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Hershey: Not just about chocolate

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By Victor Block

My recent visit to the Hershey-Harrisburg area of Pennsylvania revealed a destination of surprises. If you think of Hershey primarily as a Mecca of chocolate, that’s only part of the story.

Nor had I been aware of the temptations the Amish face from the world beyond their isolated enclave.

Nor did I realize that Harrisburg is home to a world-class Civil War museum at least equal to anything the deep South has to offer.

My wife Fyllis and I arranged our trip as a three-generational family gathering. Not surprisingly, when our grandchildren entered the Hershey complex they thought they had been transported to heaven. At Hersheypark, they couldn’t run fast enough from ride to ride, clambering aboard as many as they could — including several of the 11 roller coasters — during our time there.

Other attractions had different appeal. The Hershey Story is told in a museum packed with surprisingly interesting displays, many of them interactive. Fyllis was intrigued by a touch-screen that allowed her to design a candy bar wrapper and e-mail it to herself — to what end I have no idea.

Every family member enjoyed tasting five mini-bars. We allowed the chocolate to melt on our tongues, as instructed, while trying to distinguish a wine-like list of textures (from smooth to granular), smells (including woodsy and fruity) and tastes (citrus, coffee, nutty).

But it was an hour-long “trolley” ride around the sprawling campus that, for the adults, left the most lasting impression. The children loved seeing the Hershey Kiss streetlights and tastings of four more samples. Their parents and grandparents were more interested in fascinating stories of how Milton Hershey’s innovative production and marketing techniques in the early 20th century transformed chocolate from a high-priced luxury to an affordable, and increasingly popular, treat.

An even more lasting impression was left by an account of the establishment of the school that carries Hershey’s name. From an origin of four orphans taken into their home by Milton and his wife, that institution now provides free pre-kindergarten through high school education, and much more, to about 1,800 underprivileged children. Graduates who go on to college receive generous scholarship support.

Introductions to a very different lifestyle await those who visit the Amish area a short drive from Hershey. About 30,000 people make this the second largest Amish community in the country, after one in Ohio. In their desire for religious tolerance, the Amish began arriving in Pennsylvania during the late 17th century. They evolved into a thriving part of society, merging comfortably into it while maintaining their customs and lifestyle, with a focus upon God and family.

Among practices to which they cling are the use of horse and buggy rather than cars for transportation, eschewing electricity in their home, and adhering to dress codes that dictate modesty such as solid colors for women and girls and straw hats and dark or black clothing for men and boys.

It’s not difficult to identify houses occupied by Amish families, because of a lack of electric wires leading to them, wash often hanging outside to dry and traditional green shades covering the windows.

Our introduction to the Amish way of life included an outstanding multi-media presentation called Jacob’s Choice, which depicts the difficult decision faced by some teenagers about whether to remain in the fold or venture into the outside world. We also explored a typical Amish home, where guides provide interesting additional tidbits about day-to-day living.

We gleaned even more information from a young, bearded Amish man named Joe, our driver and guide during a jaunt with Abe’s Buggy Rides. He patiently answered the questions we fired at him about everything from why cars are forbidden (they could carry people too far from their family and community) to the reason education is compulsory only through the eighth grade. “That’s sufficient for our way of life,” he said, which centers around farming and cottage industries.

The peaceful life of the Amish contrasts starkly with the bloody story of the Civil War that is dramatically portrayed at one of the largest collections in the world devoted to that conflict. A visit to the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg is timely, as the 150th anniversary of the start of the fighting is being observed.

Information-packed videos and realistic life-size dioramas that tell the story of the war are reason enough to plan a visit. Even more telling are letters from individual soldiers and similar artifacts that put a human face on the Civil War and its tragic consequences.

There are other sightseeing options available to those who visit the area. The Antique Automobile Club of America Museum is packed with beautifully restored vintage vehicles dating back to the 19th century. Some lucky visitors to the compact Pennsylvania State Police museum may see cadets at the firing range or learning crowd control on horseback. Indian Echo Caverns is an underground neverland of color, shapes and intriguing history.

If you go …

Information about visiting the Harrisburg-Hersey area is available at visithersheyharrisburg.org, or by calling 877-727-8573.

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