For the residents of Fulton, New York, there was nothing quite like waking up to the smell of chocolate. For a century, Nestlé operated a 24 acre plant in the New York town, manufacturing everything from Crunch Bars to milk chocolate. But what happened to this former giant? Jim Farfaglia explores the history of the Nestlé plant in Nestlé in Fulton, New York: How Sweet It Was. Read on for an exclusive preview of the book, and a taste of life in a chocolate town!
Ask anyone who lived in Fulton, New York, during the one hundred years Nestlé operated a factory there and they’ll surely mention this: the whole city smelled like chocolate. For those who never spent time in Fulton during Nestlé’s heyday, a town that smelled as good as a chocolate bar sounds like something out of a Disney movie, or a plot point in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And while you won’t find that fragrant fact recorded in history books, those who remember waking up each morning to the smell of Nestlé churning out millions of Crunch Bars and Toll House Morsels know it’s true—as true as any memory shared by thousands of people.
I can attest to that truth, not only because I grew up breathing in the sweet smell of chocolate but also because I’ve spent the last few years researching the Nestlé plant’s century-long history in Fulton. Every interview I conducted with those who worked in the factory or lived their whole life under its influence included some reference to that delicious smell. Without fail, each person chose to start their Nestlé story by mentioning the aromatic advantage of living in our city. Even those who knew I’d grown up in Fulton couldn’t resist explaining this important detail to me. It’s like they needed to say it out loud—as if by uttering those words, we could once again smell chocolate in the air.
Wouldn’t we all love to have it back again? Is there any sensory experience that compares to the alluring smell of chocolate? By the time Fulton began producing it, in 1907, the tasty confection already had a long history of enchanting those who’d sampled it. Our powerful draw to chocolate can be traced back three thousand years, when the cacao tree, producer of cocoa beans, became so important to the Mayans’ way of life that it played a prominent role in their mythology. Archaeologists uncovered Mexican drinking vessels dating to shortly after the birth of Christ decorated with symbols praising chocolate, and by the 1600s, it was part of religious celebrations such as the Days of the Dead, which included All Hallow’s Eve. Yes, Halloween always was a special holiday in Fulton, when children’s trick-or-treat bags were sure to hold plenty of Crunch, Almond, and Milk Chocolate Bars.
The smell of chocolate also brings to mind its strong association with love. Jesuit missionary Antonio Colmenero wrote a poem about chocolate’s mesmerizing qualities when he first encountered it in South America, more than four hundred years ago:
Twill make old women young and fresh,
create new motions of the flesh,
and cause them to long for you know what,
if they try but a taste of chocolate.
Colmenero brought his wonderment with chocolate back to Europe, and by the mid-1800s, people were offering it to their special someone on a holiday set aside to honor love: Valentine’s Day. Scientists eventually figured out why giving chocolate as a sign of one’s affection often feels so right. A chemical with an unromantic-sounding name, phenylethylamine, was discovered at very high levels in the brains of happy people, like those in love. Chemists also discovered phenylethylamine in equally large amounts of a certain food: chocolate. With such a long association with matters of the heart, it’s understandable how, when chocolate-making came to town, Fultonians would fall in love with its tempting fragrance.
The reality that our heartfelt association with chocolate was gone for good really hit home when the Nestlé buildings started being torn down. In 2010, seven years after the factory produced its last chocolate bar, the long process of demolishing its entire twenty-four-acre facility began. Certainly, we were all sad those first few mornings in 2003 when the air no longer offered its sweet wakeup call. But like many others, long after those buildings were dark, I held on to the hope that one day I’d drive by to see Nestlé’s lights on, hear the candy-making machines kicking into gear and smell the good news that Fulton was back in the chocolate-making business. That dream died when the first wrecking ball came to town.
Though I never worked at Nestlé, nor did any of my family, I found myself getting emotional watching those towering buildings topple. The first structures taken down were in the back of the factory’s campus, out of sight from our daily drive-bys. But when the teardown really accelerated in 2016 and you could see the change from a distance, I decided I needed a closer look at what was happening. Driving down Fay Street, where Nestlé’s main entrance was once located, the immensity of the demolition took my breath away. I pulled off to the side of the street, got out of my car and took it all in.
In front of me were dozens of mammoth refuse piles, each composed of a haphazard mix of broken pavement, shredded insulation, twisted rusty metal, collapsed plastic piping, moldy sheetrock and fragments of glass. But most of all, there were bricks—enough bricks to erect the dozens of buildings that once housed our busy chocolate factory.
Those mountains of weathered brick seemed like unrecorded history to me, as if knocking those buildings to the ground had released the memories of all that happened within them. Someone needs to capture these stories before they’re gone, I thought. As I stood and considered the end of Nestlé in Fulton, this book was born.
I didn’t have to look far to find people willing to share their Nestlé histories with me. On the day I took a visual survey of what remained at the plant, cars were slowly driving by. I noticed that many in the driver’s seat sported gray hair, and I was certain some were among the tens of thousands of people who once worked there. On the other side of Fay Street, a family walked by. An elderly gentleman—a grandfather, perhaps—was holding the hand of a small child. His other hand pointed to the array of debris as he told a story I could not hear but could imagine.
Others told me about this phantom chocolate smell near the factory site, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Chocolate hasn’t been produced on those grounds for fifteen years, so it seems unlikely that the familiar smell would still be lingering. On the other hand, as I learned from my interviews, there were manufacturing mishaps at the plant from time to time. Perhaps traces of chocolate seeped into the floors, walls and even the bricks that gave shape to those buildings. When they came down, along with brick, glass and metal, could bits of long-forgotten chocolate be among the rubble, just waiting for the wind to spread their scent across our city?
Standing near remnants of the plant on that autumn day in 2016, I couldn’t smell any hint of chocolate, but I did get a chill as I looked over those massive piles of bricks. Once, they were the backbone of a one-of-a-kind manufacturing facility: the first Nestlé factory in the United States, and for decades after, the largest chocolate-making plant in all of North America. In more ways than one, during all those years that Nestlé was part of our city, chocolate was as good as gold.
Heading back to my car, thinking about how to write this book, I imagined the time it took for each of Nestlé’s demolished buildings to be constructed, laborers laying them brick by brick. Now those bricks have fallen away, and each one represents a trace—a fragrant reminder, if you will—of the chocolate history that took place in our city. The time has come to hear the stories of those who made Nestlé’s century in Fulton a success.