Where: On the Susquehanna River, south central Pennsylvania
From Toronto: 617 km
Ottawa: 710 km
Montreal: 825 km
Windsor: 780 km
Niagara Falls: 496 km

Harrisburg/Hershey Tourist Office
Antique Automobile Club of America
Appalachian Brewing Company
Atomic Warehouse
Hotel Coupons

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Article and photos by Paul Williams

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Harrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania

The thing about road trips is that once you get started, it’s hard to stop. On a recent trip to Florida, for instance, my first night was spent in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but from there it’s a temptingly short drive east to Philadelphia, which of course is well worth a visit if you have the time. Or you could jog west towards Pittsburgh, stopping in to tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater house en route.

Gettysburg is also nearby, site of the biggest battle – and the acknowledged turning point – in the American Civil War. Its National Military Park features 1,000 monuments and cannon and over 60 kilometres of scenic avenues, along with a museum and visitor centre, guided tours and a living history program. Gettysburg is visited by two million people each year.

So you see what I mean: one can get sidetracked.

But Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, is also the site of many interesting events and attractions, although it may be most familiar to auto enthusiasts for its proximity to the nearby town of Hershey (just 20 minutes away, via US 322 E). If you know anything about cars, especially vintages ones, you may know that Hershey is where you’ll find the Antique Automobile Club of America’s national headquarters and its celebrated Auto Museum.

Harrisburg/Hershey, PennsylvaniaHarrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania
Harrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania. Click image to enlarge

The museum is open all year, throughout which Hershey is the site of numerous car-related events, chief among them the annual AACA Eastern Regional Fall Meet, or “Fall Hershey.” The AACA describes this event as one of the largest antique automobile shows in the United States, hosting over 9,000 flea market spaces, 1,000 car corral spaces and approximately 1,500 show cars. It’s held during the first full week in October each year.

“The Elegance” at Hershey is a new event that aims to feature the highest quality concours vehicles in the eastern U.S. Focusing on pre-1960 cars, “The Elegance” is the place to see pristine vintage Aston Martins, Pininfarina concept vehicles, Allard J3s, Bentleys, Porsches and Delahayes, along with an array of classic racing cars. A two-day hill climb – The Grand Ascent – precedes the event, the third of which is scheduled for June 12–14, 2013.

Fall Hershey and The Elegance at Hershey are destinations in their own right, although for those with a sweet tooth, the word “Hershey” will also conjure up images of the famous chocolate bar, along with the company’s other tasty confections (Reese’s Pieces, anyone?). What you may not know is that the popular Hershey’s Chocolate World offers a range of free chocolate-related experiences including the Hershey’s Great American Chocolate Tour ride, Hershey’s Chocolate Tasting Adventure, Hershey’s Really Big 3D Show and the largest selection of Hershey’s products found anywhere, should you need to stock up. If you need more chocolatey experiences, nearby HersheyPark is a major theme park with 12 roller coasters, 9 water attractions and over 65 rides to entertain you. It’s “The sweetest place on earth,” according to the promotional material.

As you may expect, given the size of the Hershey Company, it was this enterprise, under the direction of its founder Milton S. Hershey, that established the city that now bears his name. What’s confusing is that down the road in Harrisburg, the Hershey Creamery makes a popular brand of ice cream, and while the name is the same, the company isn’t. It’s a strange coincidence that Jacob Hershey and his four sons founded the creamery at about the same time and in the same area as Milton S. Hershey was setting up his chocolate company. Both enterprises took advantage of the vast dairy industry that existed in this part of the Pennsylvania, but they were not related, nor are the companies to this day.

Since their formation, things have not gone smoothly between the two companies. Lawsuits regarding the name were launched regularly through the decades, although currently things are quiet. As it stands now, The Hershey Company is supposed to stay away from ice cream; and The Hershey Creamery doesn’t do chocolate bars. This didn’t stop the Hershey Creamery from introducing its own brand of “Kisses” at one point, however. That was a bit bold.

Harrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania
Harrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania
Harrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania
Harrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania. Click image to enlarge

So the Harrisburg area turns out to be an interesting place to visit, although the city itself has some interesting attractions. It’s a picturesque city of bridges, a dozen of which span the Susquehanna River (although not all are in operation). The Market Street Bridge (formerly the Camelback Bridge) is particularly notable for its huge art deco lamps and appealing overall design. Design is also a key feature of the impressive courthouse at the foot of Market Street, which crisply blends modern and classical elements and looks as if it could have been built last year as opposed to six decades ago.

The house of John Harris Jr., founder of Harrisburg, still stands on Front Street, and fittingly is now the location of the local historical society. Numerous old residences have been restored in Shipoke, giving the area an almost nautical ambiance. Such buildings would surely look at home in St. John’s, Newfoundland or in a coastal New England town. The Riverfront Park across from Shipoke is an excellent venue for a long stroll, recalling the city’s industrial and cultural past with historic markers along the way. You can also visit the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum, tour the State Capitol building or cruise the river on the Pride of the Susquehanna riverboat. It’s a paddlewheeler.

But a key destination for me in Harrisburg had nothing to do with the city’s history, and you won’t find it in the list of “things to do” posted on the helpful “Visit Hershey and Harrisburg” website. No, The Atomic Warehouse is something else entirely. A cornucopia of pop culture material from the 1930s to the 1970s, I’d wanted to visit this place for years, having scored a mint 1955 Zenith Flashmatic TV remote and an unusual Firesign Theatre poster from proprietor Steve Perlman via his website.

Really, nothing can prepare you for Mr. Perlman’s warehouse. First of all, it doubles as his home, the three floors of this turn-of-the century commercial building connected by an industrial elevator big and strong enough to move a car into his living room should he be so inclined (there were two motorcycles in the building when I was there, one in the elevator and one in Mr. Perlman’s kitchen).

This is a place where you’ll find anything mid-century modern, from radios to clocks; lamps to vacuum cleaners; toolboxes, wristwatches, vintage audio, furniture and appliances. There are old clothes, signs, posters and indeed the occasional car. Mr. Perlman’s giant TV is flanked by equally outsized horn speakers from a dismantled movie theatre, and rare Philco Predicta televisions fill whatever empty spaces can be found.

Mr. Perlman also stocks probably the world’s largest supply of original spare parts for just about anything domestic and old. He is a walking compendium of household esoterica, able to list off each of the models of kitchen stoves made by General Electric in 1962, along with their colours and accessories. He knows everything about vacuum cleaners through the ages, and likely has an example or two of each of them. He is fascinated by refrigerators, pumps, fans and table lamps, rhymes off model numbers of transistor radios made by defunct Japanese companies, and is an expert on tube amplifiers. In short, he is a force, if somewhat overpowered by the results of his collecting mania (like many in the business of collectibles, he’s more adept at acquiring than selling).

The Atomic Warehouse is one man’s dream or folly, depending on how you look at it, and how Mr. Perlman feels on a particular day. If the right offer came along, I suspect he might be willing to sell everything – building and contents – so he could start over. Then again, he loves these bits and pieces….

Harrisburg/Hershey, PennsylvaniaHarrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania
Harrisburg/Hershey, Pennsylvania. Click image to enlarge

Around the corner from The Atomic Warehouse, the Appalachian Brewing Company on North Cameron Street is a great venue for dinner. It’s located in a three-storey brick and heavy timber structure built around 1915, and is the first brewery in Harrisburg since 1951. Most of their handcrafted ales and lagers are available in draft or bottles, and while waiting at the expansive bar for a meal, you’ll meet some of the regulars, all of whom are keen to talk beer. Interestingly, the building – a former printery – was sold by the City of Harrisburg to the Appalachian Brewing Company’s founders for $1.00, the price reflecting the massive renovations required to bring it to commercial standards. It’s a great example of how entrepreneurs with a vision and a creative local government can revive and transform abandoned industrial areas.

While in Harrisburg, we stayed at the Riverside Comfort Inn (nicely located) for the grand total of $59.00. With a king bed, free parking and wi-fi, you really can’t beat this and I doubt there’s anywhere in Canada that can match such a rate for the quality of room and service provided. Heck, at this price they even throw in a hot breakfast for two!

That rate, by the way, was found using a site called hotelcoupons.com, which turned out to be our ticket to good quality, low-cost accommodations for the duration of our road trip in the US. The technique is to stop into each state’s Welcome Centre, typically located a few miles down the road from the state boundary, pick up a Hotel Coupons booklet for that state, and check the numerous listings for discount accommodation. Participants include the usual US chains including Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Best Western and more. Even Expedia, my usual choice for pre-booking, was easily beaten by hotelcoupons.com ($80 versus $59 in this case). However, the Hotel Coupons rate is for walk-in customers, whereas Expedia actually books the room in advance. Our coupons were always honoured, however, even if they were generated on a smartphone.

With such a lot to recommend the Harrisburg/Hershey area, it’s hard to believe that Harrisburg, the state capital, is near bankruptcy. Don’t get me wrong, it looks fine. But it’s a small city (under 50,000 residents) and the changing economic climate along with a couple of natural disasters and, for those who remember, the small matter of a nuclear meltdown in the 1970s (Three Mile Island) have not helped. However, today’s explorer by road would be rewarded by spending a few days exploring this interesting city and its environs.

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