Now, 100 years later, young Cubans have their hearts set on a cultural project to breathe new life into the former chocolate town.
hershey cuba
Former Hershey factor. Photo credit: Claire Boobbyer

Just as chocolatier Milton S. Hershey realized his ambition —an American model town and factory in Cuba— one hundred years later young Cubans are pinning hopes on their dreams of breathing new life into the island’s forgotten sugar town.

Havana architect Renán Rodríguez plans to salvage the industrial legacy of Cuba’s Hershey sugar plant, boost the town’s economy through cultural projects, help open B&Bs, and restore the famous electric train line.

“What I love about Hershey, and the only electric railroad on the island, is what it represents in Cuba, what it means to the people who live there, and its potential to revitalize the local economy,” said Rodríguez, who grew up in the sugar-producing town of Güines, 21 miles south of Hershey.

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Rodríguez’s platform —Cultural Project AI&P – art, industry and landscape— aims to foster culture, events and rehabilitation projects within the town, the rail route, and erstwhile sugar factory of Hershey. His group’s cultural showcase La Planta —a revamp of the town’s huge electric plant— kicks off this renaissance.  

“The dream I’ve been pursuing with the people of Hershey is that La Planta will be a unique place in Cuba. And as an artistic and cultural trigger, key to economic development in the area.

hershey cuba

“I’m inspired by successful industrial landscape revival projects like the High Line in New York and Zollverein in Germany,” said Rodríguez, referencing the elevated rail line turned park and cultural space in the US, and the once largest colliery in Europe now a huge hub for design, architecture and entertainment in Germany.

Hershey town, renamed Camilo Cienfuegos after the 1959 Revolution, lies baking in country dust 32 miles east of Havana.

Hershey town, renamed Camilo Cienfuegos after the 1959 Revolution, lies baking in country dust 32 miles east of Havana. The mill was closed by the Mayabeque Sugar Company in 2002. Its buildings are disintegrating —all awkward rusty iron limbs— like a giant arthropod slowly fossilizing back into the ground. But in 1920, Cuba’s Hershey was at the vanguard of sugar production, its sweet stuff poured into American chocolate bars and Coca Cola. Hershey harvested from 90,000 acres of Cuban soil —an area just a little larger than the island of Grenada— for his candy bars back home. And molasses, a side product, were sold straight to the Arechabala rum factory up the road.

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The enlightened Hershey first fell in love with Cuba in 1916 and the town and mill he built in 1917, based on his model town of Pennsylvania, promised hopes and dreams. Lucky locals grew up with a cinema, golf course, baseball diamond, school, general store, and homes in colorful American chalets neatly spaced on wide, flower-lined streets. Regular work at the giant plant which cranked into operation in 1919 sustained life; weekends were spent bathing in the beautiful palm-tree graced Hershey Gardens’ lakes, a short walk up the road. 

Hershey first fell in love with Cuba in 1916 and the town and mill he built in 1917, based on his model town of Pennsylvania, promised hopes and dreams.

In Laimir Fano’s 2007 film short Model Town residents rhapsodize about life in ‘ersi,’ as locals pronounce their home town, when streets were filled with the smells of ground coffee and chocolate. 

One resident recalls: “Everybody wanted to live here.”

“When we told people we were from Hershey they told us we must be millionaires,” a resident tells the camera.

Hershey’s railway, built in stages from 1917 to 1922, eventually running along 251 miles of track to shunt sugar cane to the mills and crystals to ports sparked up with electrification in 1922. The train once creaked slowly three times a day from Casablanca, across the bay from Old Havana, to Matanzas, shuttling locals and farm workers along the north coast route. Tickets cost 1.40 local Cuban pesos to Hershey (US$0.5), where the railway station, hitched to the northern end of the town, still carries the original name, and 2.80 (US$0.11) to Matanzas. Spartan carriages would swing and sway through cane and country pulling in at 46 local stops —mostly platforms in fields— along the way. But problems in the last few years means today it only runs on a branch line from Hershey, eight miles southwest to Jaruco.

“When we told people we were from Hershey they told us we must be millionaires,”

Hershey, Cuba resident

Hershey invested what would be almost a billion dollars in today’s money into five Cuban sugar mills. He rode the rip-roaring ride of Cuban sugar prices when the beet fields of Europe were devastated by World War I, raking in 30 million pounds of sugar in 1920. But by the end of World War II, his holdings were sold.  

Hershey’s high-rolling heyday has long since vanished but AI&P’s ideas for the small town of 2,800 residents offers hope for this unusual corner of Cuba: an interactive gallery inside La Planta with 3D models of Hershey to showcase the landscape of the area; theatre and cultural events; virtual reality tours, and guided tours of the industrial heritage, winsome Hershey Gardens, homes with verandahs and antique railway system, as well as train trips on restored track.

Hershey invested what would be almost a billion dollars in today’s money into five Cuban sugar mills.

“We’re also dreaming of Tomorrowland-style sounds and Benny Moré’s Giant Band, and audiovisual sensations like the Moulin Rouge,” Rodríguez says.

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To date, pop-up events of dance, music, and photography exhibitions have taken place at La Planta. Cuban singer-songwriter Gretel Barreiro wowed a gathered crowd on a specially lit stage; later she taught Hershey youngsters in a music workshop. Residents flocked, too, to a display of historic photographs of the town and mill, mixed with drawings by children of the area in a refurbished part of La Planta.

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Regular events would put Hershey and La Planta more firmly on the map for visitors who explore the nearby beaches and attractions of Jibacoa, Canasí and Puerto Escondido. Those curious about Hershey, and riding the working elements of the electric train, would also come and stay, Rodríguez thinks. 

Six years ago Cuba witnessed the rebirth of a riverside industrial complex—the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. The former peanut oil factory converted into a pioneering cultural centre in Havana, was named by Time Magazine as one of the world’s Greatest Places 2019, and is buoyed by public-private partnership.

fabrica de arte cubano
Fábrica de Arte Cubano was built in a converted peanut oil factory.

Revitalizing life at Hershey would help shake up the town’s economy bringing social and economic benefits to locals. Nearly all the workforce of Hershey were employed by the sugar mill until it was decommissioned in 2002. AI&P’s vision is backed by a large cross-section of supporters: the National Council of Cultural Heritage, Old Havana planners, the local council, Mayabeque Sugar Company, International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage, Cuban NGO Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, art-focussed Ludwig Foundation, and international forward-thinking Friends of Havana. At the moment financial resources are tapped in Cuba but the hope, Rodríguez says, is for more local and international investment in AI&P’s venture. 

As Cuba once heaped praise on Milton S. Hershey —awarded one of the country’s highest honors, the Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in 1933— for his “truly admirable organization on Cuban soil,” so AI&P wish to lavish today’s Hershey with the devotion it needs for a 21st-century comeback. 

(For more about Renán Rodríguez and Proyecto Cultural AI&P_ arte, industria y paisaje visit them on Facebook.)

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Claire Boobbyer is a freelance travel writer who writes travel features for the UK national press as well as international media, mostly about Cuba, Vietnam and Laos. She's also written articles about Central America, South America, and Morocco. As a travel guide she's led tours for Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, and New York Times Journeys among others. Claire is the author of the newly published Havana Pocket Precincts Guide (Hardie Grant) as well as the last three editions of Frommer's Cuba. She's been visiting Cuba for 20 years and the island is her second home.

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