Winter got you dead? Head to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for a perk-up of chocolate and inspiration

It’s the dead of winter in upstate New York, with freezing rain and dreary skies. So what do we do? Spend the weekend with friends in Hershey, Pennsylvania, chocolate capital of America. We needed a place to meet up halfway between where we live and Washington, D.C., where they’d be coming from, and all the cute B&Bs featuring breakfasts rooted out of their own organic gardens were closed at this time of year.

It seemed like a cheesy choice, both of us a little afraid to admit we were interested in seeing The Sweetest Place on Earth. But hey, we might move away someday and then wouldn’t we wish we’d done it?

(A reason, I keep telling myself, why I should also drive up and see Niagara Falls. Even my relatives from Russia did that, for goodness’ sake.)

Since it was wintertime, Hershey’s huge amusement park was closed. The roller coaster rides snaked empty and silent over the back of the tidy, municipal looking little company town like some sort of futuristic spaceport. But Chocolate World was open, and what more could you ask for when going to Hershey?

Well, a fair bit. The streetlights, for example, really are shaped like Hershey’s Kisses, a cute little detail in a cute little town. And the Chocolate World tour wasn’t some ho-hum walk through a working factory. Instead, it was a fun and rather funny ride in big wheely carts through a fictional factory that detailed the laborious process needed to turn cocoa beans, sugar, and milk into a chocolate bar or Kiss or covering for Reese’s peanut butter cups.

The big draw? Singing cows. Now, I get my family’s milk direct from a raw milk farm, and I’ve never seen those cows sing while they were being milked. I’m going to have to tell the farmer to go to Hershey and get some pointers. Talk about happy moos!

[Many apologies for the lack of photos of said singing cows. The curse of the traveler struck, and my camera turned out to have a dead battery that day.]

The tour was in fact both educational and fun. But I was less inspired by the making of chocolate itself than I was by the background and history of the Hershey company and founder, Milton Hershey. That’s where the real meat (or cocoa nib) of the story lies. Because poor-man-makes-good Milton S. Hershey was one of those patrician company owners just chock-full of noblesse oblige. Not only did his employees enjoy relatively fair wages and good working conditions, Hershey built the entire company town to serve their welfare with schools, churches, and clean places to live (‘company town’ usually refers to mining or gold rush towns where the economy is designed to sap all wages from the workers and siphon them straight back to the controlling company through high prices and lack of competition).

He and his wife also founded a school for underprivileged young people, the Hershey Industrial School that is still going strong today (renamed the Milton Hershey School). And not only that, but, unable to have children of their own, they left their not inconsiderable fortune of 60 million dollars to that school, an institution that still enjoys a controlling share of the Hershey company.

Now, I might not like Hershey chocolate that much (except, of course, Reese’s peanut butter cups; there’s something special about them), but knowing what’s behind the company, and seeing the model town that functions around it, I’m much more inclined to buy their products. Milton Hershey is someone I can admire, which I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gone there.

Even at a dead time of year, a party that included 2 pregnant chicks, their spouses, and a 2 1/2-year-old boy found plenty to do. Perhaps more enticing than Chocolate World was the Harrisburg Science Museum (Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts). Although it’s small, it’s packed with the kind of hands-on experiential displays that have made science museums so popular across the country. You can try to build a working dam and see how long it holds together, or construct a building with mini bricks and sticks and then see how earthquake-proof it is, and of course see an electricity show. That’s all aside from the actual Kidspace section, which includes a water play area where kids can experiment with rearranging dams, locks, pipes, and the flow of an entire watercourse.

Popping over to Hershey for the weekend reminded me once again that sometimes the destinations outside your own back door are just as rewarding as the ones requiring a plane ticket, passport, crash language course, and inoculations. Next time, though, I bet we’ll aim for the roller coasters.

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