Sweet memories

I may not be a Naugatuck native, but I know what it’s like to grow up in a chocolate town. I come from “the sweetest place on earth,” Hershey, Pa.

For most of my friends, Hershey was their first employer. Whether they worked at the factory, Hershey Park, Chocolate World, or the Hotel Hershey-where you can get a whipped cocoa bath, chocolate bean polish, and a chocolate fondue wrap at the Chocolate Spa-my friends were steeped in the lore of chocolate from an early age.

In high school, one of my brothers worked as a bus boy at the hotel while the other dressed up in overalls and guided children through Kiss Works, where they pretended they were factory workers. At the end, my brother sold overpriced Hershey Chocolate Kisses and factory worker badges to the poor parents conned into this tourist trap.

For those of us who grew up with the whiff of chocolate in the air, candy was a force of good in the world. The founders of our chocolate kingdoms are our saviors and our saints. They are untouchable. Nothing happens in Hershey without consulting the will of the great Milton Hershey. We can’t build a new road without asking, “Is this what Hershey would have wanted?”

Milton Hershey and Peter Paul Halijian have similar stories, legends which we natives know by heart.

Both Hershey and Halijian started out poor and went through many trials before finding success in their candy empires.

Hershey’s first attempt at his own caramel business began in Philadelphia in 1876.

Halijian began selling ice cream and candy in Naugatuck and Torrington around the same time. He began making his own candy out of a New Haven loft in 1919 and relocated to Naugatuck in 1923.

After several failed attempts, Hershey finally broke ground on the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1903.

From then on, it’s a success story. While their businesses prospered, both Halijian and Hershey became known not only for their quality products, but for their philanthropy as well.

While Naugatuck was built as a rubber town, the town of Hershey was pure chocolate. Hershey built the town for his workers and filled it with housing, parks, an amusement park, a community center, swimming pool, and schools. He cared for his workers, just as Halijian cared for his.

In 1909, Hershey established a school for orphans, now the Milton Hershey School. He gave most of his wealth and his ownership in the Hershey Chocolate Company to the school. Today, the school is probably one of the richest orphanages in the world. It has a $7.5 billion endowment, according to a recent article in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg.

Peter Paul famously raised salaries and doubled the size of Mounds bars during the Depression. During World War II, Peter Paul’s “flee fleet” reported U-Boat sightings to the Navy while heroically continuing to ship coconut through war-torn seas. Despite sugar rationing and chocolate shortages Peter Paul delivered 80 percent of its Mounds to our troops.

For nearly 100 years, the Hershey chocolate factory in Pennsylvania and the Peter Paul factory in Naugatuck were a symbol of the town’s riches.

Then Hershey bought Peter Paul from Cadbury and shuttered its original Naugatuck factory in 2007, moving production of Mounds and Almond Joy to a factory in Stuarts Draft, Va. Now they’re doing the same in my home town.

Competition from other states and overseas is forcing the company to concentrate its resources on newer, more efficient facilities.

Hershey isn’t just a big corporate employer in our town. It is our town.

In a deal with the chocolate workers union, Hershey agreed to relocate the factory nearby, but they’ll still be cutting about 500 jobs. That’s a lot in a town about the same size as Naugatuck.

Meanwhile, the building sitting vacant for the past three years in Naugatuck is set to be torn down.

In Naugatuck or Hershey, I’ll be missing the smell of chocolate in the morning.