Sunday, May 16, 2010
The Hershey Train
Why didn't I include a reference in True Confections to Milton S. Hershey's train, still functioning in Cuba today? In 1927, Hershey, having first established his own sugar refining source in Cuba in order to avoid being at the mercy of fluctuating sugar prices, built his own train line that crossed the island, making it possible for workers to travel easily to the Hershey sugar cane factory, and to transport the sugar back to the harbor, for export to his chocolate manufacturing plant in Hershey, Pa.
Hershey was an extraordinarily thoughtful, idealistic, humanitarian, and also very, very practical businessman. He decided to locate his sugar refining operation in the province of Matanzas because he believed its higher elevation was a healthier (and therefore more productive) location. Hershey constructed a small village near his sugar cane plantation, rows of workers’ cottages with front porches and tile roofs. Unlike most sugar plantations, the Hershey operation paid weekly wages, instead of hiring and firing workers seasonally. The Hershey village had a medical clinic and grocery store, and he provided this little worker community with a school, complete with playground, and its own power plant generating electricity, as well as sewers and a water supply. All of this was in the name of productivity, but there was also a fascinating and admirable humanitarian intention manifest in this way of doing business.
Milton Hershey guessed wrong about the longterm stability of Cuba when he chose his sugar plantation location for its proximity to the U.S., and when Castro came to power in 1959, Hershey enterprises were closed down. Today the plantation is a jungle, and the workers' village is a ghost town, but the train still runs. Alice Ziplinksy would have had something to say about this, probably an identification with Hershey's good intentions being thwarted.