Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hershey by Michael D'Antonio

Another case of plans dashed: my family takes a vacation to Hersheypark every summer, to ride roller coasters and engage in general frivolity just before my sons go back to school. The last two years, the window has gotten very small, since we go after Pennsylvania schools are open but before Thing 1 (my older son) starts classes at our local community college.

But there's a day or two in that window at the beginning of the last week of August, and it's usually still hot, so we can do all of the water-park stuff as well.


This year, I intended to read Michael D'Antonio's biography of the man who made the town of Hershey and pretty much all of the things in it while in that town, mostly sitting in the shade in that water park in between cooling off myself. But, in the actual event, our day in Hershey saw near-steady light rain and a high temperature that just grazed 70 Fahrenheit. So the water park section was thoroughly closed, and sitting anywhere to read pleasantly was not in the cards.

I did get a bit of Hershey read on the drive down and back -- my wife hates to have anyone else drive her, and I much prefer to read than to stare at a road, so it's a great pairing -- but I mostly read it the same way I read nearly everything these days, on a train to and from Manhattan.

Milton Snavely Hershey was born in 1857 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of a dreamer father and a mother who was the hard-driving scion of a locally prominent family. He went into candy-making as a young man, and, after a couple of near-successes (meaning failures), finally hit it big first with a caramel business and then bootstrapped that into the first major milk-chocolate manufacturing operation in the Americas. As that chocolate company became successful, he built up a whole series of related businesses and operations around it to make a model town -- a town named after him, with subsidized streetcars and cultural venues, with a free park that eventually turned into a major tourist attraction, and with a whole panoply of other businesses that ran at a bare profit or a slight loss to making living in Hershey that much more pleasant and attractive.

And he put the bulk of his ownership of all of that -- the massively growing chocolate business, and all of the other activities to make Hershey a model town -- into a trust, and handed over ownership of that trust to a school for orphan boys that he set up. By the time he died in 1945, the school trust solidly owned both the hugely profitable candy business and the conglomerate of all of those other Hershey entities, and was on track to have the largest endowment of any private school in the US.

So Hershey was possibly the most successful American Utopian that ever existed: he had a vision for a working, successful community, and built it. That town is still there, still thriving, over a hundred years later. He's also the quintessential story of a Gilded Age entrepreneur who gave away his wealth, even more than Carnegie. It's the kind of story that could make even a died-in-wool socialist grudgingly say that some capitalists, maybe, aren't necessarily all bad.

D'Antonio tells that story well, both the early years of struggle and the later years of ever-increasing success. Unusually for a biography, the reader will be more interested in Hershey's later years -- no one really cares that much about Milton S. Hershey as a person, but we want to know how he founded the town and park and factory, and how that all worked out in the end.

If I could force the current wave of American capitalists to read any one book, this would be it -- Hershey made mostly good choices, and always focused on the good of the community rather than his own wants. We could use a lot more of that these days. Admittedly, he was hugely paternalistic -- partially that was because of the times, but there clearly also was an element of wanting to control and (benevolently) guide his "children," both the workers in his town and the actual orphans.

Still: a major capitalist who gave up his entire fortune and business to build a massive philanthropic vehicle for a very particular and personally important purpose. I suspect Bill Gates knows this story, but not enough others.

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