This milk memorabilia has no expiration date

10/17/2014 4:00 PM |
John Rienzo setting up his Divco memorabilia in the display case at Riverhead Free Library, where it is on view during October. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

John Rienzo setting up his Divco memorabilia in the display case at Riverhead Free Library, where it is on view during October. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

The milk business runs through John Rienzo Jr.’s veins.

After all, the Calverton man’s grandfather was a milkman. So were his grandfather’s two brothers-in-law and his great-uncle.

They all worked for Renken Daily in Brooklyn, waking up each morning — sometimes as early as 2 a.m. — to get into their Divco delivery trucks and drop off milk, cream and butter to customers across New York City.

“[My grandfather] would go up the tenements, across the roof and down the other one,” said Mr. Rienzo.

Now, eight years after his grandfather died and decades since Divco trucks were a staple of the delivery industry, Mr. Rienzo is carrying on the tradition with a collection of dairy industry memorabilia numbering in the thousands, including several rare milk trucks.

Select pieces from Mr. Rienzo’s collection — including milk bottles, miniature Divco trucks and advertising used in the 1950 film “The Milkman” starring Donald O’Connor, Jimmy Durante and Piper Laurie — will be on display at Riverhead Free Library through the end of the month.

The trucks, which were built by Divco (Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company), served a variety of purposes from the late 1920s through the 1960s and ‘70s. The trucks, some of which were designed to have the milkman stand up as he drove, were used for dry-cleaning services or newspaper delivery routes, Mr. Rienzo said. But their main claim to fame were as milk delivery trucks.

“Three quarters of Divco trucks were sold for milk delivery,” said Robert Ebert, professor emeritus of economics at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio and an expert on Divco.

Mr. Rienzo, who serves as the official librarian for the Divco Club of America, poses in his 1937 Divco in the field behind his Calverton home.

Mr. Rienzo, who serves as the official librarian for the Divco Club of America, poses in his 1937 Divco in the field behind his Calverton home.

Mr. Rienzo, who serves as the official librarian for the Divco Club of America, began collecting Divco memorabilia in 1992 with a few old milk bottles. He bought his first truck in 1996 and now has blueprints for the company’s trucks, as well as several restored trucks.

One of the vehicles, a 1963 Alumivan, is one of just 28 ever to be built and the last one Mr. Rienzo reckons is still extant. He said he takes the truck to shows but also drives it around town.

Mr. Ebert said that while many collectors own trucks like Mr. Rienzo’s, “in terms of his collection of literature and official paper from the company, it’s very simple: Nobody has more.”

Before Divco arrived on the scene in the 1920s, much of the U.S. used electric vehicles such as trams for transportation.

“We’re coming back to electric now, but electric was the common way to do things,” Mr. Rienzo said.

The Divco truck premiered in 1926, at the very end of the electric car’s reign. Delivery companies found the electric motors couldn’t give them the power they needed to move thousands of pounds of product, Mr. Rienzo said.

The Divco truck filled that void. Enthusiasts now share artifacts from the company’s history as a way to remember the trucks that not only represent a slice of Americana, but are also a reflection of a nation during the rise of gasoline, he said.

“It’s an interesting observation of what life used to be,” he said.

Mr. Ebert said the history of Divco demonstrates how a small business producing only a few thousand trucks a year can thrive in the right market.

“As an economist, I think it’s helpful to look at how small companies can survive if they’re in a small niche market with a specific product, even when they have large competitors,” he said.

Mr. Rienzo, a certified archivist, will also host an hour-long seminar at the library Saturday, Oct. 18, at 11 a.m. to teach people how to preserve and protect family heirlooms, like old photographs, discharge papers, immigration documents, an old wedding dress — or even a collection of milk truck memorabilia.

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