The King Of Ranchers

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As Miller travelled, there used to emanate from him a steady stream of letters to the various supervisors, agents, foremen, and other satraps of his bovine empire. Written on cheap ruled paper at any opportune moment of the day—before sunup, late at night, during pauses on the dusty roads and trails—Miller’s letters contained advice and instructions on the most minute details of his far-flung operations: how to use willow limbs for fences to save the freight on fence posts, how to make use of cow chips as fuel to run the farm machinery, what to do about anthrax and blackleg, the advantages of opening haystacks at the south side, Miller’s displeasure at finding canned milk served in his hotel in the heart of the dairy country, the importance of rubbing salt over a hide to keep it from shrivelling, etc.

Miller hated untidiness almost as much as he did waste, and he abhorred idleness. To a ranch superintendent he wrote. “The men watching the ewes in all the fields where the ewes are lambing have time to pull up the cockleburs and put them in piles so that they can be burned up some evening. In that way they can clean up the field instead of standing around idle.” One sometimes gets the impression that during much of his life Miller was engaged in a superhuman effort to tidy up the entire Wild West and make it as neat as one of the pretty little farms back in Württemberg.

A good many of the thousands of letters of instructions he wrote have been preserved, and they are quite remarkable documents, constituting something of a comprehensive manual of cattle raising. Edward K. Treadwell. who was Miller’s lawyer for many years and who wrote a romanticized biography of him called The Cattle King, has left an amusing account illustrating the pace and content of Miller’s letter writing:

One day he |Miller| would write a foreman. “You should have some cats to destroy the mice in the granary.” The following day he would write, “Have the cats arrived for the granary?” The next day he would write. “Do not let the cats get food around the kitchen or they will catch no mice.” The next day he would follow these letters by one asking. “Are the cats catching the mice in the granary?” By this time the foreman would think that the mice in that particular granary were the most important things on the mind of Henry Miller and he would soon report the mice were all destroyed. Immediately would come back the order. “You don’t need more than one cat now, so send the other to the Midway Ranch.”

In being able to keep all these tiny but pertinent details of his complex business empire in mind, Miller showed a virtuosity like that of the chess master who, while blindfolded, could play fifty opponents simultaneously and beat all of them. “Fortunes are made by taking care of the small things,” Miller often used to assert. Few men have taken care of so many small things on quite so grand a scale as he.

His extraordinary concern about details and his phenomenal memory were revealed in hundreds of tales told by his employees. Riding about his Mason Valley ranch in Oregon one day, Miller discerned a steer with a swollen jaw. To his cattle superintendent, Ace Mitchell, Miller said, “Kill that lump-jawed steer, Mr. Mitchell. Feed the head to the hogs. The men can eat the carcass.”

The swelling had probably resulted from a burr lodged in the animal’s cheek. The reason for Miller’s command was that if the steer were allowed to live, an infection might develop and spread to other animals. For one reason or another, under the pressure of work, Mitchell failed to carry out the order, though he was generally known as the best cattleman Miller had.

Nothing more was said about this small matter on Miller’s subsequent trips. Two years later Miller was riding about the ranch with Mitchell in the buggy beside him when Miller suddenly remarked, “Mr. Mitchell, look over there—another lump-jawed steer.”

“Yes, Mr. Miller, I see it,” Mitchell said.

Miller leaned forward in his seat, turned half-sideways as the buggy proceeded down the dirt path, and eyed the steer closely. Then he exclaimed, “Mr. Mitchell, that’s the same steer I told you to kill two years ago. You’re fired.”

Ace Mitchell accepted his dismissal without argument. He knew Miller’s code: never to blame an employee in the slightest if a Miller order produced unsatisfactory results, but to fire him summarily if he neglected to carry it out. All Ace Mitchell said later about this was, “Thirty thousand cattle on this ranch, and that damn lump-jawed steer has to be standing by the road when Mr. Miller comes through!”