Few among the names of those pioneers who did the big things in helping to develop and build up California into the Golden State have come to have half the fascination of romance and glamour of renown that surround the honored name of Henry Miller, the cattle king of California and father of Los Banos, whose story is the narrative, like that of a fairy tale, of the remarkable career of a man whose industry, intellect and integrity conquered one of the most promising, and in truth one of the richest empires on the face of the earth. A butcher boy in the days of his youth in San Francisco, he won lands and amassed a fortune above that of many a king, and was lord, not only of all that he could survey, but of twice the area of the kingdom of Belgium. He reached his ninetieth year, and it is safe to say that nearly eighty-five of those years were periods of hard toil, and strenuous activity.
Henry Miller was born in Brackenheim, Wurtemberg, Germany, on July 21, 1827, and grew up a farmer’s boy, familiar with country life from early childhood. When fourteen years old, he had, among other duties, the job of watching over a flock of geese; but one day he walked home, leaving the geese to look after themselves, and informed his astonished and skeptical sister that he was through with that sort of slow routine and was going out into the world to do something for himself. Two or three years were spent in Holland and England, and then, setting sail for New York, the ambitious young German arrived in that city, even then the New World’s metropolis, and was there engaged as a butcher. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 attracted not only the attention of most of the civilized world, but it seized hold of Henry Miller with such a grip that in the famous Argonaut year of 1849 he joined the hurrying throngs trying to cross the Isthmus of Panama, and himself sought the new El Dorado. Upon arriving in Panama, Henry Miller, then only twenty-two years of age, discovered an exceptionally good opportunity for engaging in business and there formed a partnership with an American; but the enterprise had been launched only a few weeks when Miller was stricken with Panama fever — a most serious malady at that time of inadequate medical skill and attendance. When he had sufficiently recovered to hobble down to his business house, he discovered that his partner had swamped the business beyond all possibility of salvation, so that when all the bills had been paid, Miller had barely sufficient cash to obtain passage to San Francisco, where he landed in 1850, with just five dollars in his pocket, and a walking stick in his hand. He was still weak, from the effects of the fever; but he resolutely hobbled forth to seek employment, and made it a point to call at every business house along Montgomery Street. Usually he met with disappointment; but before the day was over, he had engaged himself to a butcher.
A young man of Henry Miller’s natural and already developed ability could not be expected to accept employment from another person long. After the San Francisco fire in 1851, he leased a lot on Jackson Street, erected a one-story building, and there opened a retail butcher shop; and this unpretentious business store, with its very small stock but early openings and late closings, became the corner-stone of the Miller fortunes. He went down into the valleys below San Francisco, purchased beef cattle and drove them into the city for butchering; and in these journeyings about the country he became well acquainted with the cattle-raisers of the State and their condition. There were several large competitors in the butcher business in San Francisco at that time, and among them was one in particular, Charles W. Lux, who was soon to appreciate Miller’s capabilities. In 1857, Henry Miller visited the cattle-raising regions and quietly secured options on all the available beef cattle north of the Tehachapi range; and when the astonished buyers of his competitors appeared, there were no beeves to be had by them. This splendid stroke of enterprise, marked at that time, enabled Miller to make his own terms with Lux and others, and partnership with Lux was the immediate outgrowth of the puzzling situation.
The new firm entered the field vigorously, and gradually began to acquire lands upon which to graze its herds, for when Miller & Lux began their business as a firm, a vast domain of unfenced grazing land existed in the great sweep of valleys and western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range — in fact, millions of acres were unclaimed from the Government. As the population increased, and the business of Miller & Lux expanded, it became necessary to increase the acreage held for grazing purposes, and Spanish grants were bought at prices that would astonish the ranch-men of today. A square mile could then be purchased at a figure now quoted for a single acre, and in those days even cowboy employees took up Government land under the preemption, homestead and desert-land acts, and after acquiring a title would dispose of it to their employers for a few cents an acre. In this way, and by purchasing the rights of discouraged ranchers, the vast and tremendously valuable Miller & Lux empire was obtained. It required foresight to inspire the investors, the power of looking ahead and discerning what so many others with equal opportunities failed to discover; but it also required courage, nerve to carry the details through.
One of the most notable purchases made by this epoch-making firm was the great Santa Anita rancho of 100,000 acres near Los Banos, which was obtained from Hildreth & Hildreth with its vast herds, soon after Henry Miller’s advent in the San Joaquin Valley; and the Hildreth brand of three bars, crossed through the center, became the Miller & Lux brand for many years thereafter. And wherever the brand of Miller & Lux was to be found, one might bank upon it that it represented a desirable, superior quality, for the secret of the rise of Henry Miller to the position of millionaire cattle baron was his remarkable knowledge of cattle, and an equally remarkable knowledge of men.
It is stated that Henry Miller at one time had the ambition to own the whole of California; but whether that be true or not, it is known that he was never anxious to part with lands after he had once acquired them, especially if they were suitable for grazing purposes, and he was ever ready to invest all surplus cash in the purchase of land. It is said, on the other hand, that Charles Lux at one time became frightened at his partner’s purchasing proclivities, and sought to retire from the business. “Mr. Miller, we now have $100,000 in the bank in cash, and I think that this is an opportune time to dissolve partnership. Let us settle up.” “You say that we have $100,000 in cash?” replied Mr. Miller. “Well, wait until I return from this trip.” When Mr. Miller came back, Mr. Lux found that the firm had just invested in more land to the tune of $100,000, for Miller could not pass up a good chance to invest in acreage when the cash lay temptingly at hand. While Mr. Lux was a good financier and office man, there is no doubt of the fact that he was made a millionaire in spite of himself, and that he owed much of his own prosperity to his more aggressive partner. He could not let go when he wished to, and he remained a member of the firm until his death in 1887.
Henry Miller reckoned his holdings by the square mile, not by the acre, and a bit of evidence he gave in court some years ago — entertaining reading today. “In taking it ranch after ranch,” he said, “in Santa Clara County it has an extent of twenty-four miles north and south, and about seven to eight miles east and west. In Merced County we have thirty-six miles north and south, and then about thirty-two miles east and west. The Malheur property is an extent of ninety miles northwest to southeast, and about sixty miles north to south. Then comes the purchase of what we call the Todhunter & Devine property. That lies in Harney County, Ore., and comprises over seven-tenths of 125 miles north and south and about seventy-five miles east and west, with a good distance in between.” There is no doubt whatever, however, that the amount of the Miller & Lux holdings have been greatly overestimated. A special writer for one of the noted San Francisco dailies gave an estimate of 14,539,000 acres; but behind these astounding figures was a journalistic purpose of exaggerating, for with ownership and leases combined, the total would not reach half of that figure. The richest holdings are in Merced and Madera Counties, and amount to probably 350,000 acres. The Buttonwillow district will swell the total by 200,000 more, and Fresno County and other districts will probably increase the San Joaquin holdings to 700,000 acres, and there are nearly 20,000 acres in the region of Gilroy, and other, smaller tracts scattered over the State. The Miller & Lux acreage in the States of Nevada and Oregon will bring the grand total up to nearly 3,000,000 acres. It is a common saying among stockmen that Henry Miller could travel from the Idaho line to the Mexican border and camp on his own land every night; and no other man in America ever has, or ever will again, control such an immense acreage of agricultural lands. It almost staggers belief that this tremendous empire was owned and occupied by one man’s interests, and was nearly all under his personal supervision. Henry Miller was almost continually on the move in the years of his health and activity, for he did most of his work in the days before the automobile, although he was one of the first to import a fine French car. He came to dislike the machine, however, owing to the rough roads he was generally compelled to travel, and in rather short order he discarded it again, and once more took to either his favorite buggy or his buckboard, in making his round of visits across the vast Miller & Lux ranches.
In 1860, Henry Miller was married to Miss Sarah Wilmarth Sheldon, a lady of culture and refinement. Two daughters and a son were born to them. Henry Miller, Jr., died in his fortieth year, survived by a widow, an honored resident of Gilroy. The youngest daughter, Miss Sarah Alice, was killed by a runaway horse. Another daughter, Mrs. J. Leroy Nickel, resided at 2101 Laguna Street, San Francisco, and it was at her residence that Mr. Miller expired, on October 14, 1916. George Nickel, a grandson of the famous pioneer, has resided on the Ortigalito ranch, eight miles to the southeast of Los Banos. The immediate life estate was left to Mrs. Nickel and her husband, who had taken a leading hand in the management of the Miller & Lux properties, and some $225,000 for surviving relatives of Mr. and Mrs. Miller, and $30,000 in smaller amounts to employees, were provided for by bequests in the will.
A notable achievement of Henry Miller was his organization and control of the San Joaquin & Kings River Canal and Irrigation Company, and not a few of his enterprises were productive of much benefit to others as well as to himself and near of kin. William J. Stockton, the pioneer, who first became acquainted with Mr. Miller in 1872, soon overcame his prejudices against great landholders and found that Miller was performing a great service to other folks seeking to establish themselves. The pioneer could go to his straw-stacks and get straw for the asking, and to Canal Farm and get a cow; and such courtesies were given to rich and poor alike. When the section from Los Banos to Newman was in dire straits for water, Henry Miller, at a cost of some $3,000,000, built a canal and delivered water to the people, without an extra cent of cost to them. He also made a present to the county of a road built at an expense of $45,000, and running to the San Joaquin River. He was born to rule, to lead, to point the way to others, and to get there himself; he testified in court that during the hard times in the five years following Mr. Lux’s death, he made $1,700,000 a year, or $8,000,000 in five years, an amount that seems almost incredible, but which must be true. Henry Miller was of striking personal appearance, and in his prime was an exact image of General U. S. Grant. He was simple in his habits, and would tolerate no homage from anyone. Dr. J. L. McClelland said, when Mr. Miller died: “He has endowed no colleges, but he has given millions as he went along without exacting any pledge of remembrance, or making any condition of publicity. There are thousands of humble men and widows who can testify that his giving of valuable land and goodly sums of coin has been in strict accord with the Scripture admonition, ‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.’ ” And Andrew R. Schottky, the distinguished lawyer, said: “I saw a poor butcher boy coming from Germany to California; I saw him accumulating vast acreages of land on the Pacific Coast; I saw thousands of happy and prosperous homes on land developed and sold by him; I saw no instance of colonists being defrauded and impoverished by being placed on poor land at high prices. Under-thinking persons will perhaps censure him for his great wealth; but the fair-minded will think of the fact that in accumulating his wealth he developed land and took advantage of opportunity, but did not crush and destroy men. When all is said and done, his was a life of intense usefulness, and his contribution to the present and the future of California is large. The words of Mark Anthony at the death of Brutus are peculiarly appropriate at the death of Henry Miller: ‘This was a man !’ “
Source: Outcalt, John. A history of Merced County, California : with a biographical review of the leading men and women of the county who have been identified with its growth and development from the early days to the present; Los Angeles, Calif. : Historic Record Company, 1925.