The 85-year-old photo looks so darn idyllic — a grinning milkman in crisp white overalls, perched on his milk truck fender with his baby son on his knee. One glance and you can’t help but pine for the days when milk came in glass bottles, delivered to your doorstep with a smile.

The image popped up on an “Old Saint Paul” Facebook page this month, posted by the milkman’s granddaughter. A few phone calls, electronic messages and a quick internet genealogy search helped fill in Hiram Ackert’s back story. It’s grimmer than you’d guess from the snapshot.

“People called him, ‘Hi,’ and he was a loving father who would do anything for his kids,” said Norm Ackert, Hiram’s 83-year-old son, from Surprise, Ariz. “But he had a tough streak from a rough childhood.”

Dating the picture is easy enough because the baby — Norm’s late older brother, Bernhard Ackert — was born March 30, 1932. He looks about 8 months old and the autumn leaves have fallen. So November 1932 is a safe estimate.

What’s less clear is whether the photo was snapped before or after Hiram Ackert slipped on some ice about that time, wrenching his lower back — a painful injury that would hamper him throughout the Great Depression.

“My mother, Alice, would pull him up to a sitting position at 3:30 in the morning and strap him into a double iron brace,” Norm said.

That brace ran from his groin to his shoulders. His straight-backed posture in the photo might hint that he’s wearing it.

“He’d pull his coveralls over it and never really sit down all day, riding with one cheek on his driver’s seat,” his son said. “He never complained.”

Hiram Ackert was born on Sept. 9, 1899 — 9/9/99 — on St. Paul’s West Side Flats. The area was teeming with immigrants, many of them European Jews — including Ackert’s father. Kive Ackert emigrated from Brest, in what is now Belarus, about 1886.

Kive set up shop in the family home at 1123 Payne Avenue on St. Paul’s East Side — working as a so-called naturopath, a muscle-manipulating early chiropractor and bathhouse operator. Hiram was his third son.

Kive divorced his wife, Fannie, when Hiram was about 4, according to census records and Norm’s notes on genealogy.com. Hiram never made it past the eighth grade and had a rough spell in his 20s.

While his two older brothers ran whiskey to Kansas during Prohibition, Hiram endured a failed first marriage. The Navy rejected him during World War I, saying he was too short.

“He was 5-foot-1 but would grow after he was 21,” Norm said. “He was married in the 1920s and, the story goes, she was quite promiscuous and they divorced and he had a nervous breakdown.”

The 1930 census lists Hiram as a divorced “roomer” working as a milkman. A year later, at 31, he married Alice Trana at a Lutheran church in St. Cloud. Hiram’s marriage to Alice stuck and helped turn his life around. He quit smoking cigars and drinking alcohol. And in 1943, he underwent early spinal fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

“It worked,” Norm said. “I was 10 years old and, without that brace, he could pitch balls to me on the sidewalk.” By then, the family had moved to 858 Stickney St. on St. Paul’s West Side.

The 1940 census lists Hiram’s income at $1,980. “We never had much money, but he provided a house, food and clothes,” Norm said. “They weren’t off the top shelf, but we enjoyed life.”

Hiram sometimes lamented the milkman’s transition from horse-drawn wagons to gasoline-powered trucks. “He loved the horses because they knew the routes and you couldn’t stop to dillydally because the horse would head to the next stop,” his son recalled. “In the middle of the afternoon, you had better finish your route because those horses would take off for the barns.”

Being a milkman’s kid had its perks. “We always had milk,” Norm said. “When it got real cold, the cream would push up the bottle’s gooseneck and pop out the cardboard stopper. … My how we loved that cream on our cereal.”

The St. Paul Milk Company, Hiram’s employer, started in 1916 when the Rice Street Dairy and the Casey Pure Milk Co. combined — later morphing into Old Home Foods.

Family members say Hiram gave up the milk truck in the 1940s and sold insurance for Prudential. He also worked the night freight elevator at the Emporium department store downtown and ushered on boxing nights at the nearby St. Paul Auditorium.

Kerri Kleinschmidt, one of Hiram’s six surviving grandchildren, has seen pictures of her “awesome grandpa” rowing a boat to get to his insurance clients when the Mississippi River flooded. Relatives said he was known to bring clothing to those in need. And when the family moved to a brick house at 809 Charles Av. near St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood in 1944, they’d often open the doors to those needing shelter.

“He was a bleeding heart,” Kleinschmidt said.

When that heart failed and Hiram died in 1971, he was buried at Mount Zion Cemetery on St. Paul’s East Side, a mile north of his Payne Avenue childhood home.

“The visitation went on 90 minutes past its scheduled time and the funeral procession was three blocks long,” Norm said. “We heard so many stories from Hispanic people and others from the Flats, people he’d helped. He was well-loved.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.