The Best Thing I Did For Kitty
Carole Hite Welch served as librarian for the Hershey Derry Township Historical Society from 2007 to 2020. The following article was her last written for the organization and was based on her unique connection to the Hersheys through her great grandmother.
My great grandmother, Luise Zinner, wife of Franz Zinner who came to Hershey in 1910 to build the Zoo, lived with us until her death in 1949, at which time I was 14 years old. The stories she shared with me supplement the following account drawn primarily from the publications of Charles Castner in Milton Snavely Hershey: One of a Kind and Debra Wescott’s master thesis and biography of Kitty Hershey.
Milton Hershey married Catherine Sweeney in 1898. Early into the marriage, Kitty Hershey demonstrated some physical weakness, allergies, hay fever, and asthma. Milton took her to multiple specialists in the United States and Europe—“…the best medical men of London, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna”—who told them that she was “showing evidence of a congenital nervous disorder.” In 1908, a doctor in Vienna told them that Kitty’s gross motor skills would continue to deteriorate and eventually her fine motor skills as well. He recommended that Milton hire a companion for her who could assist her as her mobility decreased, and recommended a woman by the name of Bertha Condoni.
Bertha was a widow who lived in Vienna and worked with other women of similar circumstances in caring for people who could not live without assistance, also including some occasional work with young children. Bertha agreed to serve as Kitty’s “traveling companion,” an arrangement which Milton claimed later as “the best thing I ever did for Kitty.” Thereafter she traveled back and forth to Europe, packing and unpacking steamer trunks and hand luggage, as well as keeping them aware of special activities being celebrated throughout their travels because she was fluent in several languages – Austrian, Bavarian dialects from German, as well as French, Italian, and English. Later she accompanied them to Hot Springs in Arkansas, to the Colorado Rockies, and also to the New Hampshire highlands – places where Catherine could breathe easier. On these travels within the United States, they also had a nurse/physical therapist with them.
When the Hersheys returned to reside in Hershey, Bertha agreed to continue with them, and added Housekeeper of the Highpoint Mansion to her responsibilities. Subsequent to the founding of the Hershey Industrial School orphanage, Bertha also participated in periodic meetings with Kitty and Prudence Copenhaver, wife of the Headmaster of the orphanage, to discuss the educational and residential programs for the boys. Her suggestions were useful because of both her experience in Vienna with placements of young children and her Bavarian roots, as Bavaria fostered the Kindergarten movement.
In 1910, Mr. Hershey brought Franz Zinner to Hershey to build the zoo, and Bertha became very close friends with his wife Luise, since they came from the same area in Europe. When the Hersheys were home, Luise was at the Mansion nearly every day, initially to visit with Bertha, but her activities increased to assisting when the Hersheys entertained, finding people in the community who could use various items of furniture, clothing, etc., being disposed of when new were bought, helping Bertha pack and unpack clothes and personal items, and eventually assisting Bertha in her care of Kitty as her physical condition deteriorated. Though initially Kitty was able to get out of bed by herself, later she needed assistance from Bertha, and ultimately, it took both Bertha and Luise to get her up and dressed. When the Hersheys entertained for dinner, before serving plates of food, Luise would cut items on Kitty’s dinner plate into pieces which were easy for her to manage with her decreasing motor skills.
Kitty’s death in 1915 made living at the Mansion difficult for Milton, so he, Bertha, and Nora Stohler, who assisted Bertha in caring for the properties, moved to 246 East Caracas Avenue. In the 1920 Census, the occupants at 246 East Caracas were Milton S. Hershey, Bertha Condoni and Nora Stohler. Mr. Hershey had built the house for his mother, but she chose not to live there, preferring a more modest home across from the chocolate factory, leaving the “Green Gables” house vacant. Milton picked out items from the Mansion that he wanted – furniture, china, rugs, silver, and more – that were taken to the Green Gables. The three of them would go to the Mansion each day, have breakfast, after which Milton went to his office to work while Bertha and Nora did various housekeeping activities, returning to Caracas Avenue at lunch time. When Milton went to the office, he would take his dog Prince along in the car and the chauffeur would bring him back home to Bertha.
Gradually Milton began spending more time at the Mansion, but Bertha remained in the Green Gables house. After Kitty’s death, Bertha had joined Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and participated in community events such as the Big Fair described in The Hershey Press of May 4, 1916, where she was an unnamed waitress in the “German Kitchen.” When Nora married and moved away, day workers assisted in the care of the two locations but did not live in the Caracas Avenue house.
Milton, forever grateful for Bertha’s devotion to Kitty, allowed her to continue to live at Green Gables, and provided a young girl to assist her as she grew older. In 1934, the house became the permanent residence of W. Allen Hammond (Industrial School principal), his wife and two children. This arrangement allowed for Bertha and her assistant, Julia, to live on the third floor for about a year and a half. Mrs. Condoni was hospitalized several times during that period. Eventually, Bertha went to live her final two years with a niece in California, but she always kept in touch with Luise Zinner and what was happening in Hershey. Milton provided a fund to cover her expenses until her death.
In an oral history by one of the first four Hershey Industrial School students, Nelson Wagner answered the question, “Were you to breakfast at Mr. Hershey’s home?” Nelson related, “Yes, we were at his home for breakfast and when he left we used to have the run of the Mansion. I always thought the carpet bounced when you walked on it. …We’d run all around the Mansion. He had a lady there that took charge of the Mansion and she saw that we didn’t get in trouble. I always enjoyed that.” That lady was Bertha Condoni.
Milton Snavely Hershey: One of a Kind by Charles Schuyler Castner (1983, Derry Literary Guild)
The Inspiration of Sweet Success: A Portrait of Catherine S. Hershey, Wife of Milton S. Hershey, masters thesis of Debra Wescott, graduate student at Penn State (May 1998)
It Was Kitty’s Idea by Joseph A. Brechbill, (2004)