If you’re old enough to remember any of the following — gas station attendants who pumped gas for you, telephone party lines, or S&H Green Stamps — then you probably remember milk trucks, those odd little snub-nosed delivery vehicles driven by milkmen wearing their spiffy white suits and jaunty caps. Younger readers may be astonished to know that, once upon a time, milk was actually delivered to one’s home by this white-suited army, who placed one’s weekly order of milk, in glass bottles rather than plastic cartons, on the back porch and took away one’s empties.
Almost all milkmen drove trucks built by the Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company, now long gone along with home milk delivery and milkmen; but the members of the Divco Club Of America, some 500 strong, will honor their memory when the club descends on Asheville later this month for their bi-annual convention, featuring lovingly restored Divco trucks on display at Biltmore and at Hendersonville’s Antique Car Show.
“This is the first time we’ve had a convention in Asheville,” says club secretary Mike Buiter, who lives in Greenville and also serves as the director of the regional Divco chapter when not engaged in his day job as Dean of the School of Business at Bob Jones University. “College students absolutely love looking at and learning from these vehicles. They have a unique appearance and were designed to be reliable and carry heavy loads over short distances.”
Mike pointed out that the Divco club refers to the trucks as Multi-Stop Delivery vehicles, with earlier models featuring a steering wheel and gearshift at both ends and no seat, allowing the driver to easily hop on and off and change direction on their routes. Like many club members, Mike’s tie to Divcos is a personal one. “My dad was a milkman on the south side of Chicago, and I was his helper on Saturday deliveries throughout my youth,” he explains. Mike owns two Divcos, a 1951 Model 11 and a Model 300 from 1957, both of which he found in junkyards. Restoring them to show condition took over two years.
Club president Ken Lego’s relationship with the trucks is even closer than Mike’s, since Ken was an actual milkman during the early 1970s in Illinois. “When I was growing up back in the ’50s and ’60s, many dairy concerns in my area used Divcos for delivering milk,” Ken says. “There are dairy concerns that still use them for daily deliveries, one in North Providence, Rhode Island and another in Aurora, Illinois.”
Ken, who became president of the national club three years ago, owns a 1965 Divco model known as the 100B, one of the smaller Divcos produced. Like Mike, he bought his truck in a ruinous condition but found a local body shop to resurrect its peculiar shape. “The snub nose look of the truck fascinates people,” Ken said. “It stayed pretty much the same for 50 years, about as along as the VW Bug. One of the challenges of owning a Divco is finding replacement body parts, but oddly enough, you can find many mechanical parts off the shelf at auto parts stores.”
Like all American cars during the first half of the last century, Divcos were born in Detroit. They were the brainchild of George Bacon, who designed his first model in 1922 for his employers, the Detroit Electric Vehicle Company, even though Bacon conceived a gasoline-powered vehicle to meet the challenges of heavy loads, frequent stops and the Midwest’s winter roads. The company thought a gasoline engine was too expensive, so Bacon formed his own company and put his first Divco on the road for the Detroit Creamery in 1926. These early versions, with a 4-cylinder engine, could be driven from the front and back and from either running board, but later models abandoned the multi-directional approach and put the driver up front.
The most familiar model to modern eyes is 1933’s Model U, the first Divco with the sloping, foreshortened front hood, the basic body style until the last Divco rolled off the assembly line in 1986, at a plant in Delaware, Ohio. By then, Bacon’s original company had suffered a tortured corporate history, with multiple mergers, divestments and bankruptcies, but the real death blow was the rise of the suburban supermarket and cheaper and larger distribution networks to service them. Since the top speed for a Divco was 45 miles an hour, they were quickly left in the backwash of more efficient, refrigerated diesel-driven trucks.
While the world through which Divco trucks wended their way has virtually disappeared, the diminutive vehicles retain an undeniable nostalgic tug. “Our membership may skew to older people, but there are children of milkmen, like me, that have fond memories of home delivery,” Mike Buiter says. “One look at these old trucks brings back a host of wonderful memories.”