Milton Hershey liked heavy, ornate Victorian furniture, carved from dark wood. His wife, Catherine, preferred a more modern style of decor, featuring soft colors and floral prints.
He enjoyed cigars with business associates downstairs in his billiard room. She had to spend a lot of time in her upstairs bedroom, battling a mysterious degenerative illness.
Traces of the life of the chocolate magnate and his wife, after they moved from Lancaster to the company town he founded in Dauphin County, are alive in the mansion they called home in the first half of the 20th century.
Before Pennsylvania’s recent COVID-19 mitigation shutdowns of many indoor attractions, the Hersheys’ High Point Mansion had been open for a sold-out series of rare public tours, offered by The Hershey Story museum.
“We knew (the tours) would be popular,” says Valerie Seiber, senior manager of historical collections and exhibitions at The Hershey Story. “But we didn't think they would sell out as quickly as they have.”
The tours have since been put on hold due to recent COVID-19 mitigation mandates issued by Gov. Tom Wolf. The Hershey Story Museum plans to return to scheduling tours once the restrictions are lifted.
The public clearly still clamors to get a glimpse into the domestic life of this successful couple, who entertained, traveled through Europe and left a legacy of a company town and a residential school during their 16-year marriage.
Their legacy resonates throughout this grand former residence, designed in Classical and Greek Revival style by Lancaster architect C. Emlen Urban.
Modest by comparison
A few weeks ago, Hershey Story staff offered a sneak peek of the mansion ahead of the tours that are being offered by permission of the Hershey Trust Co. — whose offices are located in the grand structure on East Mansion Road in Hershey.
In 1908, when the Hersheys moved into the home, it was a modest mansion compared to those of other business titans of Milton Hershey’s stature at the time, says Anthony Haubert, communications and public relations manager for the M.S. Hershey Foundation. George Vanderbilt, for example, spent about $10 million on Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, he notes.
“This might seem grand, Haubert says, “but (Hershey) was not really a showy person.”
Only three or four staff members worked for the Hersheys at any one time, Seiber says — a housekeeper, a houseman, a maid and a chauffeur.
“In total, the house was originally 22 rooms,” she says, and cost a little more than $100,000.
“Urban charged $53,000 to build the house, and we think they spent about another $50,000” in decorating and landscaping, Seiber says. The Hersheys opened their original gardens, designed by Philadlephia landscape architect Oglesby Paul — designer of Fairmount Park — to the public.
“The position of the High Point Mansion was really interesting,” Seiber says. “Milton Hershey put it here intentionally ... to be close to the factory. It’s also within the heart of the community. He really wanted people to know that he was here and he was with them and a part of the community as well.”
“One of the things I found so interesting,” Haubert says, “is this home was built right around the invention of electricity, so to have a house of this size totally electrified is pretty amazing.”
Hershey “stayed up with modern technology,” Seiber says.
Open floor plan
Inside the front door of the mansion is an expansive, circular foyer that formerly held a large crystal torchere lamp. Having seen it in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he had gone to buy chocolate-making equipment, Hershey bought it for $5,000.
The torchere is now on display at The Hershey Story.
“A unique feature of the home is the open floor plan,” Seiber says. “It was very open between the parlor, the dining room and their living room. Catherine Hershey was not a huge fan of this concept. She liked to dress more casually, and, of course, if an unsuspecting guest arrived, she was kind of caught not in her finest clothes.”
Between brown-leather-covered walls, the grand staircase leads to a landing featuring a series of wooden frames containing spectacular decorative stained-glass windows in blue, green and goldenrod hues. The stained glass throughout the house was created by Rudy Art Glass Co. of York.
While much of the original furnishings and artwork were sold at an estate sale after Milton Hershey’s death in 1945, Seiber says, the house is still furnished with the kinds of pieces that might have been seen at the time.
(Some of the home’s furnishings were repurchased years later, and are on display in The Hershey Story.)
Oriental rugs fill rooms such as the front parlor, with its periwinkle-blue walls, fireplace and recessed oval ceiling.
In the nearby dining room, “we are very fortunate that many of the furnishings in this room are original to when the Hersheys lived here, including the (dining) table, and the cabinets as well,” Seiber says. “They did like to entertain.
“A really nice feature in this room is a little hidden button under the table,” Seiber says. “It’s a service call bell. So when they were ready for the next course, all they had to do was push the button under the table.”
Located down a narrow hallway, and flooded with natural light through its large windows, the octagonal breakfast room is topped with more Rudy stained glass — this time featuring green foliage across a yellow background and black grid lines.
Also on the first floor is the Hershey Trust’s boardroom, which contains the Hersheys’ original gramophone and a painted tapestry the couple owned.
Seiber’s favorite room, she says, is Milton Hershey’s first-floor billiard room.
“It originally would have had the billiard table in the center,” Seiber says. “It’s a very masculine room” featuring heavy wooden paneling and a mural featuring scenes from the Walter Scott novel “Ivanhoe.”
“Milton Hershey’s (cigar) humidor was stored in this room as well,” in a pale-colored wooden cabinet decorated with art nouveau-style carvings, Seiber says. “I’d imagine after a dinner party, he and his gentlemen guests would come in and have some brandy and smoke cigars and maybe play a couple of rounds of billiards.”
Milton Hershey and Catherine Sweeney had met at a confectionery store in Catherine’s hometown of Jamestown, New York, while Milton was there on business.
After a short courtship, they married in 1898 in the rectory of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral; Milton surprised his Reformed Mennonite mother, Fanny Hershey, by bringing home an Irish Catholic wife 13 years his junior.
A copy of the Hersheys’ marriage certificate graces the hallway on High Point’s second floor.
The couple traveled in Europe when they were first married. On one trip in 1912, Milton had booked passage on the Titanic, but, fortunately, took an earlier ship home.
“When they were in Hershey, they were much more reserved,” Seiber says. “When they traveled in Europe is when they splurged a little bit more, when they were out of the public eye.
“Sadly, their relationship only lasted 16 years,” Seiber says. “Catherine suffered from a degenerative neurological condition that eventually ... contributed to her death in 1915.”
Before that, with no elevator in the home, she spent time in her second-floor bedroom, which is part of the tour. It features a brass bed and dressing table containing a 21-piece toiletry thought to be a wedding gift from Milton to his bride, Seiber says.
“Catherine’s taste was is a “little more modern, a little more flowy, with softer colors, softer material,” Seiber says. “We know the walls (of her bedroom) were painted a rosy pink color.”
Milton’s final years
In 1930, when he turned most of the house over to the new Hershey Country Club for its clubhouse, widower Milton Hershey lived in a small apartment upstairs that included his bedroom and a bookshelf-lined sitting room — where he liked to smoke cigars and read newspapers and business journals.
The corner of that sitting room remains much as it did when Hershey sat, reading and accidentally dropping cigar ash onto the side table that still bears the stains, Seiber says.
Downstairs, meanwhile, the wooden floors were occasionally being pitted by golfers’ spiked shoes.
When Hershey still lived upstairs, “they put on a solarium addition so that he would have some outdoor space as part of his private suite,” Seiber says. “He could come up here for breakfast ... At one time there was a much larger deck where he could go outside. And on the roof was originally a duck pond (atop the country club locker room). He became fond of the little ducklings. He was known to feed them.”
Following a multimillion-dollar restoration of the mansion, the Hershey Foods Corp. moved in in 1978 — the same year the home was placed on the National Register of Historic places — to use the building for its offices.
The company moved out during the late 1980s, and the Trust moved in in the early ’90s, restoring the house to part of its original interior design.
Vintage photographs that fill the mansion demonstrate the comparison for contemporary visitors.
“This house is special because it’s such a part of this community,” Seiber says. “It has served many, many functions over the years. For those of us in Hershey, we love Mr. Hershey, we love chocolate. (High Point) is just a part of his story.”