Connect the Dots: The Journeys of a Milk Can

Published February 4, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in the Shelburne News

Q: What journeys have milk cans taken through the Vermont landscape?

A: While bushwhacking through the woods on an old hill farm recently, I came across a discarded milk can and stopped to have a look. It was weather-beaten, rusty and pocked with holes, and there were some initials embossed on its neck. The broken glass bottles and sap buckets keeping it company looked very old-fashioned, so I guessed that they had all been resting here together in this farm dump for decades. But I knew from interviews I’ve done of retired farmers that the milk can’s earlier days would have been ones of constant movement, both around the farm and through the local community.

            The best milk can stories I’ve collected were shared by a community elder in an interview about his childhood in the 1930s on an Addison County hill farm. After we did our short mutual introductions, he immediately launched into describing his most memorable farm chore as a boy – cooling the milk cans. His family had a small herd of Holsteins that they milked twice a day. With no electricity, he described his family milking the cows by hand into pails, a task he regularly assisted with. But the job he was solely responsible for and the most memorable for him was the next step in the milking process – getting the milk cooled on the farm. 

            The farm had no piped running water, so they used the cool running water in the brook nearby. After the warm milk from each pail was poured into the larger milk can, it was his job to load the cans into the horse-drawn wagon and take them down to the brook. They had lined a section of the brook with stones and built a cover over it, which they called the spring box.  He would open the spring box’s cover, and then lift each milk can out of the wagon and lower it into the cool brook, and close the spring box lid when he was done. He told me that his family usually filled 4 to 6 milk cans per day for him to transport. (They probably used the common 10 gallon can size, which weighed 80 pounds each when full of milk.) He finished his task by taking the horse back to the barn, while the cans were left to slowly cool down in the brook. No matter the weather, this was a daily task for him. As he finished this story, he paused for a few moments, looking off into the distance deep in thought. Clearly, he was back on that hillside reliving the memory.

            His second milk can story involved the trip the cans took off the farm to the local creamery. Each can usually had the name of the creamery stamped onto it, and each day the milk cans were trucked a few miles away to that creamery to be processed. One of the creamery trucks travelled part of the farm boy’s route to school. He described how he learned to time his walks back and forth to school to coincide with the transport of the milk cans so he could ride part way. The driver would let him hop up into the open back of the truck and sit next to the cans. He finished his story by confiding that he much preferred the afternoon run home from school because the cans had been emptied and washed, and were still warm from the washing on the way home. With a twinkle in his eye, he added, “I tried especially hard to catch it in the winter. “

            The milk cans’ daily journey ended by returning to the farmstead by truck, with or without the farm boy sitting amongst them. By night fall, half of the cans were already full from the evening’s milking and cooling in the brook, starting the cycle again. Many versions of this cycle were repeated on the more than 10,000 farms in Vermont in the 1930s.

            Though milk cans were a critical link in the chain for processing dairy milk for decades, their role came to an end when bulk tanks starting arriving in the 1950s. With electricity on the farm, metal refrigerated bulk tanks in the barn became the preferred way to cool milk, and tanker trucks came to the farm to pick it up. Milk cans became obsolete.

            When I find old milk cans in the woods, I think of the daily journeys they once took around the farm and on the rural roads nearby. I also remember that someone must have carried this milk can to its last resting place after its constant filling, emptying, and lifting by many hands, large and small.

Milk can from the Shelburne Cooperative Creamery in Shelburne, VT now in the woods

Copyright 2021, Jane Dorney