From dairy farm to breakfast bowl
Milk collection and delivery in Kawartha Lakes
A brilliant sunrise decks the skies over Lindsay one spring morning 60, 70 or 80 years ago as the rhythmic clip-clop-clip-clop of horse hooves reverberates a quiet residential avenue. Trailing behind the horse is a large metal non-motorized van painted white or pale yellow. It eases to a stop in front of each home, and a distinguished-looking gentleman descends from an open door in the side. In his hands he carefully bears a metal rack loaded with half a dozen or so glistening glass bottles full of milk.
He climbs the steps of an old wooden porch and without any fanfare dutifully deposits a pint or a quart in a little cupboard adjacent to the front door. He hurries back to his van and moves on to the next house. A couple of hours later the families living in this neighbourhood will be pouring milk into bowls of Cheerios or Corn Flakes – or mixing it into a morning cup of tea.
The milkman was once a cultural icon in North America, not least in small towns such as those here in Kawartha Lakes. Names such as Bob Dainard (Silverwood’s Dairy), Joseph Hutton (Hutton’s Highland Dairy) and Norm Snook (Silverwood’s Dairy) are fondly remembered by their former customers.
While there is undoubtedly a certain old-world charm about the friendly milkman making his morning rounds, the job was not without its difficulties. Especially in the early 20th century, milkmen could be the targets of criticism from unhappy consumers.
“I never got up against a much poorer quality of milk than that sold in your town since I came here, and I am told that it is no worse now than usual,” a cross James Keeley wrote in the Jan. 13, 1905, edition of the Lindsay Weekly Post. “Why don’t the Council of your town get after these men, or appoint someone to do it?” he asked. In response, Peter Murtha, a Lindsay milkman, pointed out that the problem often lay not with the milkmen, but with poorly trained inspectors. Instead of sending samples from each milk wagon to the local creamery to be properly tested, Murtha lamented, council had hired someone “who knew as much about testing milk as I do about treating a case of smallpox.”
Murtha wasn’t alone in voicing his concerns. Almost a year before, Robert Quibell, another local milkman, accused the local milk inspector of being unqualified. “I do not consider Sanitary Inspector Douglas a competent man to test milk where not only the honesty of the milkmen is called into question, but when the milk consumers of the town are equally liable to be wronged by poor samples passing as good,” Quibell wrote in the May 5, 1904, edition of the Watchman-Warder.
Of course, much has changed in the last century. So used are we nowadays to buying milk of impeccable quality from convenience stores that the politics and practices of milk collection, delivery and inspection scarcely cross the average person’s mind. For those who spent their lives on dairy farms, however, these rituals were simply a part of life.
Russell Fife (1907-1980) collected milk from a dozen farms in east Emily Township for decades. At first, the milk was taken away in large metal cans, each weighing about 25 pounds (about 11 kilograms) and holding up to 80 pounds (36 kilograms) of milk. “You had to be a very able person to load the trucks,” remembers Fife’s widow, Shirley Fife. “He would park his truck on Highway 7 near Bethel Road, and farmers would deliver their milk by horse and sleigh through the fields.” While much of the milk in east Emily was sent to dairies in Peterborough, some went further afield by rail. “The farmers in the area used to bring the cans of milk to Carmagner station (southeast of Omemee) and load them on the train,” Shirley recalls.
Once bulk tanks became the norm, collectors like Fife had to take samples of the milk. If a problem was found, an inspector would be summoned to investigate. “Milk was sometimes tainted with a clover flavour,” Shirley observes, “and this would require a farmer to move cattle into a different pasture.” Milk was tested on butterfat content, and this could also affect the price a farmer was paid for the milk, Shirley notes.
How much money a farmer might make from their milk varied. “Each of the dairies would give their producers a quota, and if you had too much milk it wouldn’t be collected,” remembers Harvey Risebrough, who kept a herd of Jersey cattle east of Oakwood from 1960 through the 1990s.
“Some dairies would turn down milk or set their own price, and farmers wouldn’t make much money.” The Ontario Milk Marketing Board was formed in 1965 to correct inequities in the provincial milk economy by purchasing all milk produced on Ontario farms and selling it to dairy processors on their behalf. Today, this body is known as Dairy Farmers of Ontario.
While the milk cans and horse-drawn milk wagons have receded into the past, close to 80 dairy farms and enterprises such as Kawartha Dairy — which in 2022 marks its 85th anniversary — carry on a long tradition in local agriculture that touches all of us who love milk, butter, cream and more. Ice cream, anyone?