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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
In almost every way Miller was unlike the image of the western cattleman—the free and easy, quick-on-the-draw character—that the movies and television have made familiar. He never went galloping off at the head of a posse to track down varmints who had been rustling his stock. He never shot it out with a desperado. He had no reputation for being greased lightning on the draw, nor had he any notches on his gun. In fact he never even carried a gun. He thought of himself as a hard-headed businessman, not as a romantic range-riding hero. Naturally, he tried to prevent raids on his herds. But he discounted thefts he could not prevent as part of the expenses of his business, just as a modern businessman writes off unavoidable losses. And when on one occasion he was held up by a masked bandit who stepped out of the brush with a cocked revolver, Miller’s response was as sensible and unheroic as that of any corporation executive threatened with a pistol on a Manhattan street today: peaceably he handed over his wallet and went his way, satisfied to have retained his life.
Miller’s attitude toward those who attempted to rob him was realistic. He knew that he was a natural target and that it was a rare jury that would bring in a conviction against a person accused of stealing from the man who owned more livestock and land than any person in America. In one case a defendant was acquitted after being caught red-handed. After the trial, he said reproachfully to one of Miller’s superintendents, “I’m surprised at Mr. Miller. He ought to be a better businessman than to prosecute me. It cost me a thousand dollars to bribe that jury. Look at all the cattle I’m going to have to steal now to get that back.”
All this Miller took calmly. He continued to prosecute—for whatever deterrent value the action might have—the thieves who rustled his cattle. On the other hand, he never prosecuted anyone—settlers or bandits —who killed his cattle for food. Miller asked only that whoever killed any of his steers should hang the hides on a tree where Miller’s cowboys could find them. Hides, after all, were worth four dollars apiece. It was surprising how often even bandits took the trouble to comply with this request.
This is just one example of Miller’s shrewd knowledge of human nature. He knew he could not afford to have the small settlers around his ranches actively hostile to him, and he worked out an elaborate code for winning their friendship. “Never charge anyone for a meal at our ranches,” he wrote his superintendents, “but whenever any of our employees eat outside, they should insist on paying for the meal.”
He let it be widely known that any settler should feel free to pick up a Miller cow on the range and take her home as a milk cow for the family, provided the settler saw to it that the unweaned calves did not suffer. Miller effected a sort of lend-lease arrangement on these cows. When the settler found that the cow he had picked up had run dry, he could bring her into any Miller ranch and trade her in for one that was flowing with milk.
Miller had a long list of people to whom he regularly sent gifts, and he knew better than to try to stint or economize here. “There’s no use giving a person a turkey and expecting him to appreciate it unless it is in fine condition,” Miller once said to a penny-pinching foreman. “It’s better not to send a gift at all.”
Miller’s prudently calculated generosity extended to tramps and other vagrants, to whom he gave several thousand free meals a year. This proved to be very good insurance. Other cattlemen had their barns or haystacks burned and their gates left open by tramps and malcontents, but this happened less often to Miller. With characteristic punctiliousness he drew up a detailed set of instructions for the care of hobos:
- Never refuse a tramp a meal, but never give him more than one meal. A tramp should be a tramp and keep on tramping.
- Never refuse a tramp a night’s lodging. Warn him not to use any matches and let him sleep in the barn, but never let him stay more than one night.
- Never make a tramp work for his meal. He won’t thank you if you do. Anyhow he is too weak to work before a meal and too lazy to work after a meal.
- Never let the tramps eat with the men. Make them wait until the men are through, and then make them eat off the same plates. The cook should not be made to do extra work for tramps.
Because of rule Number 4 the route up the long San Joaquin Valley from one Miller ranch to another was known far and wide among the brothers of the road as “the Dirty Plate Route.”