Missouri Milk Man Reluctantly Calls It Quits After 70 Years

An 80-year-old milk man who delivered to five generations of Hannibal residents has reluctantly retired after 70 years of friendly, prompt service.

At age 10, Clyde Priest began delivering milk with a coaster wagon to help his father. By the time he retired 70 years later on July 20, he had outlived eight local dairies that provided his products.

Priest was so well known and trusted that customers allowed him to put milk, ice cream and other dairy purchases in their refrigerator when they weren't home.

"My theory all these years has been: You could buy milk anywhere, so the only thing I got to sell is my personal service. That was my philosophy," he told the Hannibal Courier-Post.

An emergency appendectomy in July forced his retirement, although he had no plans to end his career at age 80. While he recuperated in the hospital, his family made his last delivery for him.

He'd been caring for his wife, Mary, who had fallen several times in the home. While Priest was in the hospital, she was admitted to a nursing home.

At one time, he and his employees were delivering to 573 homes and 22 convenience stores. Later he worked alone, adding a variety of cheeses, juices, fresh produce and other groceries to his home deliveries.

Priest said babies and ulcers kept him in business, as well as a local doctor's prescribing some patients to get "Bulgarian buttermilk," which has whipping cream.

Priest's parents moved to town after their dairy farm went broke. His father started a milk delivery route in 1921 with horse and wagon, selling from a 10-gallon can. "The women came out with pots and pans and pitchers," he recalled.

Young Clyde and his sister helped their father by delivering milk with a coaster wagon. He later used a two-wheel cart for deliveries to houses of prostitution.

"I knew them all personally," he said of the prostitutes. "They all treated me fine. They bought half pints of grape drink, half pints of orange juice and half pints of chocolate milk," he recalled.

During the '30s, dance halls and taverns would buy buttermilk to help customers get sober.

The younger Priest took over his father's milk delivery in 1939, and during the war years, when gas and other items were rationed, he ran the route by bicycle.

He later drove a 1930 Chevrolet coupe that had only two-wheel brakes, because "I fell in a ditch and bent one rod, so I had to take the rod off the rear wheel."

In 1949, the elder Priest sold the business to his son.

Since he retired from his milk delivery route in July, Clyde Priest said he has received personal notes from his customers with their final check.

"Roberta Brown told me the reason she bought milk from me was I delivered to her great-grandparents, the Ledbetters," he said. "They were in their 90s. I would go in and check their refrigerator and leave orange juice or milk, whatever they needed.

"I got to checking and had five generations of her family. I have done quite a few [five-generation families]. That has been the really rewarding thing."

Priest said when he ran his route, he'd leave milk on the porch, and returned at night or the customer's pay day for his payment.

He said he never had to lay off an employee, although some months he didn't make a dime.

"But we never did without a meal, in the 56 years we have been married," he said.

Priest said the trick to running a successful business is liking what you do and being willing to put in extra effort.

"I loved every minute of it," he said. "I would say if you are willing to work and dedicate yourself to it, you can succeed."