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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
Though the standard western histories—their pages teeming with adventure, violence, and such romantic episodes as the gold rush—have tended to overlook Miller, he was far more than a mere curiosity. He affected the development of the Far West, particularly of California, in a number of unique and significant ways. He put the business of raising livestock onto a systematic basis for the first time. He developed a breed of cattle particularly suited to the West—a mixture of Hereford, Devon, and Durham—and improved the breeds of sheep. He has been credited with being one of the first agriculturalists in California to experiment with the strange new crop called alfalfa, and he was among the first to plant cotton and rice, both now staples of the state’s agriculture.
Of even more far-reaching consequence were his reclamation and irrigation projects. He was one of the first to perceive that water was more precious to California’s future than gold; he sought out naturally irrigated land for pasture, taking up his positions along the state’s waterways like a general deploying his forces on a battlefield. Miller was also the first to do something practical on a large scale to assure a constant water supply—he built thousands of miles of levees and irrigation ditches, three major canals with a total length of 190 miles, and a 350-foot dam across the San Joaquin River. It is estimated that he thereby made fertile over 150,000 acres of near-desert land.
And by his constant court battles he decisively shaped the nature of the law pertaining to water rights in the Far West. The fundamental issue revolved around the question of which of two theories should prevail—that of riparian rights, derived from English common law, which asserts that the owner of the land along the banks of a stream has the right to the full, undiverted flow of the stream in front of his property; or the “appropriationist” doctrine, which holds that water may be siphoned off as it is legitimately needed. In California Miller fought for the riparian theory and managed after two hearings to convince the state supreme court (though its four-to-three decision was tainted with a suspicion of bribery) that the law was on his side. So crucial was the issue at the time that a political party of irrigationists was formed, which was concerned solely with fighting the great cattleman’s position and obtaining the right to divert water from the streams for use by the settlers. Miller’s victory in the courts made him for a time possibly the most unpopular man in California, for while riparian rights had made sense in England, where rain falls the year round and irrigation is unnecessary, it certainly did not make sense, as far as the mass of the population was concerned, in the semi-arid western regions of the United States. For the next fifty years this riparian theory remained the law of the state, though fortunately for California’s development it was largely ignored in practice and the settlers tended generally to appropriate water as needed.
Having won his victory, Miller subsequently showed a talent for compromise. He worked out a mutually beneficial agreement with rival land tycoons and with the settlers in the Kern County region, and they constructed what was then the largest reservoir in the United States, to provide water both for the backcountry farmers and for Miller’s cattle raising.
The long-term effects of Miller’s land collecting are even more controversial than those of his water hoarding. It is possible to maintain, as have such authorities on the subject as Dr. Paul S. Taylor, that the size of his holdings permanently unbalanced the nature of California’s agricultural economy. Such great accumulations of arable land in the hands of one man, these authorities declare, fostered the development of the kind of factory-farm agricultural pattern that later emerged in California and thwarted the development of small, independent farms. The pattern existed before Miller’s day, of course; the original Spanish land grants were also of great size. But the fact remains that from the Spanish era to the present, California has never had the opportunity to develop its agriculture in the American tradition of the sturdy, small farmer.
Though land and livestock were always his primary interests, Miller inevitably accumulated numerous subsidiary enterprises as the years passed—lumber yards, slaughter houses, public utility systems, banks, hotels, stores, and just about all the property and businesses in the three San Joaquin Valley towns of Los Banos, Firebaugh, and Dos Palos. And just as inevitably, Miller’s acquisition of these businesses meant that he personally directed them, down to the most minute detail.
Miller lived to be eighty-nine. Up until a short time before his death in 1916, he continued his remarkable pace of activities. A secretary who worked for him near the end of his career recalled later, “When Mr. Miller was in town, I was expected to be at work at 6:15 A.M. By that time he always had a stack of letters waiting for me, that he had written in longhand before breakfast.” Miller himself used to say, “I consider twenty-four hours a working day for me. If I get my work done before the twenty-four hours is over, I sleep. But the work must be done, whether I get my rest or not.” He drank no alcoholic beverages, stopped smoking once he had decided the habit was harmful, and ate only from necessity. “I have wished many times I could do without eating altogether,” he commented.