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HOLY COW! HISTORY: Milton’s Mishap; When Candy Changed At the Drop of a Hat

Milton didn’t like farming. It was just that simple. Farming is a harsh life filled with hard work from sunrise to sundown. It was doubly hard in the 19th century, before today’s modern conveniences.

Milton wasn’t lazy; quite the opposite. He just wanted to do something different. When he was 13, he put Pennsylvania’s fields behind him and became apprenticed to a newspaper publisher. But Milton didn’t like printing any more than he liked farming.

Then deliverance arrived in disguise one day.

Milton accidentally dropped his hat into a printing machine, causing a nasty equipment breakdown and infuriating his notoriously short-tempered boss. Milton soon heard the two words every employee dreads: “You’re fired.”

Troubled by the prospect of an adolescent son without an education or marketable job skills, Milton’s dad begged the printer to take him back. After cooling down, the boss would give Milton a second chance.

Then Milton’s mom stepped in. Don’t make the boy return to the very place where he was miserable, she pleaded. She had another suggestion — send him to nearby Lancaster County to learn how to make candy in a confectioner’s shop.

So, young Milton began his third career in three years. This time, he found his knack. He not only enjoyed candy making … he excelled at it. So much so that in 1876 he relocated to Philadelphia and opened his own shop.

He moved on to jobs with confectioners in Denver, New Orleans, Chicago and New York before finally settling back where it all began in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was increasingly successful at each stop, making a name for himself with his caramels.

A trip to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair changed everything. There, Milton became intrigued with chocolate. Until then, the savory sweet was a luxury enjoyed only by rich people. He was sure it would appeal to everyday Americans’ sweet tooth, too.

Milton thought long and hard. He thought big, too, imagining a chocolate product that could be sold coast to coast at a price so low everyday folks could afford it. But keeping the cost down meant producing chocolate on a massive scale. And that would take money — a lot of money.

So, Milton took the ultimate gamble. He sold his prosperous caramel company in 1900 for $1 million (nearly $40 million today) and pushed the chips to the middle of the table.

By now, you’ve guessed the obvious. Milton was Hershey, and his new business was the Hershey Chocolate Co. The man who turned his back on farming now bought dairy farms near the farmland where he grew up.

The iconic Hershey’s Bar came out in 1900. Hershey’s Kisses debuted in 1907, and Hershey’s with Almonds followed in 1908. Milton’s big gamble paid off. He was now a captain of industry, building the world’s biggest chocolate factory.

And he remembered his employees. His factory was in the country next to his dairies, so his products could contain fresh milk. Workers missed living in town. So, Milton built one for them from scratch: Hershey, Pennsylvania. He erected homes, schools, churches, parks and even a public transit system.

Milton’s good fortune extended beyond business. In 1912, he and his wife decided to go to Europe. He wrote a $300 check to the White Star Line as a deposit on a VIP suite aboard the brand-new Titanic. But his plans changed, and he needed to travel before Titanic was ready to sail and took another ocean liner instead. By missing the boat, he saved his life.

Finally, Milton wanted to give children something he hadn’t received himself. Because he was needed on the family farm, he dropped out of school in the fourth grade. Lack of education hindered him his entire life. So he established what became The Milton Hershey School. Having no children of his own, he quietly transferred his entire fortune, including control of the Hershey Chocolate Co., to the school’s trust fund in 1918. It’s still educating youngsters.

Milton was 88 when he passed away in 1945. But his namesake company kept growing. Today, it makes enough candy for almost every man, woman and child in the world to have one piece every year.

So much sweetness, and so many good works, all because of a simple mishap. Just goes to show how life can change at the drop of a hat.

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