By Peter Zablocki
Mrs. Ada Helder was rocked out of her sleep and onto the floor. Was it a bomb? After all it had only been a year since World War II ended and Denville did away with bomb drills. She had been staying with her daughter and son-in-law at their Augusta Street home in Denville. It was not all that bad, especially the screened-in-porch above the garage in which she often dozed off in her chair at night only to awaken the next morning. Now she was on the floor, dazed and confused. She raised herself up and approached the windows. Down below stood the neighborhood milkman, his hands on his head in disbelief. In front of him, and directly below Ada was the milkman’s truck, buried halfway into the concrete wall and what was once a garage door. It was Monday, September 9, 1946 and good-ole milk was about to become a big point of contention in Denville.
The milkman on that fateful morning had left his truck parked at the street end of Helder’s driveway which runs downhill directly into the garage, above which is the sunporch where the elder lady was sleeping. As he walked down to deliver the milk, his truck, owned by a local Morristown dairy company, slipped its break, and raced down after him. While the man was able to jump out of the way and save himself just in time, the same could not be said for the building. After the debris was cleared off the truck, a temporary steel post was put in place to hold the second story of the house and all proper authorities were called in to investigate. Life moved on for those on Augusta street. Or so it seemed.
In two weeks’ time, another delivery man– ironically also making a delivery at Augusta Street – found himself in enough trouble to be summoned in front of the local magistrate and fined for his actions. His offense? Delivering a bottle of milk at 6:20 a.m., instead of waiting until 6:30 a.m. The case, dubbed the “Milk Case” by local papers, would dominate local editorials for months. Raymond Parks, Jr. employed as a driver by his father, a local Denville milk distributor, broke a Morris County law passed a few years prior which prohibited the delivery of milk before 6:30 a.m. except on Sundays and holidays. The law was pushed through the legislature by the “unwillingness of union milk drivers to start work early in the morning, and … the big companies’ desire to avoid overtime payrolls.”
At Parks’ hearing, the two employees, representing their respective large milk distributing companies, the Alderney Dairy Co. and Borden Co., testified quite frankly that they were not concerned in the welfare of the public, “…but were anxious to stop independent dealers from delivering milk before the large companies’ drivers started work.” The Denville judge, showing his distaste for the motives put forth by the complainants, made Parks’ fine a mere $2.50. It was common knowledge that if one bought from a local milk distributor, they would not have to pay up front as the owner, most often also a resident of the town, would simply make the rounds on Saturday mornings to collect. Meanwhile, the bigger distributors determined that if they delivered the milk before 6:30 a.m. their customers would likely still be sleeping which would force the drivers to make another trip at the end of the day to collect the money. This of course would lead to the companies having to pay overtime, something that they were not willing to do. To many Denville residents, the choice was obvious – support the local guy, even if it meant having to pay a few extra pennies.
The letters to the editor of the Denville Herald exploded in late September and early October, making the “Milk Case” the town’s most heated topic since war rationing of just a few short years prior. “It used to be in this county that everybody admired the man who was gumption enough to get up before breakfast and who wasn’t afraid of starting work in the early hours before dawn,” stated one editorial, “today, it seems, he’s guilty of unfair competition, so we pass a law to punish him for getting a head start out of bed.” Another adding, “If [one’s] energy and willingness to serve his customers [brings] him greater success than came to his less ambitious competitors, [then] we [applaud] him as living proof of the opportunities offered by the American way.” Still, as with any debate, one editor weighed the opposite view by suggesting that perhaps “people work too long and too hard [and] they ought to relax more and not worry about how much they can pile up.” Further stating that “maybe the New Jersey Legislature was really smarter than we gave them credit for [by passing the law].”
The “milk conversation” continued until December of 1946 by which time it evolved into editorials suggesting a cooperative delivery system. This was eventually squashed as the thought of having one truck deliver different milk brands just seemed like bad business. It lacked that personal delivery touch. Namely “…the interaction between the delivery man and the housewife.” In today’s world it is hard to imagine how something as simple as milk could bring about such heated debates among townsfolk. But then again, back in 1946, the local paper and its editorial section was THE social media of its time. Today, all it takes is a few seconds on neighborhood Facebook pages to realize that not much has changed in the past 70-odd years. As wacky as “milk cases” dominating local news and editorials for three months may seem to us today, think about what future generations will think of the wealth of opinions we leave behind for them on our social media. Nevermind, that may just be too scary to think about.
Peter Zablocki is a local historian and vice-president of the Denville Historical Society. He is also a co-host of a weekly podcast, “History Teachers Talking.”