Joe C. Miller
Empire of West Crumbles as Last of Its Founders Looks on Helplessly Col. Zach Miller Retreats Slowly From Once Impregnable Fortress of Wealth at 101 Ranch
Col. Zach Miller, last of the trio of Miller brothers who for half a century ruled over the 101 ranch with its great herds of cattle, its thousands of hogs, and its tens of thousands of acres that produced some of the finest crops in all the southwest, is back in the ranch White House again after a short but hectic sojourn behind bars of the Kay county jail.
Miller, imprisoned for failure to pay temporary alimony to his estranged wife, was freed "under protest" by Sheriff Joe McSpadden after Governor Murray threatened to send state militia to see that his order was enforced.
Home once again, although he is scheduled for another court appearance December 15 on the charge of assault with a dangerous weapon, Miller says that if he had his "druthers" he'd go to Nairobi, Africa and build himself a ranch. "
"There wouldn't be so many people there to bother me", says the rancher.
The colonel knows whereof he speaks, for during the past few years trouble in capital letters has literally haunted the doorstep of the White House. With the death of the eldest Miller boy, Joe, in a ranch accident and the death of George, the business head of the ranch, in an automobile wreck a few years ago, the entire management of the 110,000 acres that once made up the domain descended upon the head of Zach Miller.
All went fairly well until the depression of 1930 struck; then chaos set in. But Miller refused to be discouraged.
In 1931, when the 101 wild west show was stranded in Washington, D.C. and sent home amid the bickering of employees who were disgruntled because of past due salaries, he still maintained that things would eventually work out.
He told this writer then that there was "plenty the 101 ranch can do. But it takes time, and this isn't a profitable period for anyone. Since I've had the whole management myself I've not tried to push ahead. I've only tried to hold up the rear and the flanks. Just holding on is a man size job."
"I have three sources of income," he said. "Three sources to keep this place going: oil, farming and the show. Oil is no good now; farming is worse; the show business is the worst…. I'm not the only one who isn't making money on them.
"Give me time and the 101 will come out from under. At any rate I'm not worrying anymore. If I had kept up worrying like I did a year ago I would be in the nut house now. My shoulders are broad and I can take whatever comes. But I'm not worrying anymore and no-one can make me anymore trouble."
That was one year ago and Zach Miller probably believed it when he said he wasn't worrying and no one could make him anymore trouble. But in the months that have passed since that interview plenty more trouble has fallen to Miller's lot, and whether he wanted it or not, he has been forced to worry.
In these intervening 12 months great portions of the original 110,000 ranch acres have been sold by the receivers who took over the property when Miller was unable to meet his creditors. The great herd of steers, the prize boars, the pedigreed horses, the wild animals have gone down under the auctioneer's hammer. Today the stables and barns, the packing house, the canning factory, the tannery, the bunk house, the dairy, the corrals-all stand empty and idle. Out in the pastures the prairie grass grew big all summer for there was no stock to eat it down.
The ranch grounds have fallen into a state of disrepair. Fences have lost their glossy coats of whitewash and the once magnificent buildings have a gray and dingy cast. Today if a visitor cares to walk over the grounds, he finds it deserted. A few stray hens peck hopefully at worms and the quiet of the 101, the "inland empire" of yesterday is broken only by an occasional bird call and the ripple of the prairie breeze. Less than a half a dozen hands now make up the camp roster.
Miller himself has been involved with one lawsuit after another. Pressed by creditors, worried by marital difficulties, forbidden by court order to set foot on the ranch he and his family carved out of the western wilderness, the veteran rancher shows the strain he has been living under.
He has aged much this last year. A year ago he was a smiling, jovial figure….a man not easily riled.
Two weeks ago, when I talked to him, he was a much older, much sadder man. His smile was a trifle set and his jokes considerably fewer. Very trivial matters could upset him. A dollar higher freight charge than he anticipated upon a shipment of hides brought forth a loud denunciation of the freight agent.
"They've done everything they could to drive me crazy" he told me. "They're trying to get me to kill someone-anyone, they don't care who-so they can get rid of me."
By "they" the rancher means the receivers who have taken over his property and various and sundry creditors who want their money regardless. By court order he is forbidden access to any part of the ranch lands save the house itself, which he claims as a homestead and not liable for ranch debts.
"When I lay sick in bed last March," he continued, "they came in and told me they were going to sell the horses. I had 40 mares out in the stables that were my personal property. I had spent years breeding horses and these were good stock. Some came from a $1,000 stallion. I told them 40 of those mares were mine. They said "Miller, we're going to sell those mares if we don't get but a dollar apiece for them. And you won't get a dollar.
"I began telling them what I thought of them. One of the men put his hand on his hip pocket. I figured he had a gun. Well I had one too. A shotgun, standing by the bathroom door. I jumped up and got it and fired a shot into the floor, to frighten them out of the room. The next thing I knew they'd spread the story I tried to murder them."
Despite his vicissitudes, Zach Miller still thinks he could make a go of the 101 ranch if he was given a chance.
"If they'd leave me alone, I'd get this thing straightened out," he declares. "But how can I pay off my debts, how can I pay alimony, how can I pay anything when I'm not even permitted to walk over my ranch, much less do anything about it?"
"Look out the north window," he told me as we stood on the third floor of the White House two weeks ago. "You can see the 640-acre field grown up in cockleburs? Not a plow has been touched to that field this year. Not a bale of cotton has been grown."
"Look out there" he crossed the room and pointed through another window. "There stands 40 houses empty. The tenants were moved out and no attempt has been made to rent the places again.
See those empty buildings over …….., there's a canning factory ……there that one manufacturing company offered to rent for $150 a month and supply the electric current for all the rest of the ranch as well. But my 'receivers' didn't care to make $150 a month. Across the road, there, is a ranch restaurant. An offer to rent it for $50 a month came in, but the offer was turned down. Over there in the arena lies the show paraphernalia, rotting in the weather. Why don't these smart men who know more about running this ranch than I do, haul the stuff across the road and put it into the buildings standing there idle? Don't look to me for an answer. I don't know. Maybe I'm not smart enough to understand deep things like letting good show equipment rot in the weather when we have plenty of storage space."
Even though Miller has no ranch to work with anymore, he has found an occupation in teaching the Ponca Indians, who come to him for financial aid, how to make tom-toms that may be sold for a profit.
"The Indians keep coming to me for help", he said. "They've depended on my family for a good many years. They don't know how to stop now. I had no money. I couldn't give them food when they were hungry, clothes when they were shivering.
"But I figured out a way for them to make money for themselves. Come out to the garage. I want to show you something."
In the garage were great stacks of tom-toms, made and painted by the Indians, according to the colonel. These tom-toms, varying in size price and construction, have been sold in large quantities in New York, Chicago, Boston, and many other places, he says. They are for sale all over Oklahoma, and in several western states.
Made from bark, dried hides and a little paint, their cost is fractional and their selling price anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 each. Zach Miller thought of the idea and taught the Indians to make them, he says. He obtains hides-horse, calf, sheep, buffalo-paints and etc. and the Indians take them to their own little houses where whole families work together in turning out real Indian tom-toms. Miller oversees the distribution and marketing, and what profits there are go to the red men.
"They don't make much money yet," said the colonel. "We're only getting started. But anything is more than they would have if they didn't make 'drums' as they call them, and the difference between a few a few dollars and none at all is the difference between going hungry and eating.
"The Indians are my friends. As long as I'm here I'll do what I can for them, if it's only teaching them to paint red spots on a piece of sheepskin and calling it a tom-tom." The tom-toms are of six varieties-Navajo, Cherokee, Otoe, Tonkawa, Osage and Seminole. Each type gives the sounds of the tribe it represents. All manner of the designs and figures are painted on the faces of the tom-toms by the Indians and may attain a really artistic effect.
Whether Zach miller is a martyr to bad luck or a "plain fool" is a subject of considerable discussion in Ponca City and the 101 Ranch region. That the man faced grave responsibilities when the entire management of the ranch and show fell into his keeping, it is evident. Hard times added to his difficulties. Whether or not another man could have surmounted this combination of circumstances is a matter of opinion.
Many of the colonel's close friends, who have known him a lifetime, admit that he would have been wiser had he co-operated with the receivers who took over the ranch, instead of antagonizing them.
But whether another man, so situated and seeing the results of his family's life work taken over by strangers through what he believed to be no fault of his own, would have acted differently, is yet another matter of opinion.
At any rate, much water has gone under the bridge this past year, and postmortems will not recall it. Zach Miller has found that there is still plenty cause for trouble, and plenty to worry about. That's why he hankers for Nairobi, Africa.
The pity of the matter is that the 101 ranch, showplace of the southwest, with all its gargantuan activities, the crops totaling hundreds of thousands of bushels, the herds numbering tens of thousands of heads, the wild west show that netted more than $1,000,000 at the box office-is passing. The time will come when it may remain only a memory- a saga of the plains. And the names of the Millers, who planned and executed the great enterprise, will be lost in the annals of prairie history.
Such, if one wished to philosophize, is the fate of all things. Even of the showplace of the century, Oklahoma's 101 ranch.
Tulsa Daily World Sunday, December 4, 1932