August 4, 2019

Milk delivered by horse power

Milk wagon photo courtesy of Gloria Thrasher. Tokens and Eloy bottle photos by Jeff Fournier.

In the early days of North Bay, it wasn’t practical for everyone living in town to keep cows for their nutritional needs. It was independent farmers living in the rural areas of town (not the downtown core) who satisfied the town’s appetite for dairy products.

Cows were milked by the farmers early each morning and the milk was transferred to various sized containers and loaded onto wagons for delivery to homes, restaurants and hotels.

The ‘milkman’ became a familiar site in town as did the horses. Most everyone on the delivery route knew both by name.

“We got our milk from Silverwoods Dairy and our milkman was Walter Martin and the horse was named Silver.” 

Bob Wallace

Early in the 20th century, the milk was dispensed directly from large metal cans or earthenware jugs into a receptacle provided by the customer. Although economical, this represented a considerable health risk, since milk exposed to the air was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.

Eloy's Dairy Bottle
Eloy's Dairy Bottle

The glass bottle was soon adopted to alleviate this problem. It not only limited milk's exposure to the harmful bacteria, it also made distribution easier.

At first, round glass bottles in the shape of a bowling pin were used for the milk, but by the 1940’s, a more easily transportable square bottle was adopted.

“I remember North Bay Dairy's horse-driven "buggies" we called them. My sister and bro-in-law used to work there. First thing we kids used to do was to hurry up with a piece of bread in our hand and dip it in the cream at the top of those glass bottles. Yummy!”

Leona Parisien-Buckner

Milkmen handled payment in different ways. Many customers had an account and the driver kept a record of what was delivered, collecting money for milk purchased on their customers’ pay days. Many customers put a note in the bottle (especially if they had an account) with the money. Drivers always carried a money pouch to make change.

“Older houses had a cubby hole in the wall for the milkman to use. Money was left in an empty milk bottle to pay the bill. We did have a problem with some bad kids down the street who would wake up early to steal the money from the milk bottles.” 

Kevin Normore

In later years, milkmen sold tokens directly to their customers. Dairies encouraged such sales by offering discounts of one bottle for every twelve purchased. Tokens were put out with the empties on the step or into service boxes and collected by the milkman in exchange for products.

A token for the Milk Man.
A token for the Milk Man.

Not every dairy issued tokens. Some, such as Eloy’s Dairy, preferred to extend credit to customers and settle accounts on a regular basis. For those firms that did issue tokens, however, these pieces had advantages: they eliminated the risk and inconvenience of using cash. Drivers were not put in jeopardy, and customers did not have to look for exact change. Using tokens helped to ensure that bottles were not destroyed but returned, saving thousands of dollars each year.

Unlike cash, tokens were useless to early-morning thieves who took advantage of money left in bottles. A token's physical nature also benefited the deliveryman. Some tokens were shaped so that they stood upright in the necks of the empties, and their colour alerted the driver to the type and quantity of milk desired before he even reached the customer's door.

Tokens were also useful for the merchant in that they were a form of inexpensive advertising. They gave the merchant money in advance of providing the goods or service. They saved the merchant from using cash to make change or small purchases, and they ensured customer loyalty. Unlike cash, tokens could be redeemed only at the establishment of the issuing merchant.

A token good for one homogenized
A token good for one homogenized "Pitcher Pac."

Most tokens were made from aluminum. They were typically valued in units of milk or cream. The most common values were one pint and one quart, which was ideal for household use. Many North Bay residents who can recall this era may remember North Bay Dairy or Silverwood tokens, for example.

After World War II, large grocery-store chains began to offer customers convenient and direct access to milk products. Since more of them could be delivered to the store than to the home, there were considerable savings for the distributor. This resulted in a decline in home delivery and by the 1960s, home delivery waned and the milkmen, horses and dairy tokens disappeared.

By Jeff Fournier



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