Big Milk Can

Big Milk Can

Crumbling landmark still intrigues.

The Big Milk Can, April 2002.
The Big Milk Can (April 27, 2002).

920 Eddie Dowling Highway (Route 146), North Smithfield

Have you ever wondered about the big milk can hunkered by the side of the northbound lane of Route 146? Unless you've lived in Rhode Island all your life, and have a long memory, you probably have no idea of the story behind this structure. We're going to fix that right now.

The milk can was built in 1931 (or 1929—sources differ) and originally stood about one mile farther south on the opposite side of Route 146 in Lincoln. If you drive south on the Woonsocket Industrial Highway (Route 99), as you take the off-ramp to Route 146 south, you'll pass right over where the milk can used to be.

The thirty-two-foot tall bottle was built at a time when every roadside business was looking for a creative way to entice passing motorists to stop and spend money; a time when modern zoning and signage laws hadn't yet reined in the imaginations of ambitious entrepreneurs. Wacky architecture, more formally known as "roadside vernacular architecture," was one such marketing gambit. Tee-pee motels, giant concrete dinosaurs, and stands shaped like the food they sold once lined every well-traveled road. But with the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and '60s many of those roads lost their high volumes of traffic, killing many of the businesses that relied on motorists for success. Much of the wacky architecture, in turn, was lost to neglect, fire, and development.

You could call the big milk can a survivor of that trend, but only in a manner of speaking. After all, it still exists, but it's not being preserved, it's a long way from being operational, and its future is uncertain.

The Milk Can in its original location, 1986.
The Milk Can before it was moved, May 1986. (Photo courtesy Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission).

The big milk can started its life as part of an ice cream stand, which one source says was actually called, quite literally, The Milk Can. We have no information on the original owners, but it was purchased from Charles Plante by Joseph Mariani in 1947. At that time it was still just an ice cream stand with take-out windows and picnic table seating. Mariani expanded the business to offer short order food like burgers and fried clams.

The seasonal business operated from late March to November. Mariani's son, also named Joe, in a 2008 Valley Breeze article, recalled working there from 1955-'65. They'd be so busy in the summer, he said, that "there was no set closing time. We'd stay open until business waned. Sometimes we'd be scooping ice cream at 2am, especially on hot nights when people couldn't sleep. I used to get callouses on my hands from all that scooping. It was ten cents a cone. For less than a buck, everybody could have an ice cream cone." A half-pint of fried clams was only fifty cents; a hamburger was a quarter.

But the good times came to an end in 1968 with the death of Joe, Sr.'s wife. The stand was closed and never re-opened.

Around 1978 things started happening. Plans for safety improvements on Route 146 put the building in danger, and it was around this time that the state acquired the property by eminent domain. Preservationists took notice and began efforts to have the building added to the National Register of Historic Places, hoping the designation would help save it.

The State Department of Transportation attempted to auction the building in 1986, receiving several bids between $500 and $5000, but because officials had failed to take into account guidelines for how historic buildings must be treated, the auction was declared null and void.

A second attempt the following year was more successful. A March Providence Journal article revealed the high bidder to be Robert LaRiviere of Pawtucket, who said he planned to move the can to Social Street in Woonsocket, where his sister, Carol Archambault, operated Family Scoop Ice Cream Stand.

Something happened, though, and we're not sure what, because the next ProJo article we found, dated June 10, 1988, listed Stanley Surtel and his father-in-law, Frank D'Andrea, as the owners of the can. They planned to return the can to its original use, as an ice cream stand. The two had built a foundation on a piece of property owned by D'Andrea a mile north and were just waiting for the building to be moved. The move required the cooperation of three government agencies: DOT (which was to pay a portion of the moving cost), The Historic Preservation Commission (which was overseeing the safe handling of the structure), and the Federal Highway Administration (which was paying the majority of the moving cost, since the highway project displacing the can was federal).

The big milk can was finally moved in early December 1988. Because of its size and unwieldy shape, the can had to be transported horizontally in a specially built cradle. Eastman Brothers movers of East Greenwich did the job. Funny (well, not so much funny as interesting) story: On their way to pick up the can, Eastman Brothers came upon an accident on Route 295 near Route 37 in Cranston. A guy had hit a patch of ice, flipping his car and pinning him underneath. Eastman Brothers stopped and used their crane to lift the car so the semi-conscious man could be freed, then continued on their way to Lincoln.

Milk Can ornament, 2009.
The Town of Lincoln celebrated the Big Milk Can with this Christmas ornament, created by local company Chemart, in 2009.

Seventeen months had passed since Surtel and D'Andrea purchased the milk can for $1,100. With the move completed they threw themselves, and $50,000 of their money, into renovations, restoring the milk can and adding a new addition to allow indoor seating. A ninety-five-foot-deep well was dug to supply fresh water. There were some septic system issues, but they were overcome. But then came the worst possible news.

In 1990 the state Division of Groundwater and Freshwater Wetland did some testing at the site and discovered that the groundwater there was contaminated with benzene—600 times the maximum considered safe for drinking. This seems to have spelled the end for Surtell and D'Andrea's efforts because, although some possible solutions were floated (using bottled water or running a line from D'Andrea's business, Lakeside Swimming Pool and Supply, 100 yards up the highway), no further work has been done on the site since the contamination was found.

Frank D'Andrea was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2004, and his wife, Elfrida, is now the legal owner of property. As of 2008, still grieving, she had no plans to open the milk can, but no plans to sell, either.

In 2006 the milk can was officially vacant longer than the thirty-seven years it had been operational. An occasional target of vandalism, it still stands, a deteriorating symbol of a bygone era, but for how much longer?

Update: March 28, 2018: New life for old icon: Microbrewery possible at Milk Can site (Valley Breeze).

Update: December 26, 2021: Abandoned from Above by Jason Allard

Other Big Things in Rhode Island

  • Big Blue Bug
  • Big Coffee Mug
  • Big Handtruck
  • Big Ice Cream Cone, Lakewood Ice Cream, 140-152 Chambly Avenue, Warwick
  • Big Paint Can, True Value Hardware, Route 44, Greenville, Smithfield
  • Big Rooster
  • Big Rosary Beads, Jesus Savior Church, 509 Broadway, Newport

Directions: From Route 95 take Route 146 north. Go about ten miles. The big milk can is on your right.

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