I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent last weekend up at my grandparents, and I scanned in over a hundred old photos. Here are a couple of them, along with an essay my grandfather, Murray Anderson, wrote at some point for a local newspaper about his days as a milkman in Bracebridge, Ontario, in the late 40s and early 50s. I don’t know which one, or when, or how much of it was published. This was the draft he sent them, and so I’m republishing it at its full length with pictures from his old albums.
It’s a pretty great collection of stories about a very different world, when horse-drawn carriages shared the road with cars and trucks. I lived and worked in Mennonite Country for a year after graduating school, so it’s not a totally foreign concept to me, but somehow it never quite sunk in just how much the horse decides where it wants to go until I read this essay. Throw in the steep hills of Muskoka, and the icy winters up there, and you can see just how much a willful horse like my grandfather’s Queenie could change the whole business of getting around town.
A day in the life of a milkman in the 1950s
Refrigerators were non-existent for the working man. Ice-boxes were what some could afford, the rest of us just let the kitchen tap drip on the milk bottle to keep it cool in summer (also let it drip in winter to keep the pipes from freezing, but that didn’t always work – these were in the days before central heating, running water, and indoor plumbing for the working man).. Milk delivery was a 7 day a week affair in the summer months and 6 days in the winter, which meant a double load for delivery on Saturdays.
In those days most of the roads were graveled and were not scraped bare in the winter and salted. The snow was just spread out even, and it got packed down with use, so you ended up running on snow ice. The only places that were sanded were the hills and the main street. In the spring, when the ice started to break up, roads took on a different meaning!
Trucks were plentiful, but horses were very much in use for delivery vehicles for bread, milk, bags of coal, blocks of ice (which had been cut out of the lake in the winter time, and stored in Ice Houses), fire wood, as well as general delivery for some stores, and jobs like snow plowing side walks, and don’t forget the honey wagon!
This man’s routine started at 5:30 am doing the East and South (Ward 4) hilly part of Bracebridge. I would arrive at Bracebridge Dairy at the north end of the Main Street where Country Doughnut is now located. The two horses would hear me coming and I would hear them thumping their feet and calling out. I generally looked after both horses in the morning and the other drive (Bob Green looked after them in the evening. I would clean my stall, feed and water both horses hay and grain, harness “Queen” and hitch her to her wagon (on rare occasions the sleigh) lead her to the loading shoot and load up for the first of two routes, with a light feed and watering between routes. By the time we hit the road it would be about 6:30 am.
Milk sold for 16 cents a quart, regular milk with cream on top (a little later, homogenized milk came on the market). In the summer time the milk would expand and seep past the cap and create a little puddle of cream on top of the milk bottle, some times, the customer’s (or neighbour’s) dog, could hardly wait for me to put the bottles down, so they could slurp up this goody!
In the winter the hazard shifted to the neighbourhood kids. The milk would start to freeze in the bottles, forcing an inch or two of frozen cream straight up with the cap sitting on top. The kids would lift the cap, bite off the “Popsicle” and put the cap back on (the dogs didn’t seem to care about the popsicles).
When you finished the route you unharnessed, fed and watered the horse again, brushed her down, checked her feet, dug out any stones you found, bathed the hooves with oil, and then I would be through, about 2 or 3pm.
When we took our week’s holiday, Chub (Chub and Ken Downey were our employers) would do our routes with the truck, and the horse went out to a farm to pasture, so she got a week’s holiday.
During my day many unusual events could happen. Some I have forgotten and some I will never forget. I will mention a few of the unforgettable.
On those -40F winter mornings the road ice would be hard as rock. The corks on the horse’s shoes would not penetrate it, going down hills with a full load of milk was a daily experience horse and driver didn’t look forward to. It was necessary to go down Ann Street (past the hospital) down that hill, cross the railway tracks to get to River Road. The horse would stop at the top of the hill and wait for me to lead her. First I would listen to hear if any trains were coming. When I was sure all was clear the fun began! As we started down the hill with a full load of milk, with me leading and the Drag under the tire (not very effective in winter). Queenie could hold the loaded wagon back until the hill got too steep, then we would run down the last section, cross the railroad tracks and down the next bit to the level. On those real cold winter mornings it worked out a little different. As we slid down the hill, her in a sitting position, until we hit the railway tracks, her hind feet would then come under her and we would run down the rest of the way together!
Our second route (not as heavily loaded as the first) went down the Salvation Army hill (Ontario Street) crossing the main street (where the four-way stop is today) and cross over the small bridge by the Birds Woolen Mill (no longer in existence). In those days the main street was No. 11 highway (there was no by-pass). The traffic on a Saturday was bumper to bumper and the following event happened on a Saturday, about noon. We made the turn at the top of the hill to come down, as the weight of the load came against the horse, the hold back strap broke, allowing the wagon to surge forward and slam Queen in the rear. She jumped forward and I, surprised, grabbed the reins to stop her! This being a Saturday, the traffic was just crawling both ways across our path. I was hesitant to jump, so I just breathed a prayer and miraculously at the last moment, the traffic opened both ways. We went clattering across the main street, like a race horse, across the little bridge by the old water plant, coming to a stop when she felt the wagon pulling on her on the upgrade!
When you were doing your Milk Route you never drove your horse. The horse knew the route, all the stops, turns and turn-arounds and did them all without assistance. When the route was finished, she put her head down and headed for the stable, and woe-betide anything that tried to interfere with that! One day after finishing our route, down by “The Tannery Houses”, Queen was taking us back while I did my book work. I heard some men hollering in a foreign language behind us. After a bit when I got a chance I snuck my head out the door and looked back… in horror! We were coming around that long curved grade well past the Motor Park, nearing the Silver Bridge. What I saw when I looked back was a freshly laid asphalt road (on our side) with a barrier across our side. The horse merely went around the barrier (that thing shouldn’t have been across our road when I’m going to the stable and that guy yelling in Italian waving that flag, what was his problem?) Every place where one of her big feet came down, a big round chunk of asphalt came flying up. I quickly got her on the left side of the road and kept going, after all we were both heading for the stables!
On another ‘returning to the stables’ incident, I decided to stop and make a collection at our Pentecostal minister’s residence, on that Salvation Army Hill (going up this time). I had trouble getting away from the chatty pastor’s wife, and when I returned to the street the horse and wagon were gone! I went back into the house and phoned the dairy to report the missing rig. Ken was laughing when I told him, because the horse and wagon had just arrived at the unloading dock… without a driver! Queen had gone up the hill, made a right turn at the top, then made a left across two lanes (remember Highway 11) and continued to the Dairy. I wonder what the drivers she cut off thought!
I had several turn-arounds on my route and the one at the end of Edward Street was always interesting. I could never get Queen out of low gear unless I had a switch in the wagon to beat against the side. A good place to get a switch was along this lane. There was only about four houses along there and the brush grew right up to the road. You just had to reach out and break one off. Queen soon learned never to dally along on this stretch! When she made the turn onto this street, she would be gone! She would run all the way down this lane and I would have to do the deliveries on the fly. She’d make the turn-around in front of the last house on her own and take off back up the lane with or without me. There was never the opportunity to ever again break off a switch.
There used to be a retirement home for Anglican ministers on my route, up by Pine Street, and I usually got a coffee and snack there, while Queen waited. Some of these fellows were farmer types and used to baby the horse. There was this one fellow that always gave her sugar cubes, he was her buddy. One day while I was having my coffee someone came in and said my horse was trying to get into the chapel! I ran out and sure enough she had her head and shoulders into the vestibule of the little church, as far as the wagon shafts would allow. Those in couldn’t get out, and those out couldn’t get in! After I got her backed out of there and duly apologized, it turned out that the sugar cube man had died, and she had spotted a man that looked like him (they all had the same black robes) entering the chapel, and she wasn’t about to let him slip away without giving her some sugar.
On one of those turn-around occasions on York Street, she freaked (as horses occasionally do) and backed the wagon (one side) into a wide, shallow ditch. Then her left hind leg slipped in, when her front left leg went in, both horse and wagon fell on their side. The overturned wagon held her from getting to her feet. I was calming her, but she kept squirming and ended up with all four feet off the ground! What a predicament! Whenever I left her head to try to undo some harness buckles which she was lying on, she would start to panic. Finally, a farmer type passing in a truck stopped and gave me a hand, and between the two of us calming her and digging under her for the buckles, we got the harness loosened so she could get to her feet. All was okay, except for a lot of spilled milk!
One very cold winter day, I decided to take the sleigh, as it is much easier for the horse to pull than the wagon. All went well, until our last return trip. It was late February, started out very cold in the morning, but really warmed up during the day, a nice Saturday afternoon, and the sidewalks were crowded. The snow and ice on the main street hill, which had been salted, had melted, the only snow left was on the sidewalk. We had no choice, so up the side walk we went! I’ll never forget, people dodging into doorways, the surprised look on some folks’ faces, as they stepped out of stores to be confronted by a horse, huffing and puffing great clouds of steam, working her way up the hill!
I’ll finish with my fondest memory. One time when I had the flu and was off work for several days, Chub was doing my route with the truck. When I was finally feeling better, the wife and I decided to see if I could walk up to the dairy. As we were walking up past the park, coming down the road was my milk wagon and Queen. Chub was taking her out for a bit of exercise. As they approached me, on the other side of the road, Queen spotted me on the side walk and headed straight across the traffic to me. Chub didn’t see me and was trying to turn her back –but nothing doing- she came over and put her head on my shoulder! I guess she had missed me. I was real nice to her for the next few days.