A two-alarm fire devastated a popular restaurant and smorgasbord in Strasburg Township last week, causing millions of dollars in damage.
Crews were dispatched shortly before noon on Jan. 10 to the Hershey Farm Restaurant & Inn in the 200 block of Hartman Bridge Road (Route 896). The 23-acre property sits adjacent to Sight & Sound Theatres, which itself was destroyed by an intense fire in January of 1997.
Members of the Strasburg Fire Company and the Pennsylvania State Police encountered heavy smoke and fire coming from the rear of the main restaurant complex at Hershey Farm, consisting of an inn with multiple building and rooms, a bakery, gift shops and offices.
Firefighters immediately upgraded the blaze to a second alarm, eventually bringing out at least 24 different fire companies and more than 40 pieces of apparatus to the scene.
Crews worked to contain the fire to the main 17,000-square-foot central restaurant building of the complex, setting up ladder trucks to hit the flames from above.
Thick clouds of smoke could be seen around the countryside as most of the fire was brought under control within an hour.
State police said the business was closed at the time of the fire and the building was only occupied by 10 employees who were able to evacuate safely.
An evacuation tone was signaled during the blaze, ordering all firefighters out of the building.
Tanker trucks from around the county made their way up Route 896 to the scene, providing water to douse the flames. Water from a pond at the rear of the property was also used to battle the fire as a pair of swans swam near the spray of one of the tanker trucks.
Initial reports indicated the fire started on the roof of the structure. Employees of the business said work was being done on the roof of the restaurant while it was closed for the season.
A State Police fire marshal conducted a preliminary investigation and determined the fire to be “accidental in nature.” The fire marshal also said the blaze “caused a multi-million-dollar loss to structure and contents,” but an exact dollar amount was not provided.
“Today has been a difficult day for the Hershey Farm family, but we are feeling blessed and truly appreciative of all the prayer and support through this time,” a message posted on social media said last week. “We are so thankful and grateful to the brave firefighters and first responders that were truly amazing and supportive.”
By Tuesday afternoon, most of the emergency crews had left the scene as small pockets of flames were extinguished by firefighters in ladder trucks and on the ground. Large sections of the roof and parts of the exterior walls of the building had collapsed.
Demolition crews arrived by 4 p.m., using construction equipment to pull down parts of the loose exterior and to pile debris. Most of the building was demolished by Wednesday.
The 60-room inn and a carriage house that also has guest rooms on the property were not impacted by the fire.
Route 896 remained closed to traffic between Bachmantown and North Star roads until 5 p.m. as curious onlookers drove by to see the damage to the building with the sun setting in the background.
Several planes and helicopters could also be seen flying over the property, including an ultralight plane that flew low near the scene.
Patrons and fans of Hershey Farms were quick to offer tributes on social media for the restaurant and property originally opened in 1975 by Ed Hershey, one of the founders of the former Good N Plenty smorgasbord in Smoketown, and later owned and run by Tom Zeager. The current owners of the facility include Zeager’s son, Clair, along with Bran Ludwig and Deryl Stoltzfus.
The owners said they were making plans to rebuild the restaurant.
New York City resident Diana Franzese, who runs the social media influencer page “NYC Mami on the Move,” posted a message and a video about her experiences at Hershey Farm. Franzese said she stayed at the inn four times, saying each time was a “wonderful stay.”
“This place wasn’t just a regular hotel, motel, inn,” Franzese said on her post. “They were a family, and they made you feel like family when there. You could go in any time if day or night and they’d make you a fruit smoothie or ice cream sundae at the front desk.”
Marie Ilardi of Garden City, New York, said her family had been customers for decades at Hershey Farm. Ilardi said she has many family photos of her children standing next to Amos, the well-known statue of a 10-foot Amishman holding a hay rake that stood at the former Zinn’s Diner in Denver and is now located on the Hershey Farm property.
“Take comfort from the many prayers and fond memories posted on your page…because these are testaments to the place your family holds in so many hearts,” Ilardi said in her message. “We’ve celebrated many family birthdays, enjoyed so many meals, some with family no longer with us, celebrated when Covid restrictions were lifted and sent many friends your way.”
New Holland resident Ruth Schultz, whose family are part owners of Hershey Farm, posted pictures at the scene of the fire, including one of a flock of geese flying overhead as a ladder truck sits in front of the building and another of several firefighters sitting in porch rocking chairs as they watch a backhoe move smoldering debris. Schultz called the scene “surreal.”
“Thank you for all the prayers for my family as they seek Gods wisdom in all the decisions needing to be made,” Schultz said in her message. “And thank you Jesus for everyone’s safety yesterday.”
Staff writer Michael Yoder is an award-winning journalist who has been honored with several Keystone Press Awards for his investigative pieces. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @yoderreports on Twitter.