The Dairy

My parents ran a dairy in a small town. The years were 1946 to 1956. The town was Wainwright, Alberta, about 135 miles southeast of Edmonton, with a population of nearly 3,000. I can only guess at the excitement and trepidation that overtook my parents on that December day when they were handed the keys, as it were. Their very own business! As for qualifications, my father had a six-week course in butter making and three years working for Woodland Dairies, one of the big Edmonton dairies. My mother was a schoolteacher. I would have like to have listened to them reach the decision to go ahead.

Running a dairy was an exhausting way to earn a living, dominated by the clock, subject to constant interference by authorities and changing rules, always short of good help, and facing the inexorable march of technological progress. In the end, the dairy was a delicate balancing act that, after ten years, perhaps simply wore my parents out. I often wondered later if my parents knew that in 1956, the days of small dairies were numbered.

The dairy occupied the western half of a one-story warehouse with Calgary Power housed in the eastern half. Our living quarters were crammed into the middle, with ‘crammed’ being the operative word.

There were five of us in the family, my parents, me, and two brothers, one older, one younger. In 1946, our ages were 8, 5, and 4.

In 1946, the dairy was equipped with a pasteurizing vat, a cooler that operated between the pasteurizer and the bottler, a bottling machine, a bottle washer, a can washer, a large boiler, a well with an electric pump (which meant we were one of only two places in town with running water), a scale to weigh the incoming milk, and a small centrifuge to test butter fat content. The premises also had a large walk-in cooler.

The living quarters were tiny, maybe 500 sq, ft. with kitchen, living room, 2 bedrooms, and a bathroom (a rarity in rural Alberta in 1946). Still, all houses were small then and we had no sense we were living ‘small”. My best friend, Donny, lived with his parents and four siblings in a converted single car garage.

We may have been the only dairy in town but we certainly did not have everyone as customers.   Some preferred raw milk and bought from nearby farmers. Others, like the fundamentalist Christian sects, in a rare display of a united front, decided my parents were the devil’s henchman and imported their milk from a creamery in Viking, 50 miles away. Free choice produces some strange results sometimes. Still others, fighting for every penny, resorted to powdered milk to save money. This wretched concoction was called Milko and was mixed with water to produce a ghastly simulation of real milk.

The dairy evolved substantially over those ten years. In 1946, the dairy owner had to travel to each farm to pick up the milk, return to the dairy and pasteurize it, cool it, bottle it, and deliver it. My father’s first move was to ask the farmers to deliver the milk to him. Being 5 years old, I have no recollection of how much argument this received but I’d guess there was some genuine foot-dragging.   From the farmer’s point of view, having to load a truck and drive into town after spending a few hours milking the beasts, could not have an appealing proposition. In any event, they complied.

Marketing was split between home delivery (retail) and wholesale delivery – the restaurants (3), one hotel, one beanery, and one hospital. Later, the army at the nearby camp became an on-again, off-again buyer. When they did, it was akin to adding another entire town. This, in turn, put pressure on staffing the dairy, and the milk production from the farming neighborhood. You can’t simply ask cows to increase their output – at least, not from what I’ve heard.

I don’t have many memories of those first 2 years but some hazy recollections remain.

It was cold. Everything froze. Everything. Home delivery was by horse and wagon. Babe and Bess, two seasoned Clydesdales knew the route but were no speed demons and it was difficult to keep the milk from freezing. Few houses had the little milk pass-through doors so common in the cities, so we either had to place the milk inside or roust the customer to take the order from us. Wholesale delivery was performed in our 1946 Fargo half-ton but getting it running in the morning was a constant problem. These were the days before electronic ignition and plug-in oil heaters and heated garages. Often a small smudge fire was started BENEATH the truck to soften the oil. The only covers available were tarpaulins and in really cold weather, they were as stiff as the laundry my mother hung out in freezing weather.

Indoors, the daily process was a simple one. Raw milk arrived in 8 gallon cans and after being weighed and tested, were emptied into a pump that delivered the milk to a 300 gallon (?) stainless steel tank. The tank’s walls circulated hot water to pasteurize the milk and a large propeller in the tank ensured the heating was uniform. If memory serves, the milk was heated to 143° F.

Another pump sent the heated milk up to the cooler, a tall series of horizontal water pipes carrying cold water. The milk cascaded over the pipes and into a trough situated above the bottler. Quantities were governed by a valve at the mouth of the pasteurizer.

Milk was sold in three sizes – quarts, pints, and half-pints. Our products were limited to pasteurized whole milk, chocolate milk, table cream, and whipping cream (the last two differing in the amount of butter fat).   Skim milk was a by-product of separating milk for the two creams but no one seemed interested in buying it in those days and my father used it to make chocolate milk.

The bottler filled two at a time. The first bottler was simple and involved placing two bottles beneath two nipples and pulling a lever to cnnect the two. When full, the two bottles had to be picked up and moved over to a capper, a device similar to the filler nipples. It was very time-consuming and tedious.   An upgrade early in the 1950’s allowed for six bottles on a simple conveyor and this speeded the process marginally. Both processes were prone to jamming and accidents.

Washing bottles at first was even more time consuming than filling them. Dirty bottles were placed in a tub of hot soapy water and allowed to soak. They were then taken, one at a time, and placed on a spinning brush.   As kids, helping our father, this required no small amount of concentration. The brush spun quickly and if we were careless about pushing a bottle on to it, it could send the bottle flying and, since we were likely standing on an empty milk case to perform this work, we could be sent flying too. Accidents were frequent and could be bloody, especially if a bottle had an unseen crack. Rugged gloves were mandatory.

The washed bottle was then rinsed, placed in a wire milk case, and the case placed in a steam cabinet. A minute or so of steam and they were clean.

Washing cans was even more rudimentary. A large barrel had been cut in half length-wise and propped up on legs. a flange was attached to one end and a steam hose connected to the underside and controlled by a simple tap. Cans were washed in soapy water and placed upside down on the flange, the tap turned, and a steam jet scoured the inside of the can, all of it taking place 3 feet off the floor. With the soapy water, the weight of the 8 gallon cans, and the heat of the steam, washing cans wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Burns and bruises were common.

A big job in any dairy was the daily “wash-up”. A thorough job took a couple of hours even in a small operation like Davidson Dairy. Everything had to be scrubbed to a standard set by Health authorities and the dairy inspectors. My older brother grew into the job in the early fifties and quickly became Dad’s second employee, an uncomplaining but unpaid valuable assistant.

For my younger brother and me, the dairy and its environs was a giant playground. We had a slough on each side, a huge field with a baseball diamond to the north, the barn with its loft behind the dairy, the railyard and stockyard to the south and the ice arena two blocks away.   We also helped on the house deliveries whenever we were asked.   By any measuring stick, life was full.

Dad made many changes over the years and there was no question there must have been good years financially. He covered in the loading dock so no one had to freeze unloading the 8 gallon-cans.

He installed conveyor rollers so the cans could be moved to the dumping site without breaking backs. He installed a washroom in the basement, complete with shower. The very idea of a shower in a washroom in rural Alberta was unheard of in 1950. He put in a wall to separate the milk-processing from the bottle and cleaning. He added a second vat. He upgraded the bottle washer, the bottler, and the separator. He expanded the walk-in cooler. When the horses were retired around 1950, he also dumped the Fargo and added 2 Chevy pick-ups. And best of all, from a kid’s point of view, he acquired the wholesale distribution license for Palm Dairies ice cream.

That new washroom in the basement served three purposes.   It was a necessity for any hired staff and removed the need for any of them to come into the house to use our bathroom. Dad was usually lucky to have one employee as they tended to lose enthusiasm after a few weeks of hard work.   The bathroom was outfitted with a shower and was quickly in demand by everyone in the family.   The upstairs had only a bathtub.   The third reason for the washroom was unique.

The dairy was located at the far southwest corner of town, a full block away from any other residences and directly across the street from the CNR main line. A dozen or more freight trains passed through this busy rail depot every day and with these trains came many hoboes. The hobo jungle was on the other side of the tracks but curious hobos often wandered over to the area of the dairy. Faced with a potential drain on the dairy’s assets through theft and vandalism, my father implemented a policy of cooperative tolerance. Any hobo who approached was told he could have a pint of milk and a chance to wash up in the employee washroom. Many did. I have no idea if the so-called “jungle telegraph” worked on the CNR main line but in the ten years we were in the dairy, we were never robbed by hobos. And, although they never damaged anything, we were plagued far more often by drunk soldiers lost on their way back to camp after a night at the beer parlor.

A lot happened over those 10 years of Davidson Dairy. Good memories for all the family. I do not know all the reasons why my parents sold in 1956 other than the official line about the cost of adding a homogenizer. But there was surely more. Bottles were on their way out in favor of plastic (at the end we had to supply one grocery store with a daily delivery of quarts of milk in plastic bottles. To accommodate this customer, my younger brother and I had to transfer 2 or 3 dozen bottled quarts of milk into plastic containers and seal them with a hand-held crimper. One at a time. It was very tedious).   How long before the whole town wanted their milk in plastic containers and how expensive was that bottler?

Maybe it was the combination of the expense of keeping up with all the changes and the expanding marketing plans of the big dairies in the cities that ultimately doomed the small rural dairy. By 1963, Wainwright’s dairy was reduced to a warehouse for milk and milk by-products from the city. By 1970, it was gone entirely and the building razed. A house sits there now and I suspect its owners have no idea of the history of the site and all the people who lived and dreamed and toiled for several decades, both before and after the Davidsons.   We were lucky to be part of it, even if the “we” used here means only me. The others are gone now but I think they would agree with my thoughts. I hope so.

Robert Alan Davidson

October, 2017

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