NORTH SMITHFIELD – A quick look as you drive by on Route 146 north is more than enough to show that this past winter was a hard one for the historic Milk Can ice cream stand.
The relocated local bit of novelty architecture has been marred by graffiti and also lost a few of the wooden shingles on its circular roof that skirts the three-story wooden milk can.
A sign wards off trespassers but it is possible to get a closer and safer look at the old Route 146 landmark from the Valero gas station next door at 948 Eddie Dowling Highway.
North Smithfield Town Planner Robert Erickson said he has received a few calls about the old landmark recently but has not heard of any new plans for its renovation.
“We’ve been contacted by people asking about what’s going on there,” Erickson said.
The 2.5-acre property is listed as owned by D’Andrea Realty, LLC, which Erickson believes is affiliated with the next-door Lakeside Pools business. Lakeside is on its off-season hiatus and its owners could not be reached last week. Erickson said he has spoken with an owner of Lakeside in the past who had indicated the Milk Can was never opened at its North Smithfield site due to difficulties in connecting water service there.
The Milk Can was erected at its original site in Lincoln just north of the southbound exit to Route 295 in 1931, according to its historic designation or possibly a couple of years earlier by local recollections. The redesign of the highway interchange in the 1980s put the Milk Can, actually a model of a dairy cream can, at risk for demolition if no one could be found to move it. A bidding process ensued while several ideas circulated for the Milk Can to be moved to the Vadenais Farm in Cumberland, or a site on Social Street, Woonsocket, near Paul’s Family Restaurant, or even Slater Park in Pawtucket.
The Route 146 eatery had been a popular spot with families and young people in its heydays in the 1940s and 50s when a drive-in, marked by a very visible piece of mimetic art, could draw a regular crowd. It was also not far from another 50s staple of entertainment, the Rustic Drive-In, that is still in operation off Route 146 today.
Stanley Surtel Jr. won the bidding for the business with his father-in-law, Frank D’Andrea, the owner of Lakeside and arranged to have the Milk Can carted up the pike to the northbound side of Route 146 just past the Sayles Hill Road intersection.
The move was completed in January of 1989 and the Milk Can was reassembled with the addition of a new back building. The shiplap siding of the building looked nearly the same as it had in at the old location and Surtel told a reporter at the time that it had taken him a total of two years to complete the move.
When asked what the prospects were of a business opening in the Milk Can today, Erickson said he couldn’t really venture a prediction on that.
“It’s a privately-owned piece of property. I don’t see the town having funds in any way to preserve it, but who knows?” Erickson said.
Given its historic designation, a surprise grant might surface that would help but the town itself doesn’t have the funding for such assistance, he said.
The bigger question is how long the structure can last without being used.
“The whole idea behind a building is that you have interactive maintenance,” he said. “If someone is in the building when a window gets broken or something gets smashed or the roof starts to leak, then you take immediate action to fix it,” he said.
“And if you don’t, things deteriorate very quickly until the building is ruined,” Erickson added.
The chances of the Milk Can making another move are also unlikely, given the expense of such a project.
Erickson noted that the town and the Seven Hills Rhode Island were offered the former O’Donnell homestead, a circa-1900 farmhouse, if either could come up with a viable move for $10,000 within a short period of time.
“There is no way you can move a house anywhere for $10,000,” he said. The farmhouse was too large, at more than 2,000 square feet, to be moved for that cost, according to Erickson. And then there was the question of where to move it.
The building was eventually razed to make more parking at the commercial complex on the rest of the property, he said.