In this city, life can be very, very sweet Hershey: The air itself is full of chocolate in the home of the famous candy company

Short hop.

October 25, 1998|By Douglas Martin | Douglas Martin,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A girlfriend once sent me a greeting card with the message, "I love you almost as much as chocolate itself." After some pondering - and a handful of chocolate chips - I resolved to take it positively.

Chocolate, after all, is life's deepest, most addictive, gooiest pleasure: chocolate bunnies on Easter morning, miniature bars in a Halloween bag, a chocolate malt on a sizzling summer day, hot cocoa after skiing. Whenever, wherever that sinfully fattening brown nectar oozes over one's taste buds, life is good. Complete. Yes, rich.

So imagine my consternation several months ago when I read a news account about the world's impending chocolate shortage. In equatorial zones across the globe, it seems that fungal and viral diseases and icky little insects are attacking cacao trees, whose beans are the raw material from which chocolate is made. The crunch may hit as soon as five years from now.

Uncharacteristically, I was moved by more than self-pity. I have two sons, Roy, 10, and Guy, 8, whose happiest moments are marked by chocolate syrup smeared on their faces. So it was with a heavy heart that I convened a family conference around our kitchen table to tell them they faced an empty life. Just at the point I was venturing the suggestion that cigarettes might eventually fill the void, my wife, Suzanne, jumped into the discussion.

She said the world would never let chocolate disappear. Moreover, she said, chocolate is a state of mind, like Christmas. She knew this, she said, because in her peripatetic Army-brat youth, she had once lived near the capital of chocolate, Hershey, Pa. She said the street lights there are Hershey Kisses, the main intersection is at Chocolate and Cocoa avenues, and the air itself smells of chocolate.

Yes! We sent for tourist literature, and almost before a certain substance might melt in your mouth, we struck out. We were headed for a destination the literature called "the sweetest place on Earth."

Our very first impression of the place was profoundly disappointing: The air did not smell of chocolate.

But things picked up. When we registered, Hershey Lodge gave each of us a candy bar - the classic milk chocolate slab - with our room key. The parking-lot stop signs had Hershey Kisses on them, as did each door. There was cocoa-butter soap in the bathroom. On the television was a channel

devoted to the subject of our quest. The first program was a history of chocolate, the next told about the amusement park and its six roller coasters, while the third conveyed the amazing tale of the Chocolate King, Milton Snavely Hershey. In these magical environs, the founder's spirit rules, as does his story.

Starting with caramel

Hershey, as he is still called hereabout a half century after his death, landed a job in an ice-cream parlor in nearby Lancaster when he was 15 and found a home in the candy kitchen. Four years later, he headed for Philadelphia to start a candy shop and failed. He failed again in New York. This ability to bounce back was an object lesson that I tried to point out to the boys.

His creativity was another lesson, though cunning might be the better word. Hershey returned to Pennsylvania and began to make caramels. He did very, very well. In 1900, he sold his Lancaster Caramel Co. for $1 million but shrewdly reserved the right to continue to sell chocolate. He had made the important observation that children licked the chocolate off chocolate-covered caramels and threw away the rest.

"I'll stake everything on chocolate," he pronounced. "Caramels are a fad. The chocolate market will be a permanent one."

And he matter-of-factly proceeded to learn how to make milk chocolate, then a luxury good produced in Switzerland. In no time at all, he had built a factory, named the factory town Hershey, and built a trolley system to bring milk and workers to the factory. A byproduct was a mass-transit system that stretched for miles.

The factory churned out tons of chocolate at prices the average Joe could afford. Success piled upon success. Kisses began to be made in 1907, and Hershey's soon became the world's largest buyer of almonds, for its Almond Joy bar.

Meanwhile, Hershey was bound and determined to make the town itself a model of benevolence for company towns. Houses were not made in cookie-cutter molds and were priced so workers could afford them. Hershey Park (it didn't become Hersheypark until 1971) was established in 1907 as a picnic ground for workers. There were free band concerts, vaudeville and, before long, a carousel. Other rides were added almost every year.

But almost from the beginning, the park was a tourist destination. Hershey persuaded the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad to build a spur to bring excursions there. And in the sort of mix of business and recreation that has become the touchstone of today's society, the cute little town with the Hershey smokestacks became an advertising tool.

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