farmer with milk bottles PS2A8Y9

Memory Lane: The Milkman Mentor

Memory Lane banner

I always had an independent streak. From an early age, I wanted to blaze my way into the world. First, it was the paper route, which was pretty boring and the pay wasn’t great. Even small tips were hard to come by. During my rounds, I would wave to the man who delivered bread and baked goods for Weston, and wave to the Borden milkman. My earliest memory of a milkman dated back to early childhood. The milk was delivered by horse and wagon. Can I be that old? I remember looking at that great big creature wearing blinders, wondering what kind of beast it was.

Little did I know that one day, I would work for a milkman; one with a truck.

Promising Prospects

And so, I quit the newspaper business. I found work with the milkman on Saturdays and when school was out. The years must have been 1968 and 1969. Somewhere Ken Kesey’s 1939 International Harvester school bus was making its way to Woodstock. The summer of love had come and gone, but being too young, I hadn’t been able to partake in it anyway.

The milkman wasn’t very tall and had curly hair oozing out from under his cap. He wore his uniform proudly. He was strong, thanks to handling all those milk jugs day in, day out. Great with customers, he was often able to “up sell” since he had items on hand other than milk. And he wasn’t condescending toward me. I tried to emulate him. I didn’t have a uniform. Being a kid, I had a pass.

His truck was a bit rough; not that I cared. If memory serves right, it was a Divco-Wayne. It had a manual transmission and accordion doors, one on each side. There was a big, heavy wooden door at the back. Behind the driver’s seat was a wall the width of the truck with a metal sliding door. The truck had the unmistakable Borden graphics and colors, which included Elsie the Cow. This was one busy bovine, Borden arguably being the largest dairy product distributor at the time. I never once saw a competing milkman on the road.

Early Riser

The milkman left around 5am every morning, six days a week, and drove about an hour to the Borden plant. He picked up his supplies for that day and drove back to his territory. We lived in a suburb of a large metropolis. Not only did he sell milk, but he had an assortment of light and heavy cream, butter, eggs, chocolate milk, and even juice. Eggnog at Christmas time. If I’m ever at death’s door, all they need to revive me is an IV of eggnog in my arm. That’ll snatch me back from the Grim Reaper’s bony grip.

There was a folding seat on the passenger side. The seat itself folded up into the back-rest. When the truck was overloaded during the holidays, crates were stacked inside the cab and I had to sit on them. Thankfully, I had a cushion for such occasions to put on top. The milkman had something like 400 customers listed in his gray hardcover ledger. The ledger had become swollen over time, although the spine remained unbroken. He noted everything in pencil and each client had a page or half a page. Not that he had to visit each one of them every day, but during Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, we had to step it up and see nearly all his customers. That’s when crates of extra goods were piled inside the cab.

1948 Divco delivery truck at 2015 Shenandoah AACA meet 2of6
A restored 1948 Divco Hull’s Dairy truck on display at the 2015 Shenandoah Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) meet. Photo: Christopher Ziemnowicz.

Daily Grind

On his way back from the plant, he would pick me up around 7am in front of my friend’s house. I remember one time getting up when it was still dark. There was a woodstove in the basement where I slept. I proceeded to put a log on the fire as the room felt a bit chilly. Half asleep in the early dawn, I noticed a log in front of the stove, wondering what it was doing there. I quickly brushed that thought aside and went to pick it up. It got up on its four legs and walked away. It turned out it was the cat. Smart cat. I would eat a quick breakfast and grab my lunch bag which consisted mostly of sandwiches my mother prepared. I was very grateful when noon rolled around as I was always famished.

Saturday was the busiest day of the week, and I would put in a 12-hour shift; longer during the holidays. I loved it. In addition to delivering dairy products, we often collected money for the purchases each customer made during that week. I was a bit of a stickler, and once in a rare while argued with customers who didn’t want to settle what they owed. I reasoned the milkman was paying me to do my job. I was never mean, simply business-like.

Tricks of the Trade

Back then, the milk crates were made of heavy gauge metal wiring with small loops at the top for stacking. Unfortunately, they would get bent from a lot of handling and often get tangled, much to our displeasure. One time, he got angry. We were at the back of the truck and he struggled to untangle a couple of stuck crates. He politely asked me to step away from the door opening. He eventually pried the top crate off, jumped onto the pavement with the crate, and threw it as far as he could (which was pretty far). If milk crate tossing had been an Olympic event at the 1968 Mexico City games, he would have won gold. He didn’t say a word as he put the crate back in the truck and we drove off.

This took place in the parking lot of a high school where he was supplying coffee cream and milk. We had to check the milk dispensers in the cafeteria and if they were out, we had to remove the empty bag, and install a five gallon bag of milk. Milk, like water, is heavy. When I first started, the gallons of milk were in glass bottles, not plastic, which would become available around 1969 along with plastic milk crates.

Living up north, we had to contend with the changing seasons. Winter could be a challenge. The truck windows would frost over as we constantly opened and closed the doors. We scraped the windows more on the inside than the outside. The heater was next to useless and the wipers were vacuum operated, if I’m not mistaken. There was a small fan inside a metal cage, but it did nothing. Not in winter. Not in summer. Despite ridges, the metal steps leading in and out of the truck would become very slippery when wet or iced over.

1948 Divco delivery truck at 2015 Shenandoah AACA meet 3of6
Photo: Christopher Ziemnowicz.

Unsteady Greenhorns

A couple of days before Christmas, fearing an extremely busy day, the milkman hired an extra helper. He was a bit older and taller than me. He was rearin’ to go. At one point, he was next in line to make a delivery. The boss explained to him where to go and what to take, which was a gallon of milk in one of the new plastic containers. It was snowing heavily. The door was open and the new hired hand was ready to make his delivery just around the next corner.

As the milkman turned left, the new guy slipped off the icy step and fell flat on his ass in the middle of the intersection. The milk jug hit the pavement and the impact pushed the cap open, spraying milk all over the unsuspecting kid. Luckily, there was no traffic. The milkman and I looked at each other briefly, and realizing that the ejected delivery man was no worse for wear, we burst out laughing. The slush had cushioned his fall. He got back in the truck, his ego bruised more than his derriere. We continued on. He made his delivery and completed the day’s work, but I never saw him again.

Beautiful Girls

Summer was more fun. We’d ride around with the doors open, taking in the scenery. The oil crisis hadn’t hit yet and it was the heyday of muscle cars. The big three were churning them out; even AMC was in the mix. You had GTOs, Mustangs, Barracudas, AMX. And all divisions within those companies were producing pavement-tearing machines like Camaros, Chargers, Cobras, and Marlins. The list goes on.

It was around that time I became interested in girls. I liked one in particular. She had an afro. She was into teen magazines. I recall seeing on one of the covers a photo of The Monkees. They were older and hip. How could I compete with her fantasies? Ironically enough, her father drove the ice cream truck. The jingle was the magic rallying call for all the neighborhood kids to gather ‘round.

“I’ll have a soft ice cream cone dipped in chocolate, please.”

Hearing that jingle all day long would have driven me bonkers had I been the ice cream man.

food truck 1662327 1280

Bittersweet Work

Besides the usual seasonal woes and crappy crates, delivering milk wasn’t always a bed of roses. I remember a German Shepherd jumping out from behind a fence, barking his head off. He scared the living daylights out of me. The milkman made my delivery that time. At the end of the day, we would restack the empty crates at the back and keep what was left over at the front, behind the sliding door. The truck was ready for the next day. After a job well done, the milkman would drop me off at my friend’s house, less than a block away from mine. Cash in my pocket; I would admire his uncle’s car. He was an accountant and drove an orange Corvette, a convertible at that. That put a gleam in my eye.

My father was transferred out of town because of his work and so regrettably, it was the end of my career delivering milk.

Farewell Elsie

The meandering roads we enjoy traveling are about more than just passenger cars. They are also about big rigs and little rigs delivering most, if not all the goods we take for granted in life. Sure, we often find it annoying to be stuck behind a semi or slow moving van for any length of time. That being said, a lot of us have wondered what it would be like to drive a 16-speed Kenworth or Peterbilt and talking on the CB.

“Papa bear is hiding behind the billboard.”

Are CBs still in use? Or have they all been replaced by cell phones?

The days of people delivering baked goods and dairy products are gone. The name Borden remains here and there but the company I knew is no longer. Bits and pieces of what survived were sold off or scooped up by other businesses. Borden Dairy ended up in Texas, but is nowhere near the size it once was. I cherish the time I spent working for a milkman and I am happy to see there are a few old Borden trucks still in existence, showing off their bright, yellow accented paint schemes and graphics. If you see a funky old bus or an old delivery truck zoom by, wave at it. Its occupants will be thrilled.

As Spock would say: “Live long and prosper, Elsie.”

Michael Bellamy is the author of our Memory Lane series, a collection of work that examines the unique relationships we have with automobiles. Bellamy has held a number of interesting jobs over the years, including a helicopter pilot and chauffeur to high-ranking politicians. He enjoys driving his 1997 Lincoln Mark VIII LSC and 2003 Dodge Dakota. 

More photos of the 1948 Hull’s Dairy Divco truck by Christopher Ziemnowicz can be found here.