Thursday, November 18, 2010

The milkman's son

(The milkman, a sight that most Americans have never seen.)

My father was a milkman. He drove a panel truck for Meadow Gold Dairy in northwestern Ohio to deliver dairy products to his customers, a job he held from the time he left the Navy after WWII until his death in 1961. You don’t see this kind of thing much anymore, but until the second half of the 20th century, delivery men were a common sight in America. There were men who delivered bread, tea and coffee, and ice before refrigerators were common. In addition, we had a guy who showed up regularly to pick up junk, like old metal, and another man who often stopped by to pick up old rags. There were others who sold crayons, brushes, vacuum cleaners, and encyclopedias. My dad delivered milk.

My father’s truck did not just contain one product. It was a veritable mobile dairy store. There was whole milk with the cream that settled at the top of the glass bottle in that “bubble” at the top of the container, skim milk, chocolate milk, cream, orange and grape drink, cottage cheese, butter, and even eggs. And during the summer months, he also sold ice cream, ice cream bars, fudgesicles, and drumsticks (now called nutty buddy). A couple of times a year, Meadow Gold cleaned out their freezers at the plant and my father would bring home dozens of these ice cream products. The weeks following a big score like that were full of happy days (usually after dinner) visiting our old chest freezer to see what sugary gem my brothers and I could find.

My father had a predetermined route that was his. He visited his customers several times per week, delivering whatever they ordered or needed. He knew each customer personally, by name, and he knew their families. Most of the time, he simply put what they had ordered in an insulated box on their front porch or inside their front door. At other times, the customer was home, and my father would spend several minutes talking to them about the affairs of the day, or how their children were doing in school, or about the weather. In those cases, he usually brought the product into their house and inserted it right into their refrigerator.

Our house was in town but, of course, we also had a Meadow Gold delivery man who brought our milk. His name was Elmer. Until the late 1950s, the in-town men used a horse-drawn wagon to carry the milk. The kids in my neighborhood loved to visit Elmer’s horse when we heard it clomping up our street. The horse knew exactly where each customer’s house was, and so it stopped in front of each, just as it had done thousands of times before. Elmer stepped out of the wagon with his metal cases of glass bottles while the wagon was still coming to a stop. The clacking of glass against metal and of horses’ hooves on the pavement are synchronous sounds I can still hear when I close my eyes. But even in those days, this system of horse-drawn milk delivery was considered an anachronism. Other dairy companies had long since phased this out. On occasion, our father would take us to the Meadow Gold horse barns downtown to see the entire collection of neighing relics that had no idea their working days would soon be up. I always loved that trip.

In those days, my grandmother, who was a severe diabetic and totally blind, lived with us. During the day, she was the only one at home. On milk delivery day, Elmer brought the milk up to the house, opened the front door, which was never locked, and put the milk in the kitchen fridge. But the verbal exchange usually went something like this: “Hi Mom”, says Elmer. “Hi Elmer, how are you?”, my grandmother would repeat, while sitting in her rocking chair in front of the radio, where she listened to Paul Harvey about this time every day. They would talk for a few minutes. “It seems cold today. Be careful out there Elmer”, she would say. “I will Mom”, and off he went. It was taken for granted by us then, but my mother relied on Elmer to be an additional check on her invalid mother during the day when my mother had to work. It takes a village to raise our seniors or, at least, it used to.

The best part of my father’s job for me was the day he would let me go with him on his appointed rounds. This did not happen very often, and in later years the company forbade this practice. But on certain summer mornings when I was 7 or 8, my father returned to our house in his truck after having loaded it at 4am while I slept. It was exciting to check out the inventory in the back of the truck before we embarked. Then, my mother sent me off, and for the rest of the day I was Bob Gavin’s boy, the milkman’s son.

I remember speeding from house to house down country roads traveling 50 mph. I stood in the passenger-side doorway, which was completely open, and my father either stood or sat in a swivel chair as he drove. Seat belts did not exist then. Sounds crazy dangerous, but I remember how exciting it was to watch the ground fly by as I stood in that open door, holding on for dear life. When we got to a house, I went with my father and helped carry a quart or two, unless he warned me to stay in the truck because of an unfriendly dog. He had a variety of techniques for fending off the meanies. On occasion, we raced each other back to the truck. How can it be that these races always ended in a tie?

In general, I felt useful, and I got to see first-hand how much people genuinely liked my father. I believe this is an extremely important attribute of parenting. When a child sees that other adults like and respect their parents, the child is even more likely to believe that the parental instructions they receive daily are sound.

And then we had lunch. My mother packed her artery-clogging bologna sandwich (we now know); I always had mayo but my father only used mustard. I got to pick any drink I wanted from the back of the truck. Orange or grape drink or chocolate milk. What kind of a mood am I in? My father and I drank straight from the same bottle. We were working men, and real men don’t need cups. But the very best of all, and that which I remember to this day, was the way the cottage cheese tasted. It came in cardboard cartons with a pull-top cardboard lid. I never seemed to have a spoon, so my father showed me how to fold the lid into a scoop and to dip out the goodness with that homemade implement. Once again, I don’t know if this is a romantic memory, or a fading memory, or actual fact, but cottage cheese has never tasted as good to me to this day.

By mid-afternoon, we had finished the route and my father dropped me off at home. He returned to the plant to empty the truck and turn it in, then to do paperwork. My father worked about 14 hours a day, six days a week. I have never been able to comprehend how he was able to do that, week after week. I do remember how common it was to watch him napping on the living room couch in the evening.

Years later when my wife and I were living in Tucson, Arizona, I came home from the university to what my wife thought would be a pleasant surprise. She had flagged down the local milkman and signed us up for home delivery. I got a huge smile on my face until she showed me the bill. It was much more expensive than what we could buy dairy products for from the store, so I made her cancel the arrangement. All across America, people were making this same decision, which led to the extinction of delivery men of nearly every stripe. I was being practical, and I felt sick about it.

I was always proud of my father and the work that he did. I didn’t learn until I was a teenager that he held a job that most would consider to be low-status. When I was young, it seemed important and it was a job the value of which anyone could understand. My father promptly delivered a commodity that you needed, to your house, with a smile and with good humor. And what could be more genuine than that? At any rate, for me, the memory of it all will always remain as pure as the sight of cold, white milk in a clear, glass bottle.


  1. I knew there was a reason we hit it off so well virtually! My Dad was also a milkman, for Hunding Dairy in Chicago, and he also started in the days of the horse-drawn wagon. I have heard so many similar stories: how the horse knew the route and the only problem was getting her to learn a new stop when Dad got a new customer; about how the horse would bloat her stomach every morning when dad put on the harness so she could walk out of it (Dad had to knee her in the stomach to cinch it up tight enough); about how the horse always mistook the flashing red lights on the railroad gates for apples and would bolt for them unless Dad kept her under control when a train was coming. My grandfather was also a milkman for Borden Dairy for 40 years! I'm giving away my age but I remember the bottles with the cream on top and fighting with my sisters over who would get to drink the cream every morning. Great memories; thanks for sharing.

  2. Barbara: nice set of memories. You know, my wife and I just found an old Meadow Gold quart glass milk bottle with the creamer on top on eBay. Not much competition for that item, so we got it. The best memories float to the top of that bottle and settle in the creamer for easy access.

  3. My dad was a milkman at Hunding Dairy as well during the 1960's and 70's before they closed and Wanzer took over that plant. This was after the horses and wagons had vanished, but the stalls and gently sloping ramps in the building remained and reminded me of those early days. I too thought my dad's occupation was noble and didn't think of it as being blue collar. I just used my memories of these times and riding in the truck, yes with doors open and no seat belts Tom; as the impetus for a short speech I am to give for my Toastmasters club. Thanks for sharing your memories of your father Tom!

    Tom Heebner
    Summit, NJ (formerly of Chicago, IL)

  4. Tom:

    Yes, these are great memories of a different time. You are not the first child of a milkman who has responded to this anecdote. Good luck with your speech.

  5. My dad worked for Dairymen's in Cleveland, Ohio during the 60's through 80's. He use to cook the books and got caught, "borrowed" milk to feed his burgeoning family, and kept a huge bar tab up at Heiberts. I remember him coming home more than once once so drunk he fell asleep in his spaghetti. One day he came flying into the driveway with a 55 gallon drum jammed under his car. All the neighbors not only saw this, they heard it as well. He really aspired to be nothing in life and died drunk. He bitched about everything. When I turned 18 I joined the Navy and never returned.

    I am truly, truly ashamed at being born into such a dysfunctional family. Ahhhh, memories.

  6. Closest Inseminator: our memories of our fathers are obviously very different. Your depiction of your father falling into his spaghetti and coming home with a 55-gal drum under his car are almost humorous. But I am sure they are not that funny to you now. Now, the important thing is to create great memories for those around you.

  7. My dad and grandfather was a milkman for Hunding Dairy. Had a horse drawn wagon. Grandfather in 1930 and my father in 1940's.

  8. Loved your stories. Our Hunding dairy was also delivered by horse and wagon. The horse's name was Teddy and our milkman's name was Walter. I identify with the stories of riding in the wagon. Walter would chip off a chunk of ice for us. Sometimes we got to hold the reins, but only going down the alleys. We had a small grocery store on 75th st. in Chicago. We moved from Chicago in 1952. I wish my children/grandchildren could experience times like these. I have a great picture of Walter with Teddy and us kids.