Friday, May 6, 2011

Remembering Alex -- eldest son of Pete and Dora Miller

Alex Miller was the second child born to Pete and Dora Miller – and the first boy.  He was born July 1, 1911.  Like his older sister, Marie, Alex was born in Chicago.  While we know the Millers lived on Kasson Way in the "Windy City," we know very little about those years.  Alex likely attended school on the near north side of Chicago in the ethnic neighborhood occupied by numerous German families – many of them German-Russians.

Sometime around Alex’s eighth birthday, the family moved to Watertown, South Dakota for a few years, before finally moving to the high plains of western Nebraska in about 1919.  He quit school after the fourth grade in the Scottsbluff area.  When Alex was about 16, Pete and Dora Miller moved to Dawes County.  Alex continued working – and would soon meet Mildred Saxton, who was to become his wife.

Although she was born in Merriman, Nebraska, Mildred Saxton’s parents were also from Dawes County.  In fact, it’s reported that her father, John Elsworth Saxton, was born at Fort Robinson in January of 1891 during an Indian uprising.  After marrying Gertrude Emelia Everson in Chadron and -- like the Millers -- raising nine children, the Saxtons were still living in Crawford by 1931 when Alex and Mildred met.

Alex was quite a bit older than Mildred.

A young Alex Miller
“I was 12 years old and he was 20,” wrote Mildred later in life, recalling the circumstances under which they met at the rooming house operated by the mother of Rachel Hiatt, Mildred’s good friend.
“One evening, Rachel and I started playing cards in the lobby.  He was sitting there smoking, when Rachel asked him if he’d like to play Hearts.  He did and won the first game.  He didn’t know how to play before.”

It was two years later, while attending a Revival Meeting at the Opera House in Whitney, that Mildred became acquainted with Fannie and Bertha Miller.  

“I asked them if they knew an Alex Miller.  They said yes – he was their brother!”

But it would be another two years before Alex and Mildred began courting.  Those were the Depression years and work was hard to come by.  Although he’d had several farm labor jobs, Alex decided he wanted to strike out on his own.  His destination:  Saginaw, Michigan.

Since Alex still didn't know a lot about Mildred Saxton, he probably didn't know that her  grandfather was from Michigan.  But Alex did know that his mother had relatives in Michigan.  In fact, his mother’s half brother, Alex Eckerdt, had made a surprise visit to the Millers in Whitney in the summer of 1931.   Alex Eckerdt and his family lived in Flint, Michigan, and another half brother of Dora’s, Henry Neuwirth, lived in Saginaw.  Perhaps that was the only incentive Alex Miller needed to make the trek northeastward.

In any event, Alex Miller lived and worked for a short time in Saginaw.  He first drove a truck, but in May 1935 he was issued a chauffeur’s license, and he began driving a cab.  Click on the image at left to see a larger version.

However, by the next winter, Alex was back in Nebraska, staying with Bill and Marie Derrick in Whitney.  His sisters, Bertha and Fannie Miller, were in a New Year’s Day church service when Mildred Saxton gave them a note for Alex.  Later, when she saw Alex driving around Whitney, they met and began dating.

Four months later, Alex Miller proposed marriage.  Mildred remembered that she accepted, but told Alex that she needed to finish her sophomore year at Crawford High School.  Her parents were apparently unhappy about Mildred not completing high school, so she and Alex agreed to marry in July.  Alex went back to Michigan and worked for a few months, and Mildred finished the school year.  

Within three months, Alex arrived back in Nebraska driving a 1931 Model A Ford, which he soon traded for a 1933 Ford Victoria -- he was to be a long-time Ford Motor fan.

Alex and Mildred were married July 1, 1936 at the parsonage of the Methodist Church in Whitney by long-time Methodist pastor Reverend C. Curtis Norlin.  It was Alex’s 25th birthday, and the marriage was witnessed by Mildred’s sister Eva and her husband, Chet Brown, who had just married two months before.

Alex went to work for the Liggett Company as foreman of a rock crushing crew that provided gravel for the many gravel roads that criss-crossed the region during the Depression years.  While working in the Gordon area, the rock crusher threw a stone in Alex’s face, chipping a front tooth, and it was replaced with a gold crown, which he brandished for the rest of his life.

Alex and Mildred lived in several places:  Rushville, Hay Springs, Gordon, Chadron and Whitney, while Alex worked at a variety jobs, including hauling straw on a horse-drawn hay rack, picking corn, and even topping sugar beets – a job he’d often done in his younger years – and had hoped to avoid as an adult!  

The tough economic times forced Alex to sell his Ford Victoria to his younger brother John, who drove it while courting Lettie Maiden.

Alex and Mildred's first child, Jeanette, was born in Crawford in 1937, and her brother Bruce came along late the following year of 1938, while the Millers were living in Chadron.  After working in Rushville and then back to Gordon, Alex had a chance to again work for his old boss George Rowe, who owned some heavy equipment and needed help at a gravel pumping company along the North Platte River at Bridgeport, Nebraska.  World War Two had begun, and the government needed gravel, which was shipped from Bridgeport to near Edgemont, South Dakota, for the Army to build a munitions storage facility at a place that became known as “Igloo,” for the igloo-looking mounds that contained the munitions.

Undated photograph of Alex and Mildred Miller with their children.
Standing (L-to-R) are Bruce, Jeanette, Charlene, Jerry (seated) and Connie.
Alex and Mildred moved to Bridgeport in May 1942, and Connie was born on June 23.  By the following spring, however, that job ended, and the Millers returned to Dawes County, and Alex took a job with a building crew in Crawford.  This would be his opportunity to learn bricklaying from a couple of Alliance bricklayers who were also on site.  He enjoyed the work and soon learned the trade, taking a major job in Chadron for what would become a large implement dealership building on the south side of U. S. highway 20 on the west edge of Chadron. That building still stands today.  

When the company Alex was working for won a building contract in Lusk, Alex started commuting, and did so for nearly a year.  He was still commuting up and down U.S. Highway 20 when daughter Charlene was born in 1949.  Finally, the family moved to Lusk in June of 1949, and Alex went to work for Oscar Bostrom -- and later for Frontier Lumber.  

Alex & Mildred - ca 1984
Alex and Mildred bought property at 822 South Oak and built a basement home in which they lived for 16 years.  Son Jerry John was born in 1954.  Alex and Mildred went into business themselves, creating the Miller Construction Company.  Alex honed his bricklaying skills by building many fireplaces, homes, and Main street store fronts.  Eventually,  son Jerry would learn the trade and help his father with the business.  

We've included a few photographs of the Alex Miller family in this posting.  You'll find many more photos in our Miller Gallery.  

Alex and Mildred were members of the Open Bible Standard Church of Lusk for many years, and she recalled Alex accepting Christ has his personal Savior while at a church camp in Custer, South Dakota.  Alex Miller died at home on April 15, 1985.  He was 73 years old.  Mildred Miller passed away in January 2007 at the age of 87.