant smell to create the most disgusting assault on one’s nostrils. Much worse than the manure that we smelled on the regular.

My parents home was built in 1905 for one of Milton Hershey’s middle management employees. The deed to the house strictly forbids the operation of a brothel or piggery. This meant that my dreams of having a pet pot belly pig were quickly crushed.

The Hershey Foods Corporation was the number one source of employment for Hershey residents for several decades. The Penn State Hershey Medical Center was a close second. Today, hospital jobs have increased significantly while factory jobs have dwindled to almost nothing.

Last year, the original chocolate factory was torn down. For months, all day and night, my dad endured the loud crashes of wrecking balls and bulldozers as the historic structure was ripped to shreds. The view from my childhood bedroom window is still unsettling and a reminder of the changing times.

There are a few Hershey’s chocolate producing factories scattered around the US (that are non-union with low wages) but most of the production has been moved to Mexico.

What happened to Milton Hershey’s dream? A popular opinion is that the company has focused solely on profit margins and the opinions of the townspeople matter less and less. How many towns in America have seen the same fate with a different company?

What can the people do to stop it?

If anyone knew, we wouldn’t be watching our little part of history slip away. Everything changes, I know that.

But each time I come home, I see the destruction of a sacred past and the development of a consumer driven future.

My memories are fond and plentiful but that’s all they are—memories.

There are rumors that the home I grew up in will soon be bought by the Hershey Company, torn down and paved over for more parking lot space.

By the time I bring my child to Hershey and he or she is old enough to comprehend this story, the Chocolate Town USA I knew and loved will be no more.




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Author: Megan Morris

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: flickr, flickr

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