- Historic Sites
The King Of Ranchers
He never packed a gun or led a posse or burned down a homesteader's hut, but in his time Henry Miller owned more land than anyone else in the West.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Originally Miller had a partner, Charles Lux, also a South German by birth, who handled the marketing and the genteel city aspects of the business. Hence the properties were always known as the Miller and Lux holdings, although after Lux’s death in 1887, Miller bought his partner’s share from his heirs in Germany.
Miller’s first land purchase, made in 1863, was 8,830 acres of the Santa Rita ranch in the San Joaquin Valley at a cost of $10,400. Within five years he had bought 70,000 acres adjacent to this, and thereafter his domain spread inexorably and the herds bearing his Double H brand steadily increased in size. By the time the first fences went up to enclose what had formerly been open range, the public was startled to discover that a cattleman named Henry Miller owned or controlled over half a million acres. His first fence—a board fence it was, for barbed wire had not been invented yet—was sixty-eight miles long.
In those days the U.S. government issued land script as a way of paying some of its obligations to veterans, Indian fighters, and others. The script passed as currency in California, and Miller bought up as much as he could, generally at a big discount. In this way he acquired over 180,000 acres of what had been federal lands at a cost of about fifty-five cents an acre.
Like many of his contemporary titans of private enterprise. Miller had few scruples to deter him in his quest for gain. One of his methods of acquiring land was to buy out one or more of the heirs to a Spanish land grant. This would give him grazing rights over the whole- ranch and before long he would so dominate the land that the other heirs would sell out to him at a nominal price. He also engaged in the practice of making extensive loans on farm properties and then foreclosing on the mortgages. In addition. Miller showed himself ingenious at cheating the government by participating in dummy homesteading setups.
In the 1860s one of these exploits took him on what must certainly rank as the oddest voyage of exploration in California history. Under the U.S. Reclamation Act of 1850, individuals could obtain swamp land free if they would reclaim it. The law said the land had to be under water and traversable only by boat. The section Miller had his eye on was a large area to the south of his holdings. It was summer, and except for a few small patches the land was high, dry, and dusty. Undaunted, Miller loaded a rowboat onto the back of a buckboard, made himself comfortable by putting an easy chair in his boat, and then had a man hitch a span of horses to the buckboard and drive around the region while he mapped it. Eventually the government received from Miller a map of the area along with his sworn statement that he had covered this territory in a rowboat. He got his title.
There was an ironic sequel to this history, making more conventional transaction out of it than Miller had envisaged at the time. The territory actually was swamp land, though Miller did not know it. It had been a particularly dry year. When the rains came the following winter, the new acquisition resumed its normal watery state and was. indeed, traversable only by boat. Eventually Miller had to perform the reclamation job he never dreamed he would have to undertake.
In his physical appearance Miller was not prepossessing. He was heavyset, with piercing blue eyes and a jutting chin on which bristled a close-cropped beard. He always dressed in a somber black suit, like a clergyman, and all his life he spoke with a marked accent, a relic of his native Germany. But his personality made him a legend. He was a curious figure—a grasping, dominating, humorless man with a fabulous memory, brilliant organizing power, and a fanatic devotion to work. He was so thrifty that he could not bear to see even a piece of string wasted. Even after he had become a multimillionaire, he always insisted on having his potatoes boiled in the jackets because the skins could be peeled thinner that way; and he would go into a rage if he were given a full cup of coffee after he had asked for only a half cup, because this meant he was going to have to drink more than he thought was good for him in order to avoid the wastefulness of throwing any coffee out.
Yet he was apt to leave a twenty-dollar gold piece in one of his boots as a tip for the maid who shined them. And one day during the depression of the nineties he called into his office in Merced County. California, everybody in the region who owed him money and gave back all their IOUs. “It’s time for a clean start.” he said gruffly, wiping $350,000 off his books.
Constantly riding in his buggy from one of his many ranches to another in an attempt to supervise personally everything that was going on in his vast territory. Miller reminded some people of the mythical Flying Dutchman who was doomed to sail the seas for eternity. Once, according to legend, Nevada rivals hired a man to kill Miller in the course of one of his inspection trips man followed him for four days but could not catch him and finally gave up, saddle-sore and exhausted. Miller was not trying to escape. He did not even know he was being followed. He was just going about his business at his usual gruelling pace.