Milkman Des remembers halcyon days in Port Elliot: clever horses and friendly neighbours
When Des Dent was a milkman, life seemed so much simpler.
Back in those good old days you could leave money in a billy can on the front verandah.
If the customers left you some letters to post for them, that was no bother at all.
And if you stayed too long having a yarn to a customer, your horse just might give you the hint and move on to the next stop.
It was a fun time from a bygone era, but the good times are forever etched in Des’ memory.
For 47 years Des, and his father Roy, delivered milk to the Port Elliot and Victor Harbor regions in South Australia.
“Dad bought the milk round in Port Elliot in 1950,” Des said. “I started when I was about 13, when I left school.
“There were several dairies in the town back in the 40s,” Des recalled. “The two boarding houses had their own dairy and there was a chap who milked cows behind the congregational church right in Port Elliot.”
Des and Roy had their own rounds, each covering one side of the town. It was all with horses in the early days. The rounds would take each of them three or four hours and they’d also have to pick up milk from the dairies at night and in the morning.
“People would hang their billy cans on the gate as near as they could to the footpath, with the money in it, and we’d then leave the loose milk in the billies,” Des said.
That honesty system worked well for a time. “We never lost a cent till around 1970, when money started being stolen. That mucked up household deliveries,” he lamented.
“We went to alternate days and had the customer hide the money separate to the bottle. It added a lot of time to the rounds but people didn’t like the idea of losing money so instead they’d go up the street and buy their milk.”
Around the same time Des and Roy leased several additional rounds in Victor Harbor and invested in a van. Des was sad to see the horses go but with four rounds and employees being added to the team they had little choice.
His first horse, Clippy, was a stand-out, though his last horse Mike wasn’t bad either. “I’d stop and talk to someone and Mike would just keep going to the next stop.
“Having a horse was like having a helper with you. They knew the round better than I did.”
Alongside local baker Ernie Willets, Des used to go to the Port Elliot camping ground for sales.
“Ernie would have a van and people would buy buns. They’d stick the buns under their arms and pay Ernie and the horse would delicately take the buns from them. She’d move up behind the van and nick them. I’d say Ernie, don’t park so close to me.”
There was no street lighting after 11pm in the early years and all deliveries were done in the dark. Clippy would spot the waiting billies, unseen by Des, and come to a quick halt, flinging him up into the milk cans in the front of the float.
The horses were great, and the customers weren’t bad either.
“It was disappointing when we could no longer go to the houses,” Des said. “We had good relationships with our customers. Quite often they’d forget to turn their sprinkler off so we’d turn it off, or we’d take the paper in and put it on the verandah. Often people would leave letters in their milk cans for us to post for them.
“When we first came over to Victor Harbor we used to leave crates of bottles just outside the door of shops, but we started losing milk then so we had to get keys to the shops. It became difficult and it was all wholesale in the end.”
The business didn’t have an official name until in the 1960s when they started cartoning and later bottling milk. “To do that, we had to have a name,” Des said. “We came upon ‘Lentara’, which is an Aboriginal word for early morning. We thought that was applicable.”
Des’ wife Marg became the “backbone” of the business after they married in 1960. Marg mostly worked in the background, but sometimes she had to come to the fore. “I used to get woken up in the morning because he’d run out of petrol or the tyre had gone flat and I’d have to go and rescue him,” Marg said. Originally from Adelaide, Marg met Des when she holidayed in Port Elliot with her friend and their horses. “I met the local milkman and that was it. I’m happy and it’s a beautiful place to live.”
The pair retired in Victor Harbor after selling the business in 1997, although they kept active providing horse-drawn wedding carriages.
Des remains connected to the dairy industry through his involvement in the Port Elliot museum and its plans for a display of 100 years of dairying in the area, a concept being supported by the recent success of the town. Port Elliot was named the Legendairy Capital of South Australia in 2015.
For media and Legendairy inquiries please contact:
Mark Pearce – Media Manager, Dairy Australia
03 9694 3809
0423 783 756
Suzi O’Dell — Communications and Engagement Manager, Farm Communities, Dairy Australia
03 9694 3718
0439 336 369