Checking into this spectacular moment in my past is like opening a box of fresh chocolates.
My all time fondest childhood memories were the visits to the Hershey Chocolate Factory.
Living only 10 miles away from chocolate heaven, we local kids from the surrounding townships would make a yearly pilgrimage to what we thought of as our Disneyworld, Universal Studios, and the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory all rolled into one.
We were bused each Spring in big tin school buses, the smell of plastic leather and dirty floors surrounded us, but as I thought about what was ahead all I could smell was chocolate. The moment we saw the street lights dressed as silver covered chocolate kisses, our hearts thumped with anticipation.
Before we could go in, however, we would dine al fresco with the teachers on extra long picnic tables in the park adjacent to the candy factory. Sitting outside with the smell of chocolate in the air, we shoved our little hands into our worn-torn paper lunch bags. We would wolf down thick Lebanon baloney sandwiches, and maybe an apple. The faster we ate, the sooner we were in the chocolate factory. After lunch, mouths watering for chocolate, we marched two by two alongside other kids from nearby schools to the doors of nirvana.
Walking through the main entrance of the Hershey chocolate factory, our eyes were filled with over-sized images of chocolate bars, the sweet smell of chocolate, and the noise from the machines was overwhelming our senses. There were vats and vats filled with a constant stirring of melted chocolate, with enormous rollers that rolled the thick gooey chocolate back and forth. We buzzed around those machines, dreaming of dipping fingers and hands into the chocolate, which of course we would never do. But in those days you would walk through the factory and could get close to everything.
All of the build up was finally paying off. We could hang around the shiny silver vats, smell the thick chocolate in the air, and all we wanted was for it to last forever. Then, at end of the tour, in a straight, single line, we would get our special gift. We would extend our hands and the chocolate representative would hand each of us a little plastic cup which contained about 3 tablespoons of cold chocolate milk – one gulp and it was down. This, and a handful (3-5 small pieces) of chocolate candies. By the time we got to our buses, everything was gone. It was never enough and we would go home with our tummies grumbling for more.
Presently, to visit the Hershey factory, you can’t walk through the factory like we did in the early 50’s. The tour now consists of a narrated ride in the form of a continuous chain of theme park-style cars (like at Disney World) with a manufactured feel; an education on where chocolate comes from, how the cocoa beans are selected and cured, the importance of milk in the process, and how chocolate is transformed from the cocoa beans to the chocolate we buy and enjoy every day. The conveyor belts and whirring machines are fake, and there are no people making or packaging chocolate; it’s organized fun, processed and not personal. In many ways, I think Mr. Hershey’s people goofed with these changes. That personal touch, literally, and wholesome family feeling is absent from the sterile upgrade. Yet, I hold on to my chocolate memories as delightful postcards from my past.
Hershey’s meant even more than this one day a year to the chocolate factory. Listening to our elders at the family dinner table, we knew that anyone who could get a job at The Hershey Chocolate Factory was set for life. Free medical and paid vacations were part of the employee package. This was before unions made their way to Hershey, Pa. As kids, we would dream about being employed in the Hershey Chocolate Factory, and tell ourselves that we would work for free.
Since I now live far from the Hershey Chocolate Factory and the great state of Pennsylvania, I have no idea what is happening in Hershey, a town originated on the heels of chocolate bars, except that the town boasts a top of the trees amusement park, a beautiful and first class medical center, and forever in my heart, a chocolate factory built by a good man named Milton Hershey.
Hershey Chocolate World Theme Song circa 1981
Hershey Radio Jingle 2002