Saturday, February 9, 2008

Story Hour IX

The Milk Strike (Part I)

Story Hour is a collection of short, auto-biographical stories written by my father, about his childhood memories growing up on a farm in Upstate New York.


In 1939 in New York State there were several ongoing milk strikes. Small farms such as ours were being forced out of business by the low price of raw milk. The D.F.U. (Dairy Farmers Union) had tried bargaining with the likes of Sheffield, Dairyman’s league and others to no avail. The alternative? The Milk Strike.

It was not a pretty picture. Daily confrontations occurred between striking dairymen and non-union farmers trying to get their milk to the processor. The ditches beside the roads were filled with milk as it was unloaded from the trucks and unceremoniously dumped. This was accompanied by much shouting and swearing along with threats of violence and gave birth to long-lasting feuds between formerly friendly neighbors.

I happened to be with Jack and Dick one morning on the milk run. This was after we had acquired the Studebaker truck and we would haul our own milk to the milk plant in Pulaski. This came about because Jack and Dick obviously enjoyed the morning ride.

Once the truck was horse-started (a dead battery for some reason or another), the milk cans were loaded onto the truck and covered with a tarp to keep the direct sun from heating up the milk. We were then on our way.


About three miles from Pulaski is the intersection of Maltby Road and North Road. As we approached, it was obvious from the number of cars and trucks that we had run into a milk strike road block. There was no place to turn around so we were kinda trapped with no other option but to let it play out as it would.

When we could move ahead we did, until we were faced by several grim faced, angry, union member farmers. When asked if we were DFU members our answer was no. Although DG was a staunch member of the “Brotherhood” (Railroad Union) he had not joined the DFU.

“Stay where you are, boys”, the man on the driver’s side admonished as he nodded to 3 or 4 other farmers who immediately went onto action. The tarp was not too carefully removed from our load and cast aside. The 4 cans of milk were passed over the side of the truck and set upon the road side. The covers were knocked loose and the cans pushed over by a farmers work shoe.

Now, four cans of milk is not a real big deal; but when it represents many long hours of hard work invested to produce it, well, a person gets feeling pretty sick to watch it dumped on the ground. The cans were drained, the covers put back on and loaded back on the truck. The tarp was tossed on top of the milk cans.

“I hope we don’t see you boys tomorrow”, said the farmer as he walked away. “You just might see us anyhow”, said Dick with a certain tone of defiance in his voice.

When we got turned around and headed back home we pulled over to the side of the road to reposition and secure the cans and tarp. This accomplished, we continued our trip home via alternate routes to check on road blocks. They were there. Every road leading to Pulaski was covered. We would not be shipping any milk while they were there.

Our arrival home was a non-event until we ended up in the kitchen for a war council meeting with mom. In DG’s absence she was the one to make whatever decision we were forced to make. We were faced with several facts that had to be considered.

The cows had to be milked night and morning. We had very limited storage space with only a little ice remaining in the ice house. Without shipping the milk, our small income would be seriously diminished. There was no doubt that a protracted strike would be disastrous for us. There were no other routes that were not also blocked. It appeared that our decision was made for us. Do the chores and milking in the normal manner. Keep the milk in the cooling vat (it would hold 6 cans of milk) After chores in the morning Jack and Dick would make a quick run up to Maltby road to see if the DFU was active. If they were there it was assumed that the other roads were covered too.


The next morning, chores were done and it was Dugal’s turn to ride along on the milk run (minus the milk).


After a quick breakfast the three boys got the truck started (dead battery again) and left on the reconnaissance run. Sure enough from a distance they could see the cluster of vehicles and people. The activity was much more subdued as many farmers were employing the same tactics we were. After a few howdys and exchanges of short conversations the boys turned around and headed for home and a day to be spent in the hay field.

At some point during the late afternoon mom went out towards the milk house with a long dipper and a large glass jar. She knew, of course, which can had been there the longest time. Grabbing a spare can cover she proceeded to bang the cover on the full can in an upward manner, thus loosening it for easy removal. Once the cover was out of the way, she could reach in with the dipper and bring out dippers full of sweet cream that had risen to the top over night. She quickly filled the large glass jar and replaced the milk can cover, giving it a couple of whacks with the spare cover to ensure it was sealed. This done, she headed back to the house with her treasure.


She had already baked a plain white cake from scratch ingredients (no mixes available back then) which was now cooling in the pantry. Supper that night consisted of boiled potatoes, milk gravy, canned tomatoes and homemade white bread. The gravy was liberally filled with pieces of salted side pork which had been freshened and browned in the skillet before the gravy ingredients were added. All in all, a very filling and satisfying supper.

“Before you all go running off, I’ve got a treat for you”, said mom as she headed for the pantry and returned with the cake and a huge bowl of whipped cream (real, hand beaten, fresh cream). There was a moment or two of silence as the picture was absorbed by seven pairs of blue eyes, staring in utter disbelief. Never before had any of them seen such a sight.


“Would anyone like some?” asked mom and the reply was a resounding “ME, I WANT SOME” from seven voices, almost in unison.

As each piece of cake was placed on a plate, a huge dollop of whipped cream was plopped on top. “No starting ‘til we are all served”, said mom so we waited until even Thelma, who was about two, had hers put in front of her and immediately got some in her fingers and thusly to her mouth. After a little squeal of delight from Thelma there was more or less silence except for the sound made by silverware in contact with plates.

There was even enough for small servings of seconds. With no refrigeration it would not keep so as mom said,”You little piggies might better eat it than the pigs out by the barn, and if this strike lasts very long they're going to have all the milk they want.”

Everyone went to bed that night with a full tummy and the thought that maybe this milk strike isn’t as bad as we all thought.

1 comment:

leslie said...

A cliff hanger! Now that I've had my cake and whipped cream, I want to know what the final outcome of the strike was. Do tell...
That really is sad to have all that work and food just poured onto the ground.