November 14, 2020 at 6:14 p.m.
“Hauling milk is a very exciting and very rewarding job,” Ehlers said. “My favorite thing about it is the farmers. All the farmers on my route were invited to my wedding in 1978.”
The oldest of six boys on his family’s 38-cow farm, Ehlers’ father told him he would have to get a job after high school. Ehlers attended a breeding school in Waupun and bred cows from 1972-1974 while also working at Kasten Manufacturing in Allenton.
“I got sick of working in the factory, and when I heard that Independent Milk Producers was looking for a driver, I started hauling milk instead,” Ehlers said. “That’s where my dad shipped his milk.”
Ehlers started out in an old Ford F800 single-axle automatic transmission milk truck he drove for two years before a route came up for sale. Ehlers then bought his own truck which he kept for a year until transmission trouble got the best of it. That was when he bought a brand-new International Cargo Star Tandem that held 30,000 pounds of milk.
Driving in conditions not meant for the faint of heart comes with the job, and the ice storm of 1976 is something Ehlers will never forget.
“It was the worst weather I ever drove in,” he said. “It was like an ice-skating rink everywhere. A lot of roads were closed. Big power poles snapped off, and wires were laying on the road. Farmers had to lime or sand their driveways and have a generator ready to load the milk. We had no power in the area for 10 days. This meant milk in the cooler wasn’t cold so farmers were cooling it down with bags of ice.”
Ehlers sold his truck in 1977 to drive for Schaefer Trucking out of Kewaskum. For four years, Ehlers drove down to Cicero Avenue in downtown Chicago to deliver milk to the Hawthorn Mellody Dairy milk plant. Trips to the Windy City made for lengthy days, sometimes keeping Ehlers on the road until 3 a.m.
“There were 27 stop-and-go lights on Cicero, and it’s not that good of a neighborhood,” Ehlers said. “My boss told me, ‘Just keep driving no matter who’s out there. Don’t ever stop.’”
Ehlers remembers 1979 as one of the snowiest winters. Deep snow drifts made for difficult driving, and that year, Ehlers’ truck almost slid off a hill while he was parked at a farm picking up milk.
Hauling milk had many perks, one of which was all the gifts Ehlers was showered with at the end of the year.
“Christmas was the best time of year to haul milk,” Ehlers said. “There were presents on every cooler – homemade cookies, whiskey, wine, etc. I got so much stuff. We also received baby presents when my wife and I had our first child.”
Ehlers gave Christmas presents in return, buying quarts of chocolate milk, egg nog, sour cream and cream cheese from the processor to give to dairy producers on his route.
“I wanted to show the farmers where their milk went, and they really appreciated that,” Ehlers said.
In 1980, Ehlers nearly missed the birth of his first child when he was on one of his Chicago trips, barely making it back in time due to freezing rain and heavy, wet snow.
“I got to the hospital at 3 a.m., and she was born at 6 a.m.,” Ehlers said.
That same year, a bad stomachache landed Ehlers in the hospital just moments before his appendix burst. He spent the morning picking up milk, but then at the advice of a fellow driver, who was also a nurse, Ehlers went straight to the hospital after handing his route over to her for the day.
“I made it to the hospital just in time,” Ehlers said. “My doctor told me I was lucky I got there when I did.”
In the early 1980s, Ehlers took a four-year break from hauling milk to haul livestock for Kreilkamp Trucking of Allenton. He covered the Midwest transporting cows, pigs, sheep and veal calves. The job kept him on the road all week – from Sunday afternoon to Friday. Spending so many hours behind the wheel was especially challenging with a young family waiting for him at home.
“I wasn’t home much,” Ehlers said. “My kids would say, ‘Daddy’s gone all the time.’ That’s when I decided to start farming instead.”
He bought some cows and began renting a farm. Three years later in 1988, when Ehlers was a father of four, he bought a farm near Theresa where he milked 100 cows and farmed 300 acres.
“For a couple years, I didn’t haul any milk because I was too busy farming,” Ehlers said. “But I kept my CDL license, and as my boys got older, I started filling in on weekends for Gundrum Trucking out of Slinger. I also served as a relief man for Ron Puls Trucking for many years.”
A people-person, Ehlers loved talking with the farmers on his route as well as their children. He befriended many dogs as well.
“Little kids would come walking into the milkhouse, and we would chat and get to know each other,” Ehlers said. “Now some of these kids are the ones running the farms. It’s really touching.”
In 2003, Ehlers sold his cows and began working for nearby Schmidt Farms, helping with milking, fieldwork and other chores. Today, Ehlers hauls milk for Schmidt Farms five days a week – a farm that was on Ehlers’ route when he first started hauling in the 1970s. The dairy milks 1,900 cows, and Ehlers hauls one load per day to a Foremost Farms cheese plant in Marshfield – a 300-mile round trip.
Ehlers also continues to haul for Gundrum Trucking on the weekends, picking up milk at a variety of farms to take to Saputo, Kraft, Galloway, BelGioioso and other processors. Ehlers remained on the farm which is now run by his sons, Tim and Nick, who brought cows back to the dairy in 2005.
“Hauling milk is not a hard job, but you have to pay attention,” Ehlers said. “Traffic is the worst part. There’s not a lot of patience, respect or common sense on the road. The things I see people do out there is unbelievable. They don’t realize how much a milk truck weighs and how difficult it can be to maneuver.”
Hauling milk for most of his adult life, Ehlers can tell countless stories about his time as a milkman and has seen many changes throughout the years.
“When I first started, there was no antibiotic testing,” Ehlers said. “You just pumped the milk, did a bacteria test and measured butterfat – that was it. Once a week, we did a plate count and sediment tests. Now, testing is so stringent and quick. Milk quality has progressed a lot since I started. Nowadays, the milk is so clean. You can’t find any bacteria in it.”
Ehlers’ love for the dairy industry kept him close to the farming community in his work as a milk hauler.
“When I think of all the people I’ve met over the years on my routes and all the friendships that developed, it really warms my heart,” Ehlers said. “They’re like family to me.”