A son restores his father’s milk wagon to its former glory
BY KATHRYN HRYCUSKO
Special to the VOICE
Only a few months ago a faded blue milk wagon with its back end badly damaged sat in Dan Grenier’s yard looking dilapidated and somewhat neglected. Now, painstakingly reconstructed to its original glory by Grenier and his wife Marie-Anne, the 70-year-old milk wagon, once again red and white with black lettering reading “North Side Dairy,” is a veritable blast from the past. The wagon is one of many that was used by North Side Dairy to deliver milk and butter throughout Welland, until the company pulled its horse-drawn wagons off the road some 50 years ago.
For Grenier, not only does the wagon remind him of days gone by, but more specifically, it holds a special place in his heart, as a reminder of his first job and time with his father.
Grenier’s father worked as a milkman for the company for 37 years. He delivered dairy products to the residents of the Dain City area, and as early as the age of five, Grenier would accompany his father on his milk runs.
“I used to go with my dad every Saturday to work and ride with him on his wagon,” said Grenier, “Then over the years it kind of never left me.”
By the age of 17, sometime in the 1960s, Grenier had dropped out of high school to take up his own milk run and his own wagon. It was his first-ever job, and one that he remembers fondly.
His day would start at 4 AM and by noon he would have visited nearly 200 houses, quietly letting himself in and out to bring them milk and pick up their empty bottles.
During the 12 years that he drove the milk wagon, Grenier became familiar with the families on his route and remembers being met by friendly faces at each stop. He recalls being met with kindness every morning, as well as the atmosphere of trust that surrounded his position. Oftentimes he would let himself in and out of residences before families had woken up for the day.
Around the Christmas season this kindness would manifest in the form of drinks, with nearly every household offering Grenier and his father a drink or shot, despite it being quite early in the morning. Marie-Anne recalled that on one occasion Grenier’s father had to call Grenier to come and finish his route for him and take him home.
“Everyone would just say to them, ‘Come on, just one drink,’” said Marie-Anne. “They don’t know that everyone said one drink—that’s 20 drinks now.”
It was not unknown for the horses, who knew their way back to North Side’s stables, to occasionally pull up to the yard with their driver fast asleep in the wagon, said Grenier.
Occasions such as these and interactions with the residents of Welland left little time for dull moments on his milk run. Grenier recalls one humourous incident when he got pulled over by the police while driving his wagon.
“I had a friend with me, he wanted to go with me on my route. So we’re going down Thorold Road and it was about 4:30 in the morning. He says, can I ride the horse?” recounted Grenier. “What do I care? I was 17. You could do anything you want, right?”
Grenier allowed his friend to hop up and ride the horse, and as they trotted down Thorold Road they passed a police car headed the other way. The officer promptly made a u-turn and put on his lights. Grenier recalls that the officer pulled over the milk wagon and asked what they two youths were doing, to which Grenier’s friend promptly replied, “Ah we’re just horsing around.”
The officer, unamused, told the friend to get off the horse, worried that it might spook and throw its rider into the way of the wagon.
Spooking the horses, or trying to, was a favourite pastime amongst some of the children on the milk run, Grenier said. Often they would clap, yell, or throw stones at the horse to make it run.
More than once Grenier found himself chasing his own wagon, trying to catch his bolting horse as it rattled away from him with the day’s milk delivery.
Grenier’s wife remembers being one of the children who attempted to spook the horses on occasion, and recalls the time when milk wagons were a regular sight on the road. She remembers Grenier specifically from that time as well.
“That’s when he told me he had a crush on me,” said Marie-Anne.
Grenier said that Marie-Anne has been an integral part of the team that restored the wagon, from the initial search through its restoration.
The two of them had thought to look for a North Side Dairy milk wagon after seeing one from Sunnyside Dairy in a parade. Although had Grenier moved on from North Side Dairy to Union Carbide, and then to Humpty Dumpty, where he worked until he retired, the milk wagon work was always a fond memory.
“I have a special place in my heart for that job. It was a nice job and a lot of people complain about their jobs today. I never did,” said Grenier. “Yeah, I liked that job. I had a horse and I took a liking to the horse. I used to feed it apples and cubes of sugar all the time.”
The couple drove around Niagara looking for Grenier’s old wagon, Wagon #5, but without much luck until they posted a sign in Wainfleet saying they were searching for it.
In November, only a couple of months after they posted the “wagon wanted” sign, Grenier received a call from Pelham resident Bob Reeves.
For close to 50 years, a North Side Dairy milk wagon had sat in Reeves’ barn, though, as he told Grenier, it was not Grenier’s #5, but Wagon #8.
It may not have been the wagon that he originally looked for, but Grenier was more than pleased to be given the opportunity to purchase and restore it—Wagon #8 in fact been his father’s wagon, the one Grenier had first ridden in at age five.
The wagon “came home to the Grenier family,” as Reeves put it to Grenier, in time for Christmas.
“It was a true Christmas miracle,” said Marie-Anne, a feeling that for the couple has been amplified by the sighting of doves—which Grenier’s father always said he would return reincarnated as—sitting on the wagon.
Over the winter months, Grenier planned what needed to be done to restore the wagon come springtime. The list was extensive, given that the wagon had been in an accident that severely dented in its rear, in addition to having suffered from general wear and tear. Grenier acknowledged, however, that it could have been in a much worse state had Reeves not taken care of it as he did, keeping it sheltered and replacing the canvas roofing.
In April, Grenier got to work on the restoration process. Though generally handy and an experienced woodworker, he had never attempted anything of the sort before and encountered several challenges, chief among them tracking down original parts, or at least those that resembled the originals.
Grenier credits Marie-Anne for keeping him calm and sane as he phoned vendor after vendor, searching for the specific parts he needed.
Grenier and Marie-Anne were two of the core reconstruction team. Their sons Mark and Paul, along with their friends Marcel Rouillier and Marc Dumoulin, were integral to the project. Dumoulin helped Grenier throughout, spending countless hours sanding, painting, repairing dents, and more. Rouillier focused on the frame at the back of the wagon, replacing rotted wood and remaking the section that had been damaged in an accident. Mark, a millwright, remade the wheel bearings, the bottle rack at the rear, and wired it to be pulled behind a car. Their other son Paul, handy with computers and good at designing, designed the font so that the letters could be printed to look like those that North Side Dairy would have once painted on the wagon by hand. Within a month the team was able to finish the reconstruction.
Grenier and Marie-Anne are also eager to thank Napa Auto Parts who donated the paint for the wagon, and Digital Detail, who installed the lettering on the wagon.
Grenier invited his old supervisor from North Side Dairy, a man now 91 years of age, to come and look at the completed wagon. The sight of the wagon brought tears to his eyes—a flashback to times when he would arrive at work in the morning and see the wagons all lined up side by side.
Grenier is hoping to bring this piece of history to other residents of Welland as well. Currently, he has agreed to make an appearance in the Rose Festival Parade, at the Marshville Heritage Festival, and at the Welland Car Show.
Leading up to the Rose Festival Parade, Grenier continues to work on the inside of the wagon to put together some finishing touches. Included with the purchase of the wagon was an assortment of old milk crates and milk bottles that Reeves had collected over the years, which Grenier will put in the wagon for the parade. Grenier also has an old money bag worn by milkmen, and an outfit (hat and bow tie) to match. He plans to wear them as he drives the wagon in the coming parade as he drives it. He will be accompanied by his grandchildren, sitting in the back, riding along much as he did with father so many years before.