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32nd annual El Paso Days honors history of milk haulers

Helmer Peterson (right) stands next to his wife Ethel. Helmer was a milk hauler from El Paso for over 40 years and will be honored at this year's El Paso Days. His son and daughter-in-law Wayne and Bonnie Peterson will be serving as Grand Marshals. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Peterson.

Each year El Paso Days focuses on a specific industry or business in the town's history to honor at its yearly festival. For the 32nd annual El Paso Days Aug.16-19, families of former milk haulers will be representatives as grand marshals.

Wayne and Bonnie Peterson will represent Wayne's father Helmer Peterson, who hauled milk throughout the area for about 40 years from 1930-1970. Farmers like Helmer would drive their trucks through any conditions to make sure milk from the area could get to the creamery in Ellsworth every day, all year long.

"It was too much work," Tom Peterson, one of Helmer's sons who helped with the operation, said. "It was seven days a week for 40 years; we left home at 7 a.m. and did three loads of milk in the summer and two in the winter."

Helmer would haul loads from as far away as Baldwin or Roberts, and he would put on about 125 miles a day making his trips. He continued this until he was 67 years old, after which his son Wayne took over the route for a few years.

Merlin Blaisdell, one of the organizers for El Paso Days, said he remembers being about 18 years old and thinking it would be no problem to be a milk hauler. After his first day he said he remembered being incredibly sore, due to the chore of taking every milk can by hand and storing them in multiple rows in the truck all day.

Helmer's sons Tom and Wayne remember their dad taking a can in each hand when loading, which was no small feat. Wayne's wife Bonnie remembers Helmer always being in great shape, even earning an award for his fitness once he got past 65 years old.

The Ellsworth Creamery began to fade out their can routes around the time Helmer retired, in which they were going to give him a bulk route that would've been too difficult to fulfill at his age. The Creamery played a big part in the process, as they paid by the butter fat content and the weight of what they were brought. This was back in a time when their now-famous cheese curds were fed to the hogs because they had no use for them. The milk haulers would get a portion of the money brought in per 100 cans.

"When it was Christmas, the creamery always had something to give all the farmers," Blaisdell said. "The milk haulers would bring these gifts ... and they would drop off butter or whatever (farmers) ordered, and (the farmers) would get that reduced from their milk check."

This role as a transportation link between the creamery and its farmers was essential for the flow of goods in the area. The farmers showed a lot of appreciation for their milk haulers who came every day in any weather condition.

"They had an agreement that they look out after each other," Blaisdell said. "They didn't make much money but they always shared."

Tom Peterson also remembers certain farmers leaving small gifts or baked goods for their milk haulers every day. This was one of the small ways to show they appreciated their work.

"The younger generation doesn't know the hardships for the farmers and milk haulers," Blaisdell said. "They'd have snow plows and chains on their wheels in the winter, because the milk needed to be picked up every day."

Keeping the industry's history alive is the main reason for this year's theme of celebrating area milk haulers. Helmer's sons Tom and Wayne were part of the process growing up and actually threw cans, which will allow families to be represented in the festivities.

"We try to have a historic theme each year and get people in the community involved," Blaisdell said. "We're interested in getting people that lived in El Paso that were involved in a vocation and try to find something to interest the community."

The 32nd annual El Paso Days will begin on Aug. 14 with the 14th annual El Paso Community Club Crisis Fund Golf Tournament in Spring Valley. It usual raises close to $5,000-$6000 for the city's generous crisis fund, which Blaisdell said isn't a common thing.

"We have a crisis fund in El Paso ... anybody that comes into any tragedy or health issues," Blaisdell said. "We give that $5,000 or $6,000 back to people who have fires or accidents or long-term health issues to help them out."

The rest of the events run between the 16th and 19th, with most events taking place at the El Paso Bar and Grill and Adolph's Log Cabin Bar.

Popular events include a memorial breakfast on Saturday morning, which serves as another fundraiser for the crisis fund. The seventh annual cow race is on Saturday night, which costs $10 per floating cow. The cow numbers can be bought at the El Paso Bar and Grill and there will be money prizes for first through third place.

There is also an Ecumenical Worship Service on Sunday at the St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery, of which about 300 people attend each year. This leads up to the most popular event of the weekend, the Grand Parade. The parade starts at 2 p.m. on Sunday and will feature the El Paso Marching band. For more information, pick up a schedule of events at the El Paso Bar and Grill.

Zach Dwyer

Zach Dwyer is a senior journalism student at UW-River Falls. He is an intern reporter for RiverTown Multimedia during the summer of 2018 covering features and sports. He was previously a news intern in the summer of 2017 for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. 

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