Recollection: A dairy's charity rewarded

In 1939, a migrant family unexpectedly paid a bill it didn't owe.

As late as the 1970s, some school children still got their milk from glass bottles, which dairies used to 'run' to customers’ doorsteps, then take back and wash the empty bottles to be reused again.

On our small California dairy farm in the late 1930s, my sisters and I helped daily –bottling the milk, washing the bottles, and “running the bottles” (taking full bottles to customers’ doorsteps). Mother drove the delivery truck, and we girls took turns “running.”

Among our customers were a few Mexican families. Mother always worried that the children in the six- to 10-child families were not getting enough milk. If we had extra, she stopped at the Sanchez home. “Put a bottle on their porch today,” she instructed. When the itinerant Sanchez family moved, we knew we would never be paid.

It was mid-month in August 1939, at least two weeks before we could expect to find money in customers’ empty bottles to pay for the prior month’s orders. Though business matters were not openly discussed, I overheard Mother worrying to Dad that after paying the electric bill (essential to keep the dairy running) and buying gas for the delivery truck, one of us would have to walk to town for shopping errands and the mail. We had to reserve cash for gasoline for the truck and didn’t have enough this month to buy gas and food, too.

We had a small garden, but the corn had been harvested and the bush beans and carrots were not yet ready. We girls hated walking the mile to and from town for any shopping.

It was my turn this hot August day to do the errand. Besides getting the mail, I was to purchase a couple of pounds of dry beans, a few dry onions, and a pound of ground meat.

When I returned, I plopped the food on the sink board and the mail on the dining table and settled beside the radio to tune in "Chandu the Magician," my favorite radio program.

Before the radio warmed up, I heard a happy shout from Mother. Waving a small piece of paper and three $1 bills, she handed me the note. “Mrs. Willis, José picks grapes. Muchas gracias for milk when we did not pay. Señora Sanchez.”

Mother drove to town and replenished our grocery supply that lasted until the end of the month when empty bottles on customers’ porches held the pay for the prior month’s milk.

– Ms. Gore is the author of "Long-Distance Grandparenting."

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