Bulk Milk Hauling in Iowa

  I grew up with big trucks the first half of my life. My family, and the words ‘dairy’ and ‘milk truck’ were almost synonymous in Iowa back in those days.

    During the Great Depression, my dad got a job driving freight truck for Des Moines Cooperative Dairy in Des Moines where his two brothers worked. His oldest brother was the dairy’s General Manager and the other brother had started a milk transport and freight line between dairies across Iowa and neighboring states. I have a newspaper clipping telling of one of Dad’s trips to Chicago with a load of butter when he and his partner were hijacked by gangsters at gunpoint, blindfolded, put into separate cars and driven around the city while their truck was being unloaded of its precious cargo. They were released unharmed at their empty truck outside of town.

     Like my dad, uncles and cousins, in my twenties I  began driving truck for the dairy too, though by then it’s name was changed to Mid-America Dairymen, Inc. Once a week, I hauled dairy products and farm supplies to other Mid-Am creameries around the state. A year or so later, I started driving ‘milktruck’ for a bulkmilk hauler on weekends, picking up a single Grade B milk stop from a dairyfarm north of town. I learned to go into the milkhouse, start the agitator in the tank and watch inside for any dead cat to go by who may have stretched itself too far trying to get a lick of milk, then drowned trying to drink itself to the bottom. All those 400 gallons of milk had to be dumped then, and it wouldn’t be the first time. Why that milkhauler kept hauling that one Grade B stop was beyond me, but he was paying me to do it.

    That seemed to be my break-in period until some Grade A haulers began asking me to drive for them on Saturdays and Sundays, allowing them a much needed break. I realized I could make a fair living being a relief driver as so many drivers were desperate for help. One guy said he’d pay me ‘anything you want’ to drive his route--not because I was necessarily that good, but because many of them were driving seven days a week all year long and were burning out. I declined his frequent offers because it meant pulling a pup tank trailer, an ungainly set-up I wasn’t confident driving.

    I agreed to drive for a Grade A hauler on the weekends who didn’t live very far from me on Des Moines’ southside. He had two much longer routes of over one hundred miles, that were south and west of Des Moines along the Missouri border then back north up through Winterset, Iowa, (where John Wayne was born, and “The Bridges of Madison County” was written and filmed). I would drive one route on Saturday and the other on Sunday, going back to Des Moines each time to unload at Anderson-Erickson Dairy. Then, once there spend hours more waiting to be unloaded.

    Training for these new routes seemed arduous compared to the once a week freight route and one Grade B route I used to drive. There seemed so much to learn. The boss drove an old red GMC 9500 with a 2500 gallon stainless steel tank on it that had seen better days. I learned to double-clutch, shifting slowly up to speed with the wave-like weight transference of milk inside a non-baffled tank. Southern Iowa is often very hilly country so a lot of shifting was involved. Fortunately, he purchased a new truck and tank before he allowed me out on my own, a big Ford with a five and three transmission (ultimately 15-speeds). One of my anxious points when the truck was fully loaded, was a one mile long, almost-imperceivable grade to climb, that because I couldn’t get a run at it, I was often down to almost first gear by the time I got to the top. Any gear faster than that was an improvement.

    I used to get up at 2:30 in the morning and drive ten miles to Norwalk, Iowa, on Des Moines’ southwest side (probably a suburb now) to get the truck. Sliding the big machine shed doors open at the route owner’s farm, I’d flip on the lights and just smile for the fact I would be driving the big beautiful chariot before me, a brand new Ford Louisville 8000 with clean aluminum wheels and a gleaming 4000 gallon stainless steel milk tank over twin-screw axles. The boss always had it fueled up and ready for me to go. I’d start the engine to build air pressure, switch on the cab and clearance lights, then sit idling the engine as I read any notes he left for me, before resetting the odometer, turning on the headlights and heading down the highway.

   A week or two earlier, the boss was driving a route I was learning. We were half-loaded with milk, weighing around 40,000 lbs, and were rocketing down a long steep hill on a white rock gravel road at the bottom of which was a old one-lane concrete bridge we would cross. Several head of Angus cows and calves dotted the close-shorn pasture on both sides of the road with no farm buildings in sight for miles. Three calves, each weighing maybe three or four-hundred pounds, were eating grass in the ditch close to the bridge, one of which took notice of us and our huge plume of white dust trailing close behind. Through clinched teeth, the boss told the calf to stay in the ditch and gripping the large steering wheel with both hands he held the big truck in the center of the road.

    But the calf would have none of it and as we bore down on him and his bovine brethren, he chose to race us across that bridge, a sight I can envision to this day from my passenger-side air seat, the wild-eyed calf so close to the truck and the narrow high-sided bridge that I could’ve grabbed its upright black tail from my window, just before it slipped on the loose gravel, stumbled and fell under the saddle tank that caught his hindquarters and swept it under the churning drivewheels of the truck, causing no more of a bump for us than would a pothole the size of a basketball. Through the side mirror, I watched the calf’s black body bounce, roll and slide through the dust to a stop far behind us, just as we ascended the opposite hill and disappeared over the top. We didn’t stop. There was no one to tell.

    Over the following weeks, I memorized turn-offs onto county roads and farm lanes, sometimes having to back-up an eighth of a mile into a place I couldn’t turn around once arriving there, using the side mirrors to wind around cluttered farmyards of parked cars, grainwagons, trucks, tractors or equipment commonly parked in the way of the milkhouse.

    Driving milk truck those years was enjoyable for me and was a continuance of a proud family tradition.


Chairman Joe said…
Ever wish you had kept that job?

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