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Fine Milk, Fine Milkman

IN Portland, Maine, you don't have to be rich or famous to get a nice write-up on the obituary page, and when my father-in-law, Cleve, died two years ago, a reporter from the Press Herald called us looking for material he could use.

Cleve had been a milkman for Oakhurst Dairy for some 30 years, and although he'd quit in 1958, some people still remembered when he had delivered milk to their homes, good weather and bad.

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"Dad used to get up at 4:30 to start the route," my wife remembers. "My mother worried during bad winter storms, but he'd say, `There are babies depending on the milk,' and he'd be off."

Early in his career, Cleve would rise as early as midnight and leave for the dairy. This was before refrigerated trucks, so the first thing he would do was ice up the truck. Then he'd load his milk, cream, cottage cheese, and other products and begin his route. He'd finish deliveries by midmorning, then go back out along the route to do collections.

Back at the dairy, he'd turn in the glass empties he'd picked up, count and turn in his cash, place orders for the next day, and clean the truck. Then he'd go home. After supper he did his books.

"He enjoyed it, but it was hard work, and it was seven days a week," recalls Morrill, his elder son. The dairy gave him two weeks off, one in the summer and one in the fall for hunting.

Cleve started with the East Deering route in Portland, delivering to houses, small stores, and three-deckers. He climbed a lot of stairs. Once in a dark hallway, he reached down to pick up the empty bottles and put his hand on a man's face. "I must have jumped a foot," he said. But the man, who'd probably come home drunk, didn't even stir.

Later Cleve expanded his territory into Falmouth, between Routes 1 and 88. Here he delivered to capes and farmhouses and the estates on the foreside. He also delivered to the little store at Town Landing, and to the dock where milk was loaded onto a boat for the hotel on Chebeague Island.

Deliveries were especially difficult in freezing rain, and snowshoes became standard winter equipment. Once in winter he walked over the top of a car hidden in drifts and sank into deep snow. But there were also clear mornings when the stars were bright, or the rising sun blazed through the sea-smoke on the tidal waters.

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Cleve got to know his customers and sometimes did extra things for them, like putting their milk in the icebox. On Saturdays he'd light the stove for a Jewish woman who, for religious reasons, couldn't light it herself.

My father-in-law did well and in time purchased his own truck, subcontracting for the diary. Occasionally he hired help to deal with the workload.

"A milkman had to have a lot of volume to make any income," says his son. For a while Cleve had the largest route at the dairy.

That was before Oakhurst divided his territory and gave part of it to another driver. Cleve then concentrated on getting the highest percentage of homes in his district. Families moving into the neighborhood found a bottle of milk or a container of cottage cheese on their doorstep with a friendly note and a phone number.

In their high school years, both Cleve's sons accompanied their father. "It was a fun time in life," remembers Morrill. "We both learned how to drive on his route. Sometimes we'd take the truck around the block while he was making a delivery." Morrill also remembers the snow machine at the dairy and the time the drivers locked him in the ice-room for lobbing snowballs.

Over the years, Cleve learned a lot about the dairy business. For a time, he ran the shipping department and had management duties. But he was happiest as an independent, and he returned to his route. One year the company sent him to Boston for a convention. When he came home, he told his family that dairymen were predicting people would someday buy their milk in stores. How strange, my wife remembers thinking.

For all his hard work, Cleve never got rich. But he did raise a family, own his home, and pay his bills. Over the years he gained a reputation for hard work and honesty. If someone needed a hand in hard times, Cleve would be there. Once he stopped to help a man whose car had broken down. Many years later that man, the pastor a nearby church, performed Cleve's funeral service.

My favorite story about Cleve's career as a milkman involves a customer on his route who constantly argued with him about the bill, claimed he mixed up her orders, and was likely to pay him, once they had agreed on what was owed, from a jar of pennies she kept on the sideboard. Cleve would have to sit down at the table and spend precious time counting them out. This went on for some time until Cleve had had enough, and in exasperation he said to the woman, "I've half a mind to pay you $5 if you'll stop b uying milk from me."

"I'll accept your offer," she snapped.

He did, and she did. Life is too short, he must have figured.

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