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Hershey Improvement Company: Build or Buy a Home in Hershey

Beginning construction for the Hershey Chocolate factory, 1903

Beginning construction for the Hershey Chocolate factory, 1903


In 1903, when Milton Hershey broke ground for the Hershey Chocolate factory in Derry Township his plans far exceeded the construction of one building. Mr. Hershey envisioned the development of a new community; a community that featured modern facilities and residences with the objective of being an “ideal twentieth century town.”[i]


Hershey Improvement Company, an unincorporated organization that operated under the auspices of the Hershey Chocolate Company, was responsible for building the infrastructure for Mr. Hershey’s model industrial town. The Improvement Company laid out roads, sidewalks, and all of the utilities including: water, sewer, electric, and gas. The company oversaw the construction of public buildings and homes as well as all real estate transactions.


Surveyors with Herr’s Engineers. ca.1910-1912

Surveyors with Herr’s Engineers. ca.1910-1912


Potential residents had the choice of purchasing a lot from the Improvement Company and building their own home or purchasing a home constructed by the company. Between 1911 and 1915, the company constructed 150 homes. The benefits and convenience of indoor plumbing and electricity were advertised to homeowners however an emphasis was placed on the community’s amenities.


“It is the town of health; it is a paradise for children. Its great public school with everything free is a wonderful asset. It has free libraries, playgrounds, gymnasiums, clubs and all the merits of a place many times its size. These give value that mean dollars and cents to the home investment. The man who buys or builds a home not only gets the full value of that property but the additional value of the town improvement and equipment.” Hershey Press, Advertisement, 11/5/1914.


Areba Avenue looking east from Cocoa Avenue. 1912-1915

Areba Avenue looking east from Cocoa Avenue. 1912-1915


The company’s investment in the community’s infrastructure was the homeowner’s advantage. This idea exemplified the progressive ideal of capitalism and wealth being used to raise the standard of living for all.


The economic value of home-ownership, to the individual, was also emphasized in the Improvement Company’s real estate advertisements. “Property owners in Hershey are enabled to sell their property, if they so desire, making quick sales, and selling at a considerable price over their original investment….We can cite you several instances of property holders in Hershey that have sold their properties recently and pocketed a nice profit.” In this respect, Hershey’s model industrial community was unlike those that preceded it.


Hershey Press advertisement promoting the benefits of homeownership. 11/02/1911]

Hershey Press; advertisement promoting the benefits of home-ownership. 11/02/1911


For comparison, consider another celebrated company town, Pullman, Illinois.


In 1881, the first residents moved into Pullman, Illinois, a community just outside of Chicago founded by railroad car manufacturer George M. Pullman. Pullman was considered to be an ideal town that offered many of the amenities that would later be available in Hershey, Pennsylvania. An important difference between the two communities was home ownership.


In Pullman, residents were unable to buy their homes, they could only rent. Following the economic depression of 1893, the Pullman Company laid off workers and reduced wages but refused to lower rents. Workers went on strike and the community became associated with industrial strife, far short of the ideal. By 1900, the municipal functions of the community had been assumed by the city of Chicago.[i]


It is likely Milton Hershey was aware of the downfall of Pullman and planned and organized his businesses and community with these lessons in mind. He planned for a model industrial community that would remain an ideal.  “Hershey’s future is clearly established….Hershey is the model industrial town that is developing into the model home town, and in the course of another decade it will attract thousands of people.”[iii]


Hershey Press advertisement. 11/09/1911

Hershey Press; Hershey Improvement Company advertisement. 11/09/1911


Hershey Improvement Company continued to oversee the development and expansion of the Hershey community until Hershey Chocolate Company was reorganized in 1927. After the reorganization, responsibility for the management and development of the community’s infrastructure was placed under the newly created Hershey Estates.


[i]“Big Building Boom in the Chocolate Town.” Hershey Press, 31 August 1911.

[ii] Green, Hardy. The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy.  Basic Books: New York, 2010.

[iii] “Advertisement.” Hershey Press, 5 November 1914.


Becoming a destination: Building the Hershey Convention Center

Hershey Estates president Jim Bobb and Hershey Trust Company president Arthur Whiteman cut the ribbon formally opening the Hershey Convention Center.  March 25, 1974

Hershey Estates president Jim Bobb and Hershey Trust Company president Arthur Whiteman cut the ribbon formally opening the Hershey Convention Center. March 25, 1974


How did a major Convention Center end up being built in Hershey, Pennsylvania?  While it makes sense today, in the early 1970s, Hershey was a not a national destination.  Hersheypark had just begun its transformation into a themed amusement park, the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center had just opened in 1970 and the Hotel Hershey was perceived as a quaint, but worn out hotel.




Building a Convention Center grew out of the initial success of the Hershey Motor Lodge which opened in 1967 and featured 200 guest rooms, the Hearth Room Restaurant, two meeting rooms and a free-form swimming pool. The motor lodge’s primary market was thought to be families and so the original plans did not include a venue for alcohol sales. It wasn’t until shortly after opening that the decision was made to permit the sale of alcohol in the Motor Lodge.  Renovations were made quickly and the Forebay cocktail lounge was added.


Entrance to Hershey Convention Center, ca.1974

Entrance to Hershey Convention Center, ca.1974


Extensive market studies were completed before Hershey Estates decided to add the Convention Center in 1974. Studies revealed that there were no large meeting facilities available in central Pennsylvania. When it was built the Convention Center was the largest meeting space between Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore. 


Jim Bobb and Arthur Whiteman prepare to cut the ribbon to formally open the Hershey Convention Center. March 25, 1974

Jim Bobb and Arthur Whiteman prepare to cut the ribbon to formally open the Hershey Convention Center. March 25, 1974


Hershey Convention Center grand opening, March 25, 1974

Hershey Convention Center grand opening, March 25, 1974


Grand opening was held March 25, 1974.  Oversized household items (phones, beer bottles, etc.) and large scale construction vehicles (cement truck) decorated the Convention Hall to emphasize the large space.


The Convention Hall transformed the Motor Lodge and helped Hershey’s transition to a major destination.  The space was very versatile, offering meeting and convention space for from a banquet for 1500 to a boardroom meeting for 24.  The upper and lower levels of the Convention Hall offered over 30,000 square feet of usable space plus a 4500 square foot upper lobby and a 325 seat mini theatre.

All the comforts of home: Hershey Motor Lodge

The Lodge opened in 1967, offering guest curbside access to their guest rooms.  ca.1967-1969

The Lodge opened in 1967, offering guest curbside access to their guest rooms. ca.1967-1969

During the 1950s and 1960s Hershey was a sought after place for recreation, entertainment and business.  The influx of tourists created parking and traffic problems.  Hershey Estates, the owner of all of Hershey’s attractions and lodging venues, struggled to met the growing demands of visitors to the town.  While Milton Hershey had been alive, he had provided the necessary funds to keep Hershey an attractive destination without concern for profits.  After his death, profitability became more important and without adequate funding, facilities often appeared worn and tired.

Hershey’s  Cocoa Inn had many faults:  inadequate wiring, plumbing and room layout.  The downtown site was plagued by severe sinkholes.  Limited parking made the facility unattractive to the modern tourist family.  In response to the growing automobile based tourist business Hershey Estates began planning for a large 200 room motel on the west end of town.  The future Hershey Motor Lodge was a visible symbol of Hershey Estates’ new focus on entertainment and resorts.

Aerial view of new Hershey Motor Lodge, ca.1967

Aerial view of new Hershey Motor Lodge, ca.1967

Construction for the Motor Lodge was hampered by sinkholes, a well-known obstacle in Hershey.  The location for the Lodge’s entrance was changed three times because of them. Opening May 1, 1967, the Hershey Motor Lodge featured 200 guest rooms, the Hearth Room Restaurant, two meeting rooms capable of holding 400 people, and a free-form outdoor swimming pool.

Not part of the original plans, the Forebay Cocktail Lounge was added in 1968

Not part of the original plans, the Forebay Cocktail Lounge was added in 1968

Interestingly, since the primary market was seen as families, plans for the Motor Lodge called for the facility to be totally alcohol free.  It wasn’t until shortly after opening that Hershey reconsidered that decision and the brand new facility was renovated to add a cocktail lounge (The Forebay).

The lake that marks the main entrance to the Motor Lodge was also another addition to the original design.  The lake was added at the request of James Bobb, then Hershey Estates’ president.  The architect, contractor and consulting engineer all argued against the idea, citing the extensive and complex system of sinkholes.  To create the pond, individual sinkholes were filled with crushed stone and sometimes sealed with concrete, and then the entire bed of the lake was sealed with “Bentonite,” a special mixture of clay which bonds and holds water.  Anytime it rained, the pond would fill.  When needed, the pond could also be refilled from a nearby farm’s water source.

To learn more about the growth and development of the Hershey Lodge, visit the chronology database available on the Archives’ website and search on ‘Hershey Lodge.’

Working in Hershey, part 1

Hershey PA has been known as a premiere tourist destination almost since its founding. However, for the 1000s of men and women who work in Hershey, the town is valued as much for its employment opportunities as its entertainment possibilities.

Hershey Community Archives oral history collection is a rich resource for understanding the historyof the community, its industries and activities.  Excerpts of oral history interviews with factory workers, Hershey Estates employees, bookkeepers and bank tellers reveal what it is like to work in the “sweetest place on earth.”

The stories of how people first got a job in Hershey are varied.  Many of Hershey’s most committed employees initially had no interest in working here.  Frank Mather, whose Hershey Bears’ ice hockey career spanned several decades, needed some special convincing to  come to Hershey.  In his oral history interview Mathers relates this story:

I was brought in as a player-coach. I had gone home [to Winnipeg]. I was thirty-one at the time and I figured it’s time to, you know, get a real job. So I went home. I really had no intention of being a coach. That, too, was not one of the things that I had planned, but anyway, Mr. Sollenberger phoned, and he was a very insistent gentleman. I told him no, I wasn’t interested really, but then finally he said, “Come on down. Just stay at the hotel. Bring your wife down.” We did and [he] treated me very well, gave me a car and carte blanche around Hershey, and, “Just tell them you know me and sign the check,” and that type of thing. And I did. I’m glad that I did, of course. That was the smartest move I ever made, because I signed with Hershey.

This is a funny story and it’s a true story. But I really never enjoyed Hershey when I played in Pittsburgh, the reason being we came to Hershey when the Ice Show was in Pittsburgh, and we’d be here for–what I’d say, stuck for two weeks in Hershey in the middle of the winter. At that time there was one show that changed maybe twice a week and there was very little action at all. We used to say that the highlight of the day was walking over to the arena from the Cocoa Inn.

Anyway, so I really didn’t think that I would enjoy it, but I came here. I think we arrived Tuesday and we went through the whole area. So after we saw all of Hershey at our own pace, doing what we wanted to see, then we met–this must have been a little bit later in the spring, because the park was open. As I recall Mr. Sollenberger didn’t go to the hockey games because he had a bad heart–too exciting. The only game that I can recall him ever going to was an All-Star game where the outcome was not important. Yeah. So he didn’t go to the games, but yet we went to the park. And we went on the roller coaster–now, he sits in the front seat with his wife and Pat and I are right behind them. [Laughter] And we were on there, I swear, for twelve rides. I think, “If this guy wants me to sign for hockey, I’d better sign and tell him I’m going to sign now. I’ll be his coach. Then we’ll get off this thing.”

Hershey Bears hockey team, 1956-1957 season.  Frank Mathers is 8th from the left.

Hershey Bears ice hockey team, 1956-1957 season. Frank Mathers is 8th from the left.