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HersheyArchives@30, Part 21: Insight into Mr. Hershey – The Wallace Research Collection


Paul A. Wallace, ca. 1954
Paul A. Wallace, ca. 1954

Milton Hershey, unlike his contemporary Henry Ford, never wrote a memoir and did not court attention from the public or the press. Hershey was rarely interviewed and as he preferred to communicate via telephone and telegraph rather than through letters or memorandums he leaves little of a paper-trail. So without an extensive written record to document Mr. Hershey’s decisions and motivations what evidence do we, as researchers, use to understand him and his decision-making process?

Fortunately, oral history interviews assist archivists and researchers in filling documentary gaps. Hershey Community Archives has an active oral history program, however for information about Milton Hershey’s personal life and character we often refer to the papers of Paul A.W. Wallace.  Wallace was a professor at Lebanon Valley College who was hired to research and write a biography of Mr. Hershey in the 1950s.  Although Wallace’s manuscript was never published it and his research files are a rich historical archive.

Wallace, working in the 1950s, was able to interview Mr. Hershey’s contemporaries; his business associates, those he employed, and those who interacted with him in the community. Oral history interviews with Mr. Hershey’s employees reveal he was interested in big picture ideas and did not concern himself with the details of a project.

Hershey’s horticulturist, Harry Erdman, provided a typical example of Mr. Hershey’s decision-making process in his interview with Wallace. In 1935 and 1936, J. Horace McFarland, a nationally known leader in the city beautiful movement who was active in the American Rose Society invited Mr. Hershey to meet with him. McFarland wanted to persuade Mr. Hershey to assist in funding a public rose garden in Washington D.C.  The two men made plans to meet when the Pennsylvania State Federation of Garden Clubs would meet in Hershey in April of 1936.

After McFarland and Milton Hershey’s initial meeting, Mr. Hershey attended the Garden Federation dinner meeting as a guest of McFarland who was the keynote speaker. McFarland took the opportunity to publicly ask Milton Hershey for financial support of a National Rose Garden. According to Erdman, he and Mr. Hershey had previously discussed establishing a garden on a piece of land just south of The Hotel Hershey. Milton Hershey’s reply to McFarland’s request was:

Well, we have been planning a Garden of our own; and, before we give that amount of money for the politicians to play with, we better spend some of it at our own place and see what interest people take in it.

Erdman learned all of this the next day when Milton Hershey called him to a meeting at his apartment in High Point. In his interview, Erdman related how quickly Mr. Hershey made the decision to establish the Hershey Rose Garden.

[Please note the audio has not been restored.  A transcript of the audio is below.]

The decision was then before 9 o’clock the following morning, after this dinner, I’d stake it out and let him know when I had it staked out and then look it over with him to see if it was too large or wasn’t large enough. Several days later, I had started to plot with stakes what I thought should be the proper size to start with and asked Mr. Hershey to go up and look it over and he immediately agreed it was alright to go ahead with it.

The Rose Garden was expanded gradually over the next few years and in early 1941 Milton Hershey was considering how to develop the adjacent land east of the garden. After 20 minutes of heated onsite consultation between Erdman, engineers, real estate developers, and farmers the land was deemed inappropriate for farming or a housing development.  Mr. Hershey then turned to Harry Erdman and said “All right, Erdman, Go ahead, make a garden out of it. We’ll make an awful lot of other people happy.”

Erdman asked if Mr. Hershey wanted to see a plan or cost estimates.

[Please note the audio has not been restored.  A transcript of the audio is below.]

I asked him at that time if he wanted an estimate of what the cost was going to be – if he was giving me the entire plot?

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s no good for farming so take it all.’

‘Do you want an estimate of what the cost is going to be?’

‘No, go ahead,’ he said, ‘if it gets too big I’ll stop you, but I haven’t stopped you yet have I?’

I said, ‘no you haven’t.’

This anecdote illustrates how Mr. Hershey developed the goals and relied on others to execute his vision. He was a leader who relied on capable, talented individuals who operated independently of his influence.  While he oversaw all of the operations and had ultimate authority, he placed a great deal of faith in others to execute the day-to-day operations. As Erdman explained to Wallace with regard to the initial landscaping of the community:

[Please note the audio has not been restored.  A transcript of the audio is below.]

Question: What about Mr. Hershey’s influence? Did [landscape architect Oglesby] Paul draw up the plans according to Hershey’s specifications or did he just say he wanted everything landscaped, go to it?

Erdman: From my experiences with Mr. Hershey of course this is 25 years later, I doubt very much if Mr. Hershey made any specific plans or gave any specific details. It looked very much as if he told them he wanted nice planting and something of that sort and what he wanted done and it wasn’t specifying any particular names of plants or any particular location. He left that up to the architect to do so.

The oral history interviews in the Paul Wallace Research Collection contain details about Mr. Hershey that would otherwise be unknowable; providing insights into Mr. Hershey’s personality and character. Mr. Hershey chose not to tell his own story, but fortunately others told stories about him.


Audio clips courtesy of Milton Hershey School Department of School History.

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