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Memories of hauling milk to Downing; Herb stopped train when truck got stuck in snow

by LeAnn Ralph

BOYCEVILLE — Although driving a milk truck might seem like a somewhat ordinary occupation where nothing dramatic ever happens, if you ask Herb Dow, he’ll tell you that it’s far from ordinary.

Especially when your milk truck becomes stuck in the snow at a railroad crossing.

And there’s a train coming.

Dow, who lives in Boyceville and serves on the Boyceville Village Board, drove various milk routes from 1949 until 1973, when he went to work for the village of Boyceville.

The train incident occurred in March of 1949 when a spring snowstorm dumped eight to 10 inches of heavy wet snow.

As Dow drove his milk route that day, he came to a railroad crossing on a town road west of Hammond.

“A section crew had parked a handcart so that it was a little bit into the crossing,” Dow recalled. “I figured I could just pull over to the side and get around it.”

As Dow started over the crossing, however, his milk truck became stuck in the snow.

Dow, who was 19 at the time, jumped out of the truck, and started to put on the tire chains.

“I didn’t like to drive with the chains on all of the time — they could be hard on the road and tear it up in places. As I put the chains on, I knew there could be a train coming at any time, so I kept listening. I got one chain on and had started on the second one when I heard the train whistle,” Dow said.

Talk about a moment of panic.

“I knew I didn’t have much time. The truck had a full load of milk, so it was heavy. If the train hit my truck, I knew it might derail.”

So — Dow did what any quick thinking young man would do.

He started running down the tracks toward the train, waving his arms.

“The engineer had seen it an was already slowing down. But by the time he stopped, that train was only about 50 feet from my truck. It was a passenger train,” Dow said.

Once the train had stopped, Dow braced himself for a tongue-lashing from the train crew and the passengers.

“The conductor climbed down out of the train and put the step down, and I figured I was really going to hear it then. But — they were all very nice about it.”

A short while later, a couple of farmers arrived with teams of horses to pull the milk truck off the railroad crossing.

“With that heavy truck, it would’ve been bad enough if it was a freight train and it couldn’t stop. But since it was a passenger train — a lot of people could have gotten hurt,” Dow said.

Even though disaster was averted, Dow still can’t help but wish he’d had a little more time on that day in 1949.

“If I could’ve had just another five minutes, I’d have had the chains on, and I would have been out of there,” he said.

During the course of his career as a milk truck driver Dow says he frequently drove over railroad crossings.

“When I think about all of the crossings, I was lucky I never had any other accidents,” he said.

Cans and Bulk

Dow started hauling milk at the age of 19 and at first hauled to Armour Co. in Downing.

The Armour Co. was a “condensery” where the milk was partially condensed, and then it was shipped to Bloomer where it was condensed down farther yet and then canned, Dow explained.

Dow’s first milk route went from Star Prairie to Baldwin and Roberts and north towards Connorsville.

“The vans held 72 cans, and each can weighed 120 pounds when it was full,” he explained. “You had to be in pretty good shape to handle the cans. Those milk truck drivers were all some powerfully built guys.”

The van routes covered around 70 to 80 miles per day, he said.

“Some of the farmers put their cans in water tanks to keep the milk cool. Some of them had coolers,” Dow said.

“We wore leather aprons to protect our legs,” he noted.

Dow spent two years in the armed services. Later on, he drove a bulk milk truck and hauled into Boyceville.

“They had a bottling plant in Boyceville, and they also made butter,” he said.

Since the milk cans each held 10 gallons and the vans carried 72 cans, that meant the vans could haul 720 gallons.

The small bulk trucks could haul 2,000 gallons, Dow said.

“It was a lot easier driving a bulk truck. You didn’t have to handle those heavy cans,” he said.

On the other hand, there were disadvantages to driving a bulk truck, too.

In the winter, “you had to get right up to the milk house with the bulk truck so you could pump the milk in. With the vans, if the snow was so deep that you couldn’t get in, the farmers would sometimes haul the cans down to the road on sleds. You couldn’t do that with the bulk trucks,” Dow explained.

Most of the time, though, Dow had a snowplow blade on the front of his milk truck.

“That experience of plowing out the farm driveways came in handy when I went to work for the village and had to plow the streets,” he said.

Even though it’s been years since Dow drove a milk route, he will always retain fond memories of that time in his life.

“It was something I liked pretty well,” he said. “After I sold my first milk route, I wanted to buy another one because I really enjoyed doing it.”