By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Over the past few years, Ruth and I have visited many farms in Iowa and we have often seen farm antiques proudly displayed on these farms. One of our favorite items is the old-fashioned milk can.
Our parents bought their first farm when I was two years old. Dad continued to work at Oscar Mayer while he slowly bought cattle and began to build up the herd. I have vague memories of the first milk cooler we had, which held two of the old-fashioned milk cans. Below is a photo of a very old cooler that we saw on an Iowa dairy farm.
Many years ago, when our grandmother got to the point of not being able to live on her own, an auction was held to sell off most of her and our grandfather’s possessions. Our grandfather had died many years earlier, but we still expected to find some of his things at the auction.
Grandpa had been a dairy farmer and we used to love visiting the farm. But he retired from farming when we were quite young and he and grandma built a new house and moved into town. When we would visit them at their new house, we would play in the basement where there was an old player piano and some toys.
One of the toys was a metal “blackbird pie” that worked like a jack-in-box. As you turned the crank, it played the tune, “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” which was an old English nursery rhyme set to music:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie…
When it got to the end of the tune, blackbirds would pop out of the pie. This was our favorite toy and, all those years later, we had hopes that this toy might make an appearance at the auction. Alas, it was nowhere to be seen and no one seemed to know what had happened to it.
We also hoped to find some of Grandpa’s cigar boxes and we were delighted to find stacks of them at the auction. We always knew when Grandpa was nearby because we could smell his cigar smoke. Ruth and I each bid on a stack of cigar boxes so that we had something to remind us of Grandpa.
As we walked around looking at what else had been put up for sale, we discovered a rusty old milk can. “This must have belonged to Grandpa when he was farming,” I said to Ruth. “I really want to have this.”
As we looked it over, I noticed a small metal plate attached to the can and covered with dust. I started to rub off the dust and realized that it had Grandpa’s name on it. It said, “Raw Milk, Edward Barman.” I couldn’t believe it. So I stopped rubbing off the dust in hopes that no one else would notice this nameplate.
Our cousin, David, whom we have mentioned before in this blog, was the auctioneer and he was working his way around the house, selling all the items that were displayed on the lawn. I headed over to my brother-in-law to ask for his advice about bidding on the old milk can.
Joann: “One of Grandpa’s milk cans is setting down by the garage. How much would you bid for that?”
Vern: “I’d only pay five bucks for something like that.”
Joann: “But it has Grandpa’s name on it. I was thinking I’d be willing to spend $50.
Vern: “Are you crazy?! The thing’s probably only worth five bucks.”
It seemed to take forever before David finally worked his way to the garage area and the old milk can. As he looked into the small crowd and noticed that I was interested in this item, he hollered in his best auctioneer voice, “Who’ll give me a hundred dollar bill for this antique milk can?”
I was shocked, and then he laughed and said, “Just kidding, who’ll give me a five dollar bill?” I raised my hand and then he tried to raise the bid, but no one else was interested.
“SOLD for a five dollar bill!” he said, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. My intention, of course, was to take it home and restore it to its former condition. However, it’s still sitting in my basement covered with rust. But it still displays my grandfather’s name and I still love it, rust and all!