HERSHEY, Pa.—An invisible pathogen has turned this town, built on chocolate, from a tourist destination into a reclusive suburb. During the Covid-19 pandemic, people have found an escape, however temporary, walking on bike paths or taking car rides through the community’s shut-in neighborhoods. In the distance, sprawling before rolling hills, stands the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, which recently opened a testing site. The hospital’s drive-thru tent and “no visitors” signs remind us that springtime brings false comfort. For now, the “sweetest place on earth” is immobilized by the crisis.
But beyond the medical center, past townhomes and chain stores, stand tributes to another dark chapter in Hershey—one that was similarly national in scope. During the Great Depression, Milton Hershey—the world-famous chocolatier, entrepreneur, and philanthropist—started the “Great Building Campaign” to inoculate his namesake town against the financial crisis. As Pennsylvania’s industrial regions struggled during those years, Hershey employed hundreds to build lasting architectural treasures. His response epitomized the importance of civic duty and charity—especially during economic tumult.
Hershey’s “rags-to-riches” story informed his benevolent response. When the market crashed in 1929, Hershey, then 72, was living in High Point, a mansion that overlooked the chocolate factory. He was born less than a mile south on a dairy farm in Derry Township—Hershey’s formal municipality (originally a Scots-Irish outpost founded in 1729). From an early age, Hershey nurtured an interest in candy-making, one that eventually became a successful business venture. He developed a game-changing formula for milk chocolate. His creation turned a Swiss delicacy into an affordable and profitable mass product.
By 1903, Hershey was a millionaire building the world’s largest chocolate factory—and a model company town—just a short walk from his birthplace. But this wasn’t enough. Six years later, Hershey and his wife, Catherine, opened a school for orphaned boys. In 1918, three years after his wife’s passing, Hershey secretly placed his $60 million fortune (over $1 billion today) in a trust to benefit the school. Today, the Milton Hershey School is a cost-free, private co-ed school that serves over 2,100 students.
Hershey’s Depression-era campaign reflected his charitable nature. Though the economic crash affected parts of his company—including slower production, declining sales, and smaller paychecks—Hershey ensured that the town survived the downturn with full employment. Ignoring those who advised caution, Hershey proceeded with the building campaign. “We have about 600 construction workers in this town,” he said. “If I don’t provide work for them, I’ll have to feed them. And since building materials are now at their lowest cost levels, I’m going to build and give them jobs.”
The campaign began in 1930, when Hershey donated his neoclassical mansion as a clubhouse to the new country club, which gave away 100 memberships on his behalf. Hershey downsized, confining himself to two rooms on the home’s second floor, where he oversaw a succession of massive projects. In 1933, hometown laborers completed the Community Building—arguably the town’s crown jewel—an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo that featured athletic facilities, dorm rooms, a library, a small hospital, and an awe-inspiring theater.
That same year, Hershey developed Pat’s Hill, a picturesque bluff that overlooks the town, the surrounding Lebanon Valley, and, in the distance, the Blue Mountain range. On the hilltop, the workers constructed the Hotel Hershey, a stunning, hacienda-style summer resort that could adorn the Mediterranean. Workers initially excavated the hotel land with steam shovels. “These machines do the work of 40 men,” Hershey observed. “Take them off. Hire 40 men.” Then, in 1934, the workers constructed what is known today as Catherine Hall, a commanding, art-deco structure that served as Milton Hershey’s junior-senior high school. Hershey also commissioned landscaped rose gardens on the hill.
Hershey’s capital campaign continued through the decade. He completed a sports arena, then the world’s largest monolithic structure; an art-deco, windowless office building, which became the chocolate company’s headquarters; a 15,000-seat outdoor stadium next to the growing amusement park; and, finally, a cultural and educational foundation for the town’s residents. Overall, Hershey found a winning recipe for the Depression: local labor for lasting recreational and cultural amenities. In 1937, Newsweek called the town a “Candyland, City of Dreams,” where residents “pay no local taxes; a candy factory gives them their jobs and their luxurious clubs, schools, churches, and shady streets.”
The chocolate town persevered during the Depression and, when it finally ended, continued its distinction as an idyllic community—one that became a major tourist attraction thanks to Hershey’s campaign. It remained a close-knit place, where Pennsylvania Dutch families lived in charming bungalows around the downtown. Meantime, Italian families resided in homes around St. Joan of Arc Church, which features a bell dedicated in memory of Hershey’s Catholic wife. Their ancestors had arrived from Pitigliano, a town in southern Tuscany, to work as laborers in local quarries, the factory, or the building projects.
By the 1970s, as Penn State’s hospital and medical school expanded, Hershey was transitioning from a blue-collar utopia into a suburb of transient professionals. Today, it’s a prosperous “eds-and-meds” community, where new Craftsman homes replace post-war ranches, and development projects slowly erase remnants of its agricultural past. Though the hospital is Hershey’s largest employer, tourism-related jobs comprise a significant share of the local economy. As the pandemic continues, however, tourist season is postponed and many face layoffs.
For now, Hershey’s residents stay home, hoping they can soon attend stadium concerts, have drinks on the hotel’s veranda, ride roller coasters in the park, or walk around the gardens. Social interaction remains limited to trips to Pronio’s, the local grocery store, or take-out from restaurants like Fenicci’s, in business since 1935. But during this alarming period—a pandemic, plus an economic crisis—Hershey’s architectural inventory and tourism industry show how the community triumphed in another somber period. At a time when individual philanthropy accounts for a minute share of America’s GDP, Milton Hershey’s legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of charitable giving and civic engagement in our towns—now more than ever.
Charles F. McElwee III is assistant editor of City Journal. He grew up in Hershey. Follow him on Twitter at @CFMcElwee.