SHOREHAM — Addison County’s dairy farming industry continues to contract and diversify, but one thing has remained constant during the past 61 years — George Warner has been picking up the milk, and boy has he delivered.
Warner, now 82, wasn’t yet 21 in 1948 when he began hauling Addison County milk for Brox’s Dairies. Born in Vergennes and then living in Bridport, Warner recalls driving from farm to farm, picking up the milk in 44-quart cans.
He’d hoist each 127-pound can into the truck, ending up with 300 of them before heading to Rutland. There, he’d cover them with three tons of cubed ice to preserve the product for its trip to the Brox processing facility in Methuen, Mass.
How was the lifting?
“Weren’t that bad after the first six months,” Warner, a man of few words and a delightfully dry sense of humor, said with a chuckle while being interviewed last Thursday. He and his wife of 26 years, Pauline, currently live in Shoreham.
Warner recollects the early days when he used to park his milk truck in the evening near the Crosbys’ barn off New Haven Road in Vergennes, the one that is now Bub’s Barn Home Furnishing center, then get behind the wheel in the early morning for his run.
“I’d pick up milk all the way to Rutland, then go on to Methuen,” he said.
Some technological advances through the years have helped reduce the battering to Warner’s body and undoubtedly lengthened his career by a few decades.
Brox switched to bulk tanks during the mid-1950s, according to Warner, thereby eliminating the need to haul the 44-quart cans. All of a sudden, the milk could be siphoned from the farm’s holding tank into the truck with the use of a hose and a pump.
“It was a damn sight easier,” Warner says with a grin.
The advent of automated milking parlors would further streamline the milk production/hauling system for the farmers and folks like Warner, who could suddenly focus more on driving and getting the product safely to the milk processors.
Through the years, Warner has worked for several milk hauling companies, including Cumberland Farms, Holdman, DFA, Garelick Farms and now, McDermott’s Trucking out of Enosburg Falls. And while the people signing his paychecks have changed, Warner hasn’t. He has remained a constant, with a familiar Addison County route that has, unfortunately, seen many farmers throw in the towel amid declining milk prices and soaring production costs. Warner used to pick up as few as three 44-quart cans of milk at some stops; those small operators have now fallen by the wayside.
“The farmers have pretty much been a good bunch,” Warner said. “It’s been a shame to see the good ones go out (of business).”
Farmers have established a special bond with Warner, whose longevity has been witnessed by three generations on some Addison County farms. A recent heart attack forced Warner to take a break from his milk route, and he is champing at the bit to get back behind the wheel.
“I’d go back tomorrow, if they’d let me,” he says.
It has been strange for the half-dozen farmers on Warner’s route not to see the same familiar face backing up his 18-wheeler.
“The farmers have all been asking about him,” said Bruce McDermott, Warner’s regional supervisory.
Warner has been able to sleep in lately — not easy for a man who has been a perennial early riser. Throughout his career, it’s been up at 4 a.m. and out the door by 5. He’d get home around noon after visiting around a half-dozen farms, primarily in Addison and West Ferrisburgh.
PERFECT DRIVING RECORD
McDermott lauded Warner’s dependability and sterling driving record. In 61 years, Warner has never had an accident, nor a speeding ticket.
“He’s always been there to lend a hand when we’ve needed it,” McDermott said. “He shows up every day and does the job the way it’s supposed to be done. If I needed extra help, I’d give him a call and he would always come in.”
McDermott also marvels at the precision Warner shows, even at age 82, in backing up to milk barns at the various farms.
“He ain’t touched nothing,” McDermott said of his veteran driver’s knack for avoiding collisions in tight quarters. “I send a different driver in there and they sometimes end up hittin’ something.”
Indeed, “slow,” “careful” and “cautious” are how Warner likes to operate. And you could probably add the word “alone” to that list, as Warner has enjoyed the relative solitude that goes with his daily rounds.
“I like it,” Warner said. “You get up in the morning, you go do your work, and nobody bothers you as long as you do your job.”
A stress test early next month will determine whether George Warner will be able to return to his beloved job. In the meantime, Pauline Warner said her husband has found it hard to be cooped up at home.
“You should have heard him last week, wanting to get back to work,” she said.
He has no plans to retire.
“He’ll probably do it until he dies,” Pauline said. “Everybody has told me that when George dies, it’ll be on the milk truck.”
When Warner finally does decide to turn in his keys, it may be to someone in the family. He has a six-year-old grandson who has visions of revving an 18-wheeler.
“He’s saying, ‘I want to be a truck driver like Poppy,’” Pauline Warner said.