I enjoyed Roald Dahl’s book so much in elementary school I read it twice. The original film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder, is one of my favorites.
And I’ve eagerly awaited what director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp have visualized for us in their new version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
However, my fondness for Dahl’s classic tale wasn’t rooted in fantasies about what went on inside a real-life chocolate factory. Like the book’s title character, Charlie Bucket, my childhood also was spent regularly enjoying “the gorgeous chocolatey smell” of a world-famous chocolate factory.
And I knew it sure wasn’t Oompa Loompas making the candy in our town. No, it was people like my great-grandmother Josephina, my grandma Mary, my aunt Clara, my uncle Mimi and my numerous other Italian relatives.
Every time I watched our videocassette of “E.T.,” which got a lot of play by my three younger siblings and me during the 1980s, seeing that bag of Reese’s Pieces filled me with pride.
I could smell that delectable “candy in a crunch shell” being made every day on my way to school.
That was my candy being enjoyed by E.T.! Made by people I knew!
Read the back of a bag of Reese’s Pieces and you will learn that the tasty little buggers are manufactured by “H.B. Reese Candy Co. in Hershey, PA. A division of Hershey Foods Corporation.”
Hershey is about 10 miles away from Harrisburg, the state’s capital. Perhaps the greatest company town in the country, it bills itself as “The Sweetest Place on Earth.”
Although Hershey has a population of only about 15,000, the town boasts a five-star resort, an opulent theater, a stadium that attracts rockers such as U2 and the Rolling Stones, and a first-rate amusement park, zoo, spa, garden and museum.
The Reese’s plant occupies one end of town, and the Hershey’s chocolate factory, which was built 100 years ago, is on the other. When the weather is just right, the two aromas intermingle and it’s like a huge, invisible peanut butter cup descending from the heavens.
Yes, it’s pretty sweet.
Between my dad’s Tatangelos and my mom’s Klingers, my family has worked at almost all of the outgrowths of Milton S. Hershey’s vision.
So, I guess you could say Mr. Hershey (1857-1945) was our Willy Wonka.
By no means an eccentric, a la Depp’s top hat-wearing Wonka, Hershey was indeed a visionary who was guided by decency as well as profits. The company, community and various institutions that bear his name all are testaments to his greatness. Growing up there, you can’t help but be proud to be part of a rather unique and special society.
Grandma Mary has lived her entire life above the family restaurant that sits in the heart of Hershey on West Chocolate Avenue. The street lamps outside the front door are replicas of the famed Hershey’s Kisses.
On my dad’s first trip home from Providence College, he was spotted taking pictures of the conical delights.
“What are you doing, Robert?” my grandma asked.
“My friends don’t believe me about the Kisses lights,” he replied. “Now I’m going to win a bet!”
From Grandma Mary’s second-story back porch, you can see the two towering chimneys of the giant Hershey’s chocolate factory.
Dad also grew up with this view. As did I for several months at the age of 8 when we – dad, mom, two younger sisters, baby brother – lived in the spare apartment while waiting for our new house to be built on Hershey’s Hillview Lane.
It was summer vacation, and I would sneak away over the railroad tracks to the back of the factory and stare up in amazement at the row of tall silos that held the cocoa beans, just as my dad did when he was my age.
Grandma Mary worked inside the factory for a short while, as did her mother and my great aunt Lucia before they opened their restaurant.
“I did the miniature bars,” Grandma Mary told me. “I’d grab four in each hand and put them in the machine.”
Did you ever eat any?
“Of course we did, honey,” she laughed.
Hershey’s Miniature chocolate bars had been around for three years when Grandma Mary started working at the factory after school in 1942. She also recalls putting a wrapper on a bar “made just for the soldiers.”
That would be the celebrated “Field Ration D” bar that met the U.S. Army’s requirements for “a ration bar that weighed about four ounces, would not melt at high temperatures, was high in food energy value, and did not taste so good that soldiers would be tempted to eat it except in an emergency.”
If memory serves, I recall learning about the Ration D Bar and Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate Bar, “a heat resistant bar with an improved flavor developed in 1943,” during a trip to Hershey’s Chocolate World.
The original Chocolate World opened in 1973 as a simulated tour of the chocolate-making process on a slow-moving ride – from the cocoa bean being shaken off the tree to the finished product.
What I remember most, though, was waiting anxiously for the free chocolate bar they gave out at the end of the tour.
I also remember that when I was in the fourth grade, in 1988, Chocolate World got a massive facelift, a new ride and a bunch of new shops. The “village” of food stores sold every kind of Hershey’s product on the market plus other goodies such as the big, fat, fresh Hershey’s chocolate cookies with the Reese’s peanut butter chips baked inside.
Grandma Mary mails these and numerous other Hershey’s products to us at Christmas.
Before Chocolate World opened in 1973, tourists – and people such as my wild-child father and his like-minded friends – were allowed to tour the actual chocolate factory.
“We were bad,” my dad says sheepishly. “We’d wear baggy clothes and stuff our pockets with candy. The candy was close enough to grab, and the workers would just laugh or pretend not to see us. If it was someone else they’d have said something. But we were kids from the neighborhood.”
He adds: “And then, of course, they gave out free candy at the end of the tour.”
Grandma Mary got her candy fix on the way home from elementary school at the old Reese’s factory in the center of town. H.B. “Harry” Reese started making peanut butter cups covered with Hershey’s chocolate in 1928. Hershey’s bought the Reese’s Candy Co. in 1963, seven years after Harry Reese’s death.
“For a nickel we’d get a bag the size of your arm full of peanut butter cup scraps,” she says. “We stopped there almost every day.”
Whether you worked at the factory or not, most people from Hershey take pride in the town and are inclined to eating the product. Aunt Clara worked at the Reese’s plant packaging Kit Kat bars – her favorite – and is said to have never gone a day without eating at least a piece of one.
Grandma Mary has a hard time saying no to Mr. Goodbar. Introduced in 1925, two years before she was born, it’s her all-time favorite chocolate bar.
Our family relocated to Florida in 1989, the summer before I entered sixth grade. That “gorgeous chocolatey smell” that wafted over grandma’s house, especially right before it rained, remains a favorite memory of mine.
And the Reese’s Pieces I just scarfed down while writing this are as good as the ones I could smell being created near our house on Hillview Lane – as good as the ones I saw E.T. gobble up.
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