Dairy truck delivers nostalgia
Car collector John Larson and his wife, Sharon, of Moorhead, Minn., are new owners of 1939 International dairy delivery truck they acquired in 2017. The truck was likely used for delivering in Duluth, Minn. It is decorated with logos from Arkulary's Grocery of Duluth, Minn., a family that was important in the city's retail food business.
MOORHEAD, Minn. — Before today’s trend of delivering groceries from Walmart and other big box outlets, there were milk delivery trucks.
In the early part of the 1900s, families in mid-America knew their milk man who brought clinking glass milk bottles to their door, to place in insulated boxes made for the purpose.
“I remember it,” says John Larson of Moorhead, Minn., who acquired his own milk vintage truck in June 2017.
In 2021 Larson and his wife, Sharon, are enjoying a little bit of that nostalgia of his own — a milk truck from 82 years ago, and days gone by. “People our age, you know, look and smile and wave,” John said. “And some of the younger folks look at it and don’t understand what it is.”
Larson’s wife, Sharon (Krystosek) Larson, said she loves her husband’s antique collecting hobby. Her father was a social studies teacher and coach.
“My dad was an antique collector and a flea-marketer, so I’ve always liked antique or older things … vintage things.” Sharon said the dairy truck stands out. “This is probably the cutest vehicle we’ve ever gotten, and probably the most unique.”
The Larsons heard about the vehicle while gathering at her brother’s in Waterville, Minn. The brother’s sister-in-law’s aunt and uncle mentioned they owned a vintage milk truck and were willing to part with it “We struck a deal across the campfire,” John said.
John graduated high school at Thief River Falls, Minn., in 1976 and went to Moorhead State University for industrial engineering. He didn’t grow up on a farm, but had relatives in the business, and has always had an ag-centric professional career.
From 1996 to 2016, Larson worked at the Case-IH factory in Fargo, starting as a manufacturing engineer. “I worked down on the assembly line — in both cab main tractor assembly," he said. At the end he managed the facilities.
In 2016, he “changed professions,” and realized a personal goal of managing a plant. He was hired at Pactiv Evergreen LLC, in Moorhead, a company established in 1993 that employs 160 and makes egg cartons from recycled material for the food service industry. “We also make take-home containers out of ‘virgin’ material,” Larson said.
Since acquiring the delivery truck, Mark has done enough research to believe it’s extremely rare. The only one he knows about is in Missouri. The owner donated it to a museum.
The vehicle has a number of decals and signs from Arkulary’s, a family grocery company based in Duluth, Minn. Larson contacted a Arkulary family member who confirmed he’d purchased the truck in the 1990s and used it as a promotional item for the Arkulary grocery business, which dates back to 1936 in the region.
Arkulary told him the vehicle was used in parades in the 1990s and as a static billboard display in the company’s parking lot. John has made only a few upgrades — a bit of paint here or there, and some wiring. Newer seats.
Stephen Arkulary, who was part of his family’s rich grocery retailing history, is a previous owner. He purchased the truck in the 1990s to promote the grocery store delivery service. He said the truck bears the Arrowhead Dairy brand, which was a combination of dairy farmers who operated a dairy creamery cooperative in Duluth, Minn. “Arrowhead Dairy was in partnership with Foremost Foods for distributing ice cream and other processed dairy products.”
Setting June as National Dairy Month started as a grocer/milk promotion in 1937, although some say it started “officially” in 1939, the year Larson’s truck was built.
Arkulary said it started out as a way to sell extra milk after school was out, and warmer weather set in, reducing the demand for fluid milk.
“We used to have promotions like free ice cream cones, huge cheese sales with every variety we could get our hands on,” Arkulary said. “One giant cheese campaign coincided with a federal cheese program ‘giveaway,’" he said. The lines of people went “a block down the road.”
The Larson truck has a 250 hp, six-cylinder engine with a one-ton suspension, to carry the dairy products. “It rides like a one-ton truck,” John said, with a smile. "No power steering — kind of like driving the Mayflower — you’ve got to make sure the wheel really goes.”
“It’s called a D-15,” John said. “They made them in a series of ‘M’ models, which was milk trucks and ‘B’ models, which was bakery.” His research indicates the body — suspensions and chassis — were built by International. International hired an “outfitter” who “built the rest of it,” he said. The company also made another milk truck with an “aero” design, a more rounded front.
So far, John hasn’t been able to learn how many were made. He doesn’t know if the company made the delivery trucks through the war years. He’s seen a 1949 version. There may have been hundreds — maybe thousands.
The machine will be familiar to connoisseurs of International trucks of the day — a steel dashboard, hood and fenders. The side and door frames are wood, and the back panel is wood — most of it original. It has a canvas top with wood beams.
“I think the original units had a galvanized material on the inside to make a chamber on the back, where they kept things cool,” he said. “It has a metal floor.” There are places to store milk bottles and egg cartons.
Highlights of US milk demand, delivery
The Larsons grew up in Thief River Falls, Minn., but had their own distinct dairy experiences.
John’s father was a civil engineer for the highway department. His mother worked for Northwestern Bell Telephone.
“I remember a milk truck coming to our house,” John said. “I still remember the gentleman’s name who delivered to our house — Dayton Silk,” he said.
“I remember the way he looked, the uniform he wore. I remember he came to the house and knocked on the door, stepped into the back of the house, and said he brought my parents whatever they had ordered.” (Silk died in 2014 at age 95. He had worked for a city dairy, Land O’Lakes and for Bridgeman’s, retiring in 1975, according to his obituary.)
Meanwhile, Sharon’s father, Ed, was a teacher and coach. There were five children in the family. They bought raw milk at the Kermit Finstad dairy farm. They’d fill five or six plastic one-gallon jugs.
“You’d pay the dairy farm and we’d go home and my mom would skim the cream off the top for baking,” she said. “That’s the milk we drank. It was wonderful.”
Their dairy connection was personal.
Kermit and Marian Danielson sold much of their Holsteins’ milk directly to up to 350 customers into the late 1970s. They sold the excess to a processor.
“People would help themselves from the bulk tank, and put money in. Fifty cents a gallon: that’s what I think it was when I left the farm” in 1977, she said. Sometimes there were two or three cars in the driveway. They had 52 cows.
Finstad tried to quit dairying in 1976, but the farmer who bought the cows didn’t pay him. Ironically, Sharon’s father, the coach, helped him retrieve them. He quit for good in 1978.
But back to the truck.
“I’ve always been a ‘car guy,’” John said. “I’ve worked on cars since I was in high school.”
His brother, Mark Larson, was a mentor in the hobby. Mark is retired from a Dean Foods post (formerly Bridgeman’s).
The hobby has kept John busy in the garage and has helped educate the kids about mechanics.
He’s restored many cars since high school, a lot of “Snowcat” snow machines from Arctic Cat. He restores them to drive them and said they’re not car show quality.
“We do all the work ourselves, in the garage here,” he said. “And with the help of many friends.”
The first car he built was a 1941 Chevrolet. The family has a 1970 Cougar convertible, a 1927 Model-T Ford, a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker.
“And this milk truck,” he said, smiling.
Larson wants to take the dairy truck to an International collector show someday. He’s planning to take it to the 47th “Back to the Fifties” car show, June 18-20, at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, associated with the Minnesota Street Rod Association.
“Because of COVID they didn’t have the show last year. We’re excited to go this year,” he said.
They’ve sold vehicles across the years, and used the money to help pay for their kids’ college expenses. They won’t sell this one.
Sharon said their oldest grandson, Clifton, just loves the milk truck.
“John just said to him, ‘Well, Clifton, this can be your vehicle!’” she said. “I thought that was just wonderful.”