By Amanda Johnston
A visit to Hershey, Pa., for many means a visit to the well-known amusement park, Hersheypark. Its origins trace to 1904, when Milton Hershey created a park as a place of leisure and diversion for the workers at his iconic chocolate factory. Today, guests who stay a few days will find there is much to do outside the roller coasters and thrill rides that make the park so famous. The entire town is rooted in history stemming from the tropical cacao tree.
In 1883, at the age of 26 and after two failed attempts at starting a candy-making business, Milton S. Hershey settled in Lancaster, Pa., near his childhood home and opened the successful Lancaster Caramel Company. He had been trained in the art of confection-making during a four-year apprenticeship, and as his caramel sales soared, Hershey set his sights on the Swiss confectionary, milk chocolate. After much trial and error, he settled on a recipe with a smooth, creamy texture and rich chocolate taste unlike anything that had been sold in America before. Construction of Hershey’s chocolate factory began in 1903, using the latest mass production equipment, and employing hundreds. Hershey’s milk chocolate quickly became the first marketed product of its kind.
Raised as a Mennonite, Hershey valued community and understood the significance of teamwork and rewarding hard work with good deeds. With these values as close to his heart, he created a town for his employees, complete with affordable housing, a transportation system, and a community center, which housed The Hershey Theatre. The theatre, with its stunning architecture, has remained a vital part of the Hershey community. Now it hosts touring Broadway shows and popular musical and comedy performances for all ages; the theatre is a destination.
The Hershey Theatre has 1,904 seats, because that is how many people lived in town when it was built. C. Emlen Urban, who also designed Hershey’s home High Point Mansion and the Hershey Press Building located next to the theatre, served as architect for the project. Hershey worked with Urban to complete the plans for a neoclassical lobby and Venetian-inspired theatre in 1915. Soon after the plans were finished, Hershey’s wife, Catherine, died of a neurological condition. In mourning for his wife, Hershey postponed construction of the theatre until the 1930s, which was the beginning of the Art Deco era. Determined to bring his original plans to fruition, he and Urban moved forward with the Venetian style anyway.
The theatre featured a state-of-the-art projection system to create an atmospheric ceiling of clouds and stars. Also ahead of its time, the stage features five original lifts for moving sets up and down. The fire curtain, which was positioned on the stage to seal it off from the audience in case a fire would start backstage, displays a detailed mural of a Venetian waterway. In keeping with the European architecture, Visintine-style windows and a plastered ceiling structured to resemble Venetian wood paneling are featured architectural elements.
A block down Chocolate Avenue from the Hershey Theatre is The Hershey Story, a two-level interactive museum experience dedicated to the life and legacy of Milton S. Hershey. The museum, built in 2009, features artifacts including a cancelled check for a ticket deposit for the Titantic (luckily due to scheduling conflict Hershey didn’t end up on the ill-fated voyage); a Hershey Glass Torchiere that was featured in the 1893 Columbian Exhibition and later displayed by Hershey in his Philadelphia soda fountain to showcase the beauty and power of electricity; and the personal china and dishes of Milton and Catherine Hershey.
The Hershey Story Museum features exhibits that embody five interconnected themes. One of these areas, “Sweet Innovations,” teaches about Hershey’s chocolate production. Touch screens allow visitors to interact with plant mechanics and learn the process to wrap a kiss.
The architectural design of the museum was based on the Columbian Exposition at The World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, which is where Hershey bought his first equipment. In addition to the museum exhibits in the upper level of the building, the main floor of the Hershey Story features the Chocolate Lab, where visitors can make their own chocolate bars and learn about the history, economics and science involved in the production of chocolate. Visitors can also sample warm drinking chocolates from various geographical regions in the interactive program, “Tastings.”