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  A Peek into the Past The
As a youngster, I fell into the can-cooling trough sunken into the floor of my uncle’s milk house. The cold of the artesian water took my breath away and left me with a lasting memory of milk cans.
Milk cans were used in BC from before 1900, the most popular carried 100 pounds (10 imperial gallons). The empty can with lid, weighed 26 pounds and was made of rolled steel. Both the inside and outside were coated with tin for cleanliness and rust prevention. Farmers rented the cans from the milk plant, which repaired any damaged cans and re-tinned them using electrolysis.
The Milk House
Milk was carried from the barn to the milk house and poured into clean cans which were kept in cold-water troughs or refrigerated box coolers. Each morning, the 126 pound cans, were taken, usually by hand cart, to the roadside for pick up. As youngsters, we ran along as our father wheeled the cans about 100 metres from the milk house to the roadside milk stand. Then we rode the empty cart back.
The Milk Stand
To ease the hauler’s burden of hefting the cans from the ground onto the truck (photo 2), farmers constructed roadside milk stands. (See photo #3.) In 1952, provincial records show 4,103 dairy farms shipping milk in the Fraser Valley, presumably all with milk stands! For safety reasons, some municipalities passed bylaws to control the location and construction of them. In Chilliwack, milk stands could not be constructed of concrete. In Maple Ridge, roadside setbacks were regulated.
Weather was a concern. Hot sun could warm the milk, possibly causing spoilage before arriving at the milk plant. The usual summertime dilemma was choosing whether to risk milk spoilage by putting cans out early, or waiting, and risk losing valuable time in the fields. Milk stand safety was an issue in winter with ice and snow. (See photo #4.)
Mike Yusko, BC Dairy Historical Society [email protected]
Last Can
Milk Can Identification
The collars of the cans were painted with a letter and number. The letter referred to the milk receiving plant. The number below the letter identified the farm. The Fraser Valley Milk Producers’ Association (FVMPA) numbering system was L for Ladner, V for Vancouver, D for Delair (now Abbotsford) and S for Sardis. The farm ID number matched the alphabet. Lower numbers for ABC and higher numbers for XYZ. If your cans read D over 383, your milk was delivered to the Delair milk plant and 383 indicated your farm name started with the letter J or K. (See photo #5.)
In November 1966, all can identification for the province had to be changed to the new Infra-Red Milk Analyzer (IRMA) account number (example 85-936). This is the numbering system used today for farm bulk tank identification.
When the Pacific Milk Plant in Delair shut down for annual maintenance between November 20th and December 4th, 1966, staff used that time to re-number 7,500 cans!
The Can Haulers
The Milk Can Haulers were independent truckers contracting for the dairy companies. The haulers were paid by the “cwt” or “hundred weight,” (100 pounds of milk). Some haulers were paid 9 cents per cwt. Gerry Adams, former FVMPA hauling manager, recalls that his father, Walter Adams, first contracted with the FVMPA at age 19 in 1925. He hauled from Matsqui Prairie to the Delair Plant until 1968. At one time, the Adams had five trucks hauling cans. Gerry remembers that in the 1950’s they were paid 12 cents per cwt., but in 1958 they had to join the Teamsters’ Union Local 464 and their rate climbed to 15 cents per cwt. Each Adams truck made two trips per day with 140 cans per trip yielding daily gross revenue of $42 per truck.
Can haulers had to collect milk cans every day and had to wait in line to unload at the milk plant. (See photo #6.) The cans were inspected and given the sniff test. (See photo #7.) If passed, the milk would be poured into a vat, weighed and recorded. The empty cans were sent through the can washing tunnel and onto a loading platform where the hauler
would load them back onto the truck. The next day, the clean cans replaced the full cans on the milk stands.
The Phase Out of Milk Cans
As farms gradually switched to using milk tanks, can usage decreased, but the cost of hauling per can increased. Abruptly ending can hauling would have been devastating to many small farmers. Many could not afford to purchase a milk tank and build a new milk house to meet new government standards. Some farms could only be accessed using private bridges. Many bridges needed costly upgrades to carry the milk tanker trucks.
I can remember the case of Mr. Sommerville who farmed in Maple Ridge. He was a WWI veteran and his dairy farm income supplemented his veteran’s pension. He was happy with his situation and he had no intention of purchasing a milk tank. My father, a dairy farmer and a WWII veteran, was asked by the FVMPA to talk to Mr. Sommerville and explain the situation. After a few visits, Mr. Sommerville agreed to stop shipping. Perhaps the sale of his cows and quota offset the loss of his milk income.
FVMPA was probably the last dairy processer in BC to phase out milk cans. Incentives were implemented for the phase out of cans. The can washing equipment was wearing out. March 1st, 1970 was set as the date to end can hauling because it was the annual renewal date for hauling contracts and trucking licenses.
The Last Can, number 85-936, arrived at the Delair Milk Plant on February 28th, 1970. (See photo #8.)
The poem “Ode to the Can” was written by a FVMPA employee:
Ode to the Can
O, can it ever be That we will never see With shipping bulk That 10 gallon hulk We call the “can.” No broken back, No bones to rack, No limbs in pain
In sun or rain
To move the can.
With the cold First light of dawn No more heave-ho At the old milk stand. Is it really gone? Our friend the can.
It served its purpose, Carrying our milk, Including the surplus, It handled so well. The products we sell.
And so we say
To the departed one, You’ve earned your rest, You gave your best, Out heart-felt thanks For a job well done.

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