The Milkman Cometh
By: Carl Helbig
My first recollection of a Bowman milkman was Hank. I never saw him in the wagon as he delivered milk to every house on his route that had kids. He was always on a slow trot.
That was during the depression. I was a youngster and had three older sisters. Because my father could not find a job at his bricklaying trade, my mother had to tell Hank not to leave us any more milk. Hank told Mrs. Broberg about it. Mrs. Broberg didn’t have any kids, so she paid for my milk.
After WWII ended, I didn’t want to work in a factory again. I took a job with Continental Coffee Company, but got fired for taking too many vacations.
Got a job with Wanzer Milk Company instead. My brother-in-law, Bert Carlson, was a foreman there. New Year’s Day the milkman who was my predecessor accepted a drink from many of his customers and couldn’t finish the route, so I got his job. Bert introduced me to the route. The further we went along, the more broken bottles we found, as the man had gotten progressively drunk. This was the north side red-light district. My route ran from Lawrence to Montrose and from Clark to the lake.
I had a ‘32 Plymouth convertible that I drove to work early in the morning. I would go to the barn and wake up my horse Nancy. I’d shout her name and swat her on the rump so she knew I was there and wouldn’t squeeze me against the wall. Unhook her and hook her up to the wagon. Get in line with the rest of the wagons. Tell the man at the cooler our route number. Then he would give you the milk back that you didn’t sell yesterday and the fresh milk, butter, eggs and cottage cheese for that day.
The route was big and complicated, but Nancy knew her way. Down one street, turn right, go two blocks then turn left, go down the alley three blocks, etc. We had a book that listed people’s names, addresses and their order. All I had to do was fill the order. Nancy found the way; I didn’t drive her. When she stopped, I delivered the milk.
Wanzer’s wagons were only one step up so you could stand up inside. But they were like snow plows in the winter with that little clearance. Nancy had a hole in her front hoof. When she got snow in it, she would stand on three legs and shake it. I must have shouted her name around the barn a lot, because pretty soon the other milkmen were calling me “Nancy.”
Some of the barn boss’s rules concerning the horses were: no eating on the route, no galloping, use kidney blankets in the cold weather and don’t let the horse get overheated in hot weather.
The barn Boss, with whom I didn’t get along, wouldn’t let me give Nancy extra oats to eat or hay to stand on. One day he informed me I was getting another horse. When I asked why, he replied that one of the other routes was getting a truck and my horse was the worst horse. “Why don’t I get a truck?” I asked. “You’re too close to the barn,” he said. So Nancy went to the glue factory and I was on my own.
My next horse was named Ray. I couldn’t get him to run. I figured I ran the route and that he should at least run to the route. I slapped him with the reins. Nothing. Walked alongside of him and hit his flank, hurting my hand. I even made a fist. Nothing. Then I found a short length of garden hose. Still nothing. So, I inquired around and found out who had the horse before me. The guy told me, “Take a pail of oats with you.” “What?” I asked. “You have to feed him while he’s running?” He said, “No, you throw it at him. You throw it up in the air over him and let it fall on his back, like rain or hail.” It worked.
At the end of the route at Wilson and Broadway was a cafeteria that had been there a long time. It was a “different” area - bums, crazies, etc. Once I parked the horse and wagon out front, had lunch and figured out my book before I forgot. (You were supposed to mark your book as you made each delivery, but I ran the route then tried to remember who got what.) When I came out of the restaurant to go back to the barn, a crazy lady was feeding an apple to my horse. She had unbuckled the bit out of his mouth so he could eat better. Without that bit in his mouth, the horse was out of control! So I never ate there again.
Many of the customers would invite you in to talk, pay their bill or just enjoy one another. If you took too long, the next customer could tell you just how long she had been waiting for you to get through at the neighbor’s so she could get her milk. The ladies all wore housecoats.
Once, when I came out of an apartment, the horse and wagon were gone. I walked from the alley into the street and asked the Bowman milkman if he had seen my horse and wagon. He said, “Maybe your horse went back to the barn. Get in and well see.” (He had a truck – a DIVCO. A truck you could drive standing up or sitting down.) But no one at the barn had seen my horse. So I went back to the route and finally found him in a parking lot that you could hardly see from the alley. Someone with a big truck must have moved him in order to get by.
Someone else at the company got a truck, so I got a new horse named Skippy. He was a big dapple-gray. I am only 5’ 5” tall. It felt good to have control over such a big animal. Skippy and the other horses were very traffic-conscious. Once in awhile they would forget they had the wagon behind, cut a corner too short and take a curb, or worse, catch a telephone pole with the front wheel.
One morning I was delivering milk in the alley behind Ravenswood Avenue going out into Lawrence Avenue. There’s a viaduct there for the Northwestern Railroad tracks. Lawrence Avenue goes underneath the viaduct and there is a big pitch in the alley to get down to the street. Tall brick buildings were built right up to the sidewalk’s edge on either side, so I had to move the horse way out so I could look for traffic. Skippy stopped for a second and then took off. I thought he was pretty smart and saw that there wasn’t any traffic. “We’ll get home early today!” I thought. I pounded on the wagon to make him go even faster.
We were getting close to Ashland Avenue, which was four lanes and busy. I figured I had better slow him down. But every time I would pull in on the reins, he would slow for a second and then go faster. Something had to be wrong! I leaned way out the door to look at Skippy. The lather strap that went under his tail had broken.
There was no way I would be able to stop him before Ashland Avenue. So I stood in the door waving my arms and shouting to people. “RUNAWAY!” I made it across Ashland, but Clark Street was only a block away. It had streetcars and I had to stop him. Luckily there weren’t any parked cars on the street, so I ran him up on the sidewalk with the hard rubber tires against the curb and we stopped. I called the barn and explained my problem. They said I would have to wait until the rest of the wagons were loaded before they could bring me a new brake. The barn boss finally came. We didn’t get done early that day.
Wanzer milkmen had two routes to run - one day and the other the next. I covered from Lawrence to Balmoral, Clark to Ravenswood. Foster Avenue ran down the middle. I was called “Andersonville,” because of all the Swedish people that lived where I delivered. A bunch of keys hung in each wagon so the milkman could get into his customers’ back enclosed porches.
I delivered to a little combination restaurant/grocery store on Winnemac Avenue, where I also would eat. There was a Swedish old people’s home on one side of the street. On the other was a fire station with a hook-and-ladder. (The man that steered the back end of the fire truck around the corners would sit way up high on top of the ladders.) Next to the station was the restaurant and then a butcher shop. Vi and her husband ran the restaurant. Her husband was the cook.
One day Vi said. “Why don’t you take the horse out to the back yard? We haven’t cut the grass yet. Let him at some grass.” So I unhooked Skippy from the wagon and led this big horse down a little gangway between two tall brick buildings back to this large grassy area, all fenced in. Instead of eating the grass, he rolled over in it! In doing so, he broke off the two round, gold colored rings that his reins went through. Later the barn boss said, “How could you possibly break those rings off?” He never knew.
Then Vi started to feed Skippy stale bread. It got so he expected it and he would no longer wait in the street but stood on the sidewalk. The horse would have come in the store if he could have gotten the wagon over the high curb.
One day, the firemen went to a fire with the hook-and-ladder. Skippy tried to back up to face the danger and the wagon jack-knifed against the curb. While he was on the sidewalk, he had gotten closer to the parked car in front of him. The only way to get to the street was over the butcher’s parked car. Two hoof prints on the car’s trunk lid. I learned how to make out an accident report.
On the way back from my route on the other side of Clark Street, Skippy would want to gallop. It was against the rules, but what are rules for if not to be broken. Horses are always in a hurry to get home to the safety of their stalls. Some days I gave in and let him gallop. Having a light load pulled by a big horse, the wagon bounced all over the place. In order to keep the cases of bottles from falling on the floor and breaking. I had to sit with them and hold the cases with my hands.
The reins were too short to reach way back there, so all I could do was hook them up where I put them when not in use. No one could see me back there. Everyone would stop to watch Skippy gallop by. When we went under the viaduct, he really made a lot of noise with his hooves on the cobblestones. After the viaduct there was a restaurant and then the alley to the barn. I would have to jump down quick, grab the reins and bring him to a walk so we wouldn’t turn over as we turned into the alley.
A lot of the milk drivers ate and figured their books in that restaurant and were used to seeing me coming home. There was an office in the barn where the company wanted you to figure your book, turn in your money and order tomorrow’s milk. It had schoolroom desks and didn’t provide a very good atmosphere.
One day when I let Skippy gallop through the viaduct, the superintendent came running out to the middle of the street and began waving his arms. He thought he was stopping a runaway horse! I had to jump off the cases, grab the reins and pull with all my might to stop Skippy from running him over. I think I had Skippy on his ass as we slid to a halt just in front of him. He was shaking. The milkmen who were in the restaurant came out and started laughing. He got out of the way and we went home. I knew I was in trouble.
The milk in the grocery store was a penny cheaper, but most of my customers were loyal. I didn’t have to worry about them until the superintendent began going through my books and hassling my customers by phone for being a couple of days late paying. Some had been Wanzer customers for many years. After that, some of the routes lost so many customers, two routes were combined into one.
One of our milkmen was a little old Jewish man. His route was the furthest one away in Rogers Park, which was a Jewish neighborhood at that time. He had a lot of loyal customers. When he came in at night, he would park his wagon to the side instead of getting in line to unload. He’d take his horse named Tom in the barn and take care of him first. Then the old man would get back in line with his wagon and pull it through to unload himself.
Drivers were not allowed to feed or bed down their horses, just water them. But the Jewish man was allowed to. He had a foot of straw as bedding for Tom and brushed him so his coat shined. Tom was a proud-looking brown horse who held his head up high. It was awesome to see him come trotting home at night.
Then they gave the old man a truck. He didn’t know how to drive it, so they let him go. They wanted to give me Tom. I told the barn boss, who was a great big gorilla, that I didn’t want Tom. I wanted to keep Skippy. He said. “No way! He drags his feet and wears out too many shoes.” So Skippy went to the glue factory. I got Tom.
My first stop was a block away from the barn. First day with Tom, I got out, up to the second floor and the horse started walking away. I ran down to stop him and chained one wheel of the wagon so it couldn’t turn. I got to the first floor and Tom took off again. The wheel bounced, scaring him and making him go faster. “How can I deliver milk this way? I’ll fix you!” I thought. So I raced him around the block twice. He let me deliver the milk. Every morning, before I could deliver the milk, we ran around the block twice.
One Saturday night, I was out on a double date. I made the mistake of saying that before I went home I had to deliver Sunday’s milk. The others said, “That sounds like fun! We’ll go with you!” No non-union help. I recalled. I met them on the route. Another rule broken.
It was early in the morning. Everyone but us was sleeping - that is until we got there. I told Paul Burnet, my friend, to take some milk up to the second floor. After he got up there he hollered down. “Which door?” I told him. “The one with the empty bottles.” He hollered down, “There’s a note in one of the bottles: they want another quart.” “Come and get it; I said. I tried to convince him we had to be quiet.
I never realized how small the wagon was until four people tried to stand in it. Further down the route, I got back from making a delivery and the girls were trying to feed the horse cottage cheese. City girls. They soon got bored and went home. Thank goodness! The next day everybody told me how I woke them up Sunday with my “help.” I never did that again.
On April Fool’s Day, on the way to work in my ‘32 Plymouth convertible, I was on Foster Avenue turning to go to the barn when my right front wheel came off. (You couldn’t get tires to fit those original big wheels so you got smaller wheels with tires from the junk yard.) It had rusted out. When it came off, it rolled across the street, hit the curb, jumped up and smashed the drug store window. I retrieved it from the window, but couldn’t put it back on. I got the big spare tire and put it on. Then I got my horse and delivered the milk.
After the route was done I phoned my insurance agent, Mr. Herman. He asked, “Did anyone see you?” I didn’t know. It had been dark and early. He said I’d better turn myself in. They were liable to have a warrant out for my arrest. I went to the Summerdale police station and told an officer about my breaking the drug store window. He took the information, but it seemed he couldn’t care less. He said. “Go tell the drug store owner.”
I went to the drug store and told the man there. He said, “Ha, ha. April Fool! You’re about the third guy so far: I said, “No, really, my car wheel came off and bounced in your window!” He ran around the counter and grabbed me. I told him, “I’m not going to run away. I just came from the police station.” One night after supper the front doorbell rang. I answered it. A man asked if I was Carl Helbig. I said I was. He handed me a handful of money. I took it. He said, “Your car insurance has just been canceled.”
On Wilson Avenue was a tall hotel, probably eight stories high. I had a delivery to make there and I had to park across the street, go through the lobby to the elevator and wait for it to come. It all took a lot of time. So the procedure was to knock on the door and leave, not waiting for anyone to answer.
This one day a little girl, about three years old, opened the door right away and took the milk. She did not get far before she dropped it. The cardboard top flew off and the milk spilled all over the rug. The little girl cried. Her mother came running. I guess from the bathroom, for she had no clothes on. I left.
One of my customers took acidopholis milk for her baby. I always looked forward to collecting from the mother, because she was beautiful. Sometimes she didn’t have the money when it was due, but I didn’t mind. I just got to see her more often.
One night, after finishing my route, I was called into the superintendents office. He claimed that the acidopholis lady had paid her bill and I had kept the money. I felt sure the customer hadn’t yet paid, for I would have remembered the occasion. The superintendent asked. “Do you want to quit or get fired?” The union steward was on the same side of the desk as him. He said “Those are the rules. I can’t do anything for you.” The superintendent was finally getting even for that “runaway.”
I couldn’t find another good-paying job, so I ended up laying brick with my father after he refused to support me any longer. For 40 years I held a trowel in my hand and house delivery became a thing of the past.