After the founding of the Hershey Chocolate Co. in 1894 and Henry Oscar Wilbur’s move to Lititz in 1902, Lebanon County became a neighbor to two of the biggest names in American chocolate.
Less well-known are the handful of chocolatiers and industry players that made their home in Lebanon. Though few in number, these businesses are notable in the county’s history with chocolate.
King Chocolate Company
On May 28, 1921, a charter notice for the King Chocolate Co. was printed in the Evening Report. The new business was the creation of Jonathan F. King, Reuben F. King, and Harry R. Miller, and it began with capital totaling $35,000. The construction of a factory began in August and was finished and in use by December.
According to the charter, King Chocolate was concerned with “manufacturing and selling chocolate, cocoa, chocolate candy, and other articles of similar character[.]”
The factory was built on South Race Street in Richland, on a property of less than half an acre. By the start of 1922, the Evening Report reported on Jan. 25 that 29 employees were working there. “Richland has the proud distinction of having the first chocolate plant in Lebanon county,” the Report printed. “[P]resent indications are that before long this new industry will develop into one of the leading plants in this town.”
Unfortunately, King Chocolate only lasted about a year. Faced with competition from “the larger concerns of kind,” the company executed a deed of assignment at the start of 1923 and was put up for public auction later that year.
By 1930, the factory had been purchased by Arthur Ross for use in producing potato chips. In fact, the Ross Potato Chip Co. is notable for the installation of the first continuous chip fryer in the industry.
Wirth Chocolate Company
Aldus Wirth was a professional chocolate man. With almost three decades of experience in Hershey – he had been “connected with the Hershey interests” for 27 years and had served as factory superintendent – Wirth decided in 1922 to head his own chocolate business in nearby Cleona. The Wirth Chocolate Co. was born and construction began that summer on a plant.
The plant was finished and began operation in late 1922, producing chocolate coating, liquor, and “several varieties of chocolate candy.” At least 12 mixing machines were housed inside the two-story brick building. According to a December 1922 issue of the Evening Report, a Wirth batch of chocolate took 96 hours to produce.
Wirth and his family moved to the town of North Tonawanda, New York, in September 1925, and he continued his career in chocolate there. It’s unclear if the company kept operating after Wirth’s move, but in May of the following year it was purchased by George J. Darkes for $16,000 and it was eventually dissolved in 1927.
The Wirth building still stands today on the corner of North Washington Street. For some time after the company’s shuttering, it served as a warehouse for the Lebanon Steel Foundry and in 2016 the Lebanon Daily News reported a new fire siren had been installed on the building.
Over the years, Hershey has constructed some components of its expanding operations in Lebanon County. In fact, the latest addition opened at the end of 2021 with Hershey’s Annville Fulfillment Center.
One of Hershey’s early forays into Lebanon was a wrapping factory located at 12th and Walnut streets. The building was previously used as an automobile factory and now houses Jubilee Ministries.
In the spring of 1910, Hershey leased the building and began hiring young women to wrap chocolates. A notice in the Lebanon Courier and Semi-Weekly Report on Oct. 4, 1910, reported that almost 200 employees were working at the facility, “making from $1.75 to nearly $2 a day.”
Under the management of Robert B. Coppenhaver, the plant was the recipient of loads of unwrapped chocolate, four tons at a time, coming directly from Hershey. After being wrapped, the chocolates would be shipped out from Lebanon to the rest of the country. The Courier added that “a carload lot went to China” just the previous week.
The time at the Lebanon factory was apparently brief, as by the summer of 1911, the work and 30 of the Lebanon employees had been transferred to the company headquarters. Hershey had further plans for Lebanon County, and while a 1911 plan to develop another wrapping facility in Myerstown seems to have fallen through, the company did build up several milk supply stations located in Lebanon, Myerstown, and Elizabethtown, as noted in a 1920 column in the Lebanon Daily News.
The “Milk Department” of Hershey established a new pasteurization plant in Lebanon in 1926, advertised in the Lebanon Daily News. Much of the ad serves to inform the reader about the process of pasteurization, which was still relatively unfamiliar to the general public. The U.S. Public Health Service had developed the Standard Milk Ordinance as a guideline for milk processing regulations in 1924, though states did not begin enforcing pasteurization until decades later.
The address of this plant was not included in the ad, but thanks to a reader tip from Bruce Gingrich, we’ve identified that the plan operated at 926 Elizabeth Street during this period.
Aside from these Hershey facilities, there’s at least one other notable chocolate connection that Lebanon can boast. James Lick, born in Fredericksburg in 1796 and known for his business dealings in California, moved to South America in 1821. After moving his piano-making business first to Argentina and then Chile, he found himself in Lima, Peru.
While in Lima, Lick made a friend of his neighbor and local confectioner, Italian-born Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli. Lick departed for California in 1846 and arrived in San Francisco in 1848 with 600 pounds of Ghirardelli’s chocolate. When the supply quickly sold out, Lick convinced Ghirardelli to move from Peru to San Francisco. There, in 1852, Ghirardelli founded the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co.
What can you say? Lebanon Countians have a taste for chocolate.
Special thanks to Pat Rhen for providing personal research.
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This article was updated to include more information on the address of the Hershey dairy plant in Lebanon.