Knights of the Round Label: Boise's Milkmen a New Breed

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- It's dark and early on a Tuesday morning and Jayson Elayer is threading the streets of Boise with precious cargo in the back of his van. He pulls up to the curb and rises to open the double doors that lead to neatly-stacked crates each holding a day's worth of dairy--milk, eggs and other staples.

Elayer grabs a couple of glass bottles, sweating from the chilly air, and jumps to the sidewalk. With a practiced pivot, he heads for the front stoop and opens a cooler. He carefully places the bottles inside and switches them for the empties. Then he turns and makes quick work of the distance to his van.

This is a nightly ritual for Elayer, a driver for the Boise Milk Company, and a rarity--not just in Boise, but around the country. Home milk delivery, once a staple of American life, has all but vanished, like Bovril and buggy whips.

Boise Milk, founded in 2006, is one very prominent exception.

The company is small, just four drivers. But Boise Milk can handle its several hundred customers with ease. And continued growth is a clear possibility, especially now that Boise Milk has expanded into the Idaho Panhandle with service in both Coeur d'Alene and nearby Spokane.

Elayer knows he's part of an elite group and takes obvious pride in the way he handles his job.

"I like the hours," he says. "I like everything about it."

The routine begins every night around 10. Elayer loads up his van at a central warehouse with the hormone-free milk and other products, including produce. And then it's just a matter of working his way down a pre-approved checklist of current customers.

"I have 158," he says, matter-of-factly.

At one stop, his brow furrows as he glances at the eggs in one crate. Then he picks up a dozen and pairs it with a jug of milk.

"I didn't have local eggs, so I had to substitute natural," he explains.

The one thing you quickly notice about the delivery truck is that, cold as it might appear, it doesn't have refrigeration, or the big blocks of ice that were a fixture in the early days of home delivery. But Elayer says it's easy to explain.

"We ice our trucks at night so the milk stays cold," he says, drawing a line through another customer's order.

"We end up putting it in coolers and they put ice in their coolers," Elayer says about his customers.

He pulls up at another address and the ritual begins all over again. Double doors open, he grabs a couple of bottles, walks to the stoop, drops his cargo and leaves. Then it's back to the truck and, with gearshift in motion, we speed away. This goes on for hours.

And this kind of milk delivery hasn't changed all that much from when it was first introduced via horse and wagon and milk arrived exclusively in glass bottles.

By the 1940's, milkmen had graduated to the iconic Divco vans, most of them now museum pieces. They had a distinctive aerodynamic shape, mimicking the Chrysler Airflow automobile, and today are highly collectible.

They were widely used by the Borden Milk Company when home delivery was in its heyday. But what few delivery companies survive employ a wide variety of vehicles although none, sadly, are as distinctive as the Divco trucks.

Kyle Henry likely never has seen one of the old workhorses. He's another of the Boise Milk drivers, and still relatively new to the time-honored profession.

He says it beats flipping burgers, although it wasn't an easy adjustment.

"Staying up all night, sleeping all day," he says wearily.

Henry is from Iowa and resembles every other corn-fed lad from the Great Plains. But he likes the Boise lifestyle, especially the skiing. And driving for Boise Milk makes that possible.

When asked if there's a downside, he thinks for a minute and then offers up a professional secret.

"People do steal our milk sometimes," he says as the smile suddenly leaves his face.
"I haven't caught anybody but I've seen people leave notes that say, 'Whoever's been stealing my milk leave a tip next time."

Henry jumps back in his van to move it to a back area with chain-link fencing and a ring of barbed wire.

There's nothing in his truck to protect, but in a few hours he will fill it again until it's brimming like what it really is: a convenience store on wheels. Minus, of course, the smokes and beef jerky.