Small-town Survival on the Great Plains: Miller, Dakota Territory, in the 1880s

Small-town Survival on the Great Plains: Miller, Dakota Territory, in the 1880s
Louise Carroll Wade
South Dakota History, volume 16 number 4 (1986)

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A spirited boom that lasted from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s nearly tripled the population of Dakota Territory and whetted its appetite for statehood. Newcomers were responding to an upturn in the national economy, deceptively abundant moisture, the end of the grasshopper plagues, improved farm machinery, and new milling technology.’ They had also heard the boosters: “Crops, ideas, people, fortunes, and everything else grow so vast that it makes a down-easter’s head swim like a fishing cork in a maelstrom,” insisted one Dakotan. Despite such rhetoric, new railroad tracks within the territory were probably the single most important cause of Dakota fever. Locomotive whistles were “the sweetest music a resident of the broad prairies… could hear,” said the territorial railroad commissioner.’ Lemuel Ely Quigg, a New-York Tribune reporter who visited in 1889, likewise claimed that “Dakota has been made by the railroads.”

The importance of steel rails to town life was too obvious to be questioned. Four-fifths of the urban settlements clung to the tracks, and half of the new towns in what would become South Dakota were started by the railroads or their subsidiary townsite companies. Railroad managers, explained Quigg, selected the location, bought land “under the pre-emption law, at an expense of $1.25 per acre, laid it out in lots, put up a few houses, gave the place a name and waited for settlers.” Whether started by entrepreneurs or railroads, the towns could survive only if they met the needs of farmers in their hinterlands. Townspeople sold lumber, fuel, staples, dry goods, agricultural supplies, and equipment; they maintained grain elevators and mills, livery stables, newspapers, saloons, and churches; and they provided medical and legal services, loaned money, and helped people buy and sell land. Bankers and land agents, though often maligned, were nonetheless essential to the local economy. Should a town be fortunate enough to snag the county seat, it had to have an opera house, high school, and facilities for the county offices, court, and jail.

Hope sprang eternal in the towns that were launched during the Dakota boom. Young Hamlin Garland drew upon his firsthand knowledge of Aberdeen and Ordway in Brown County for his first novel, “The Rise of Boomtown.” The railroad supplied “food, fuel, clothing, the news, and the comforts even luxuries All that could be had in an interior town in an older state Boomtown had. We ate ice cream and oranges.” Main Street started at the depot, passed between a block of wooden stores “ornamented by high [sic] battlements,” and soon ended on “almost absolute level” prairie. The boomtowns had “no past to speak of and nothing great at present —but the future! Oh! the future was infinite in range.” Another observer, the English traveler James Bryce, marveled at the settlers’ “superb” confidence in the future. They viewed their community “not merely as it is, but as it will be, twenty, fifty, a hundred years hence when the seedlings shall have grown to forest trees.”

In the early 1880s, it was probably true that all Dakota towns located on a railroad were constantly “reaching forward to and grasping at the future,” as Bryce noted in The American Commonwealth. Not all were going to make it. Many of the aspiring boomtowns subsided into quiet villages, their populations “shrunk and shifted and devitalized.” Unable to dent the supremacy of Chicago, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Omaha, or Denver, they were forced to fight each other for survival. Location, the population mix, vagaries of the economy, and sheer luck all played a part in determining their fate.’ The struggle of three settlements in Hand County, South Dakota, illustrates the nature of the contest being waged throughout the territory in the 1880s and early 1890s. Thanks to Scott Heidepriem’s excellent recent history of the county, local newspapers, and the George Henry Carroll family records, it is possible to discern the reasons why the town of Miller won out over its rivals.

Hand County’s lifeline was the Dakota Central Railway, a branch of the Chicago & North Western. Progress by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul and the Northern Pacific railroads in penetrating the territory prompted Marvin Hughitt, a director of the Chicago & North Western, to scout a middle route to the Missouri River for his company. The new town established at that point would then become the base of operations for building on to the Black Hills. Impressed by the potential of the fertile prairies east of the Missouri River, Hughitt persuaded the railroad to extend its line from Tracy, Minnesota, to Volga, just inside Dakota Territory, in 1879. The following year, using the new town of Huron on the James River as construction headquarters, the Dakota Central built all the way to Pierre. Marvin Hughitt became a Chicago & North Western vice-president that same year, and the railroad organized its Western Town Lot Company. The superintendent of the Dakota Central, T. J. Nichols, planted red flags every dozen or so miles west of Huron to mark the sites of railroad sidings, but only watchmen and their families occupied those future townsites during the harsh winter of 1880-1881.

During the 1870s and 1880s, railroad companies "boomed" the region that would become South Dakota. About one-half of the towns that sprang up during the period were creations of the railroads or their subsidiary townsite companies.

South Dakota Historical Society

During the 1870s and 1880s, railroad companies “boomed” the region that would become South Dakota. About one-half of the towns that sprang up during the period were creations of the railroads or their subsidiary townsite companies.

Meantime, the Chicago & North Western alerted settlers to the “Fertile Prairie Lands … Free of Cost in CENTRAL DAKOTA” and the unparalleled opportunities for “the Merchant, Mechanic, and Laborer.” Hand County was part of the “Most Productive Grain Lands in the World.”‘^ Thirty miles wide and forty eight miles long, it was mostly flat, fertile land on the watershed between the James and the Missouri. There were a few marshy lakes and small streams, such as Turtle Creek. The Wessington Hills in the southeast corner and the Ree Hills in the southwest rose about one hundred fifty feet above the prairie; both areas had good water and grass and a few squatters. The railroad ran through the flat midland, and the two sidings planned for Hand County were roughly on opposite sides of the county.

Siding No. 4, a short distance north of the Ree Hills, caught the eye of two railroad officials who worked at division headquarters in Huron. Land in the area was suitable for either farming or grazing, and there were springs in the Ree Hills. Forming a townsite company, the men sent their wives to hold down claims while they steered potential settlers to Siding No. 4. Two such customers were brothers L. W. Lansing, a young newspaperman on vacation from Rochester, New York, and F. E. Lansing, a Chicago attorney who received reduced fare tickets from a Chicago & North Western attorney friend. At Huron, the brothers were directed to the “promised land,” and, as L. W. Lansing later recalled, “we grabbed off some ‘close in squatter’s rights’ for preemptions and sent for our father,” a clergyman in Beloit, Wisconsin.’^ The little settlement was no sooner platted in the spring of 1882 than the partners quarreled and divided the town at Main Street. The east side was Ree Heights; the structures on the west side were moved a few blocks farther west and christened Bramhall. Aggressive town promoters from Minnesota arrived at the end of the summer, put up a hotel, and launched the Bramhall Free Press. Its editor boasted about the “curative powers” of the spring water, the “unmistakable evidence of rich mineral deposits” in the Ree Hills, and the certainty that the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul would pass through Bramball “on its way from Chamberlain to Bismarck.”

Siding No. 3, just over thirteen miles east of Ree Heights, fared somewhat better. John MacCandisb King II of Rochelle, Illinois, saw it in the spring of 1881 and filed on land east of picturesque Turtle Creek. He sold his Illinois newspaper, persuaded friends to join him, and in midsummer returned to Dakota Territory with lumber and his printing press. Calling his settlement Rex (the Latin version of his own name). King secured Hand County’s first post office in October. To his dismay, however, Chicagoans Don H. and Charles B. Porter, having decided against grazing land near Ree Heights, purchased eighty acres of land from T. J. Nichols on the west side of Turtle Creek in March 1882. The Porters called their colony Saint Lawrence, after their native county in New York State, and they had the capital to construct several stores and a small hotel. In return for a promise that he could keep the postmastership. King agreed to merge Rex with Saint Lawrence, and the railroad agreed to build the station on the west side of Turtle Creek. By the end of 1882, Saint Lawrence had about three hundred settlers and a lively newspaper. The Bramhall editor grudgingly admitted that the village at Siding No. 3 was “prettily located.”

With towns underway at Hand County’s two official sidings, how was it possible for a third settlement to appear on the tracks? Henry Miller of Blairstown, Iowa, is the key to Siding No. 3Vz. In his mid-fifties when the Dakota Central Railway was built, he saw in Hand County a golden opportunity for himself and his sons. Born in Guernsey County, Ohio, in 1825, Miller accompanied his family to Cedar County, Iowa Territory, in 1836. His father, William Miller, farmed, ran a mill on Rock Creek, and was a county commissioner when Tipton became the seat. Son Henry, one of eight children, was an experienced farmer and mill operator at the time he married Nancy Johnson in September 1848. In the 1850s, he added stock raising to his repertoire. Then, in 1862, he acquired 360 acres in Benton County, hoping to sell part of it as a townsite on the Cedar Rapids & Missouri Railroad then under construction. The new settlement, however, was located a tantalizing half-mile away and named Blairstown after John Insley Blair, the man who would push the line to Council Bluffs by 1867 and then sell to the Chicago & North Western. So, Henry Miller and his sons cultivated the land and gradually expanded their holdings to eight hundred acres. Miller also started a grain warehouse and lumberyard in Blairstown and was a trustee of the Patrons of Husbandry grain elevator. Originally a Methodist, he joined the Evangelical church and helped run its Blairstown Academy.

South Dakota Historical Society

South Dakota Historical Society

Henry and Nancy Miller had eleven children, eight of whom reached adulthood. Seven were sons, and most of them attended Blairstown Academy before shouldering responsibilities on the farm or in the warehouse and lumberyard. William H. Miller, the fourth son, attended State University in Iowa City, studied law, and practiced in Blairstown before moving west in 1879 to Audubon, a new town on a branch of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. While establishing his law practice in Audubon, he opened a furniture store and brought brother Eudeil to assist with that enterprise. The Millers witnessed Audubon’s triumph over Exira for the Audubon County seat, and they saw how the railroad decided the outcome. It gave the town a free, five-year lease on a spacious public square and a fine new brick building that would be ideal for a courthouse. Meantime, the population of Benton County climbed to twenty-five thousand by 1880, and Henry Miller apparently felt that it was too crowded to accommodate his other sons and their families. It may have been Marvin Hughitt, an acquaintance, who called his attention to the Dakota Central line, or he may have read the Chicago & North Western promotional literature. At any rate, he went to Dakota to find a spot where he and his sons could acquire land and found a county seat.

In July of 1881, Henry and Eudell J. Miller traveled by train to Huron and hired a team and wagon to explore the prairies to the west. They found what they wanted in Hand County and soon returned to Huron to lay claim to forty acres not yet opened to public land entry. From a French Indian, Alexis Dumerce, they purchased government scrip and used that to secure the land they wanted. Their forty acres were one-half mile from the east/west center and one and one-half miles from the north/south center of Hand County. “We came here for the county seat and located as near the center of the county as possible,” son William Miller would later say. Armed with a guarantee of a railroad siding and depot as well as special immigrant and freight rates from Iowa, the Millers paid little attention to Saint Lawrence, approximately two miles away, or Ree Heights, eleven miles to the west.

The original plat of Miller, drawn in 1881, shows the organization of a typical railroad T-town.

South Dakota Historical Society

The original plat of Miller, drawn in 1881, shows the organization of a typical railroad T-town.

During the summer, the government surveyed Miller Township and opened it for filing. Henry Miller was obligated to return to Huron within three months of his first transaction and adjust payment on the scrip he used to “cover” his land. He and his town-founding party arrived in Huron with a letter from Marvin Hughitt to T. J. Nichols, who then accompanied the men and their freight car of lumber to the townsite. Departing the train at midnight on the night of 7 September 1881, the eager settlers spent their first day exploring the Ree Hills and Turtle Creek. In addition to Henry Miller and sons Eudell, William, and John Douglas, there were about two dozen others, most of them Iowans, with the largest contingent from Audubon. Their occupations included all branches of the construction trades, management of lumberyards, dry goods stores, meat markets, grocery and bakery stores, furniture and hardware stores, flour mills, plus farming, and the ministry. The founders built a shelter on 9 September, and the following day they drew slips of paper to determine which quarter-sections of land they would get adjoining the townsite and which town lots. The majority then departed to file their claims in Huron and ready their families for the permanent move. Only the “carpenters” stayed on to bale hay and construct a few houses, stores, and a small hotel.

The town plan was unimaginative, in the sense that it closely resembled so many others along the Dakota tracks, but it was what new settlers would expect and easily adapt to. The widest street. First Street, was 180 feet and paralleled the railroad on the north side. Broadway cut a 100-foot-wide swath running north (and later south) from the track. All other streets were 80 feet wide, and each block had a 20-foot alley. Lots were 165 feet deep, 50 feet wide for residential purposes, and 25 feet wide for business lots on Broadway. Owners were required to put in their own sidewalks. Henry Miller reserved a block for county buildings, some lots for the schoolhouse, and land for the railroad siding, depot, and freight station. The first four blocks to be developed were north of the tracks and west of Broadway, perhaps because they were closest to a small creek that eventually meandered into Turtle Creek. For his own residence, Henry Miller chose land south of the railroad tracks. Although the town plan was scarcely visible in the fall of 1881, the construction crew, which included Eudell and William Miller, adhered to it. That first small hotel was on the northwest corner of First and Broadway. Henry Newmire’s wife was the first woman to visit the site, for which she won a free town lot. The first family arrived in December —J. V. Munger, his pregnant wife, and five children. Munger was a plasterer and stone mason, and he started building a second hotel. By the end of the year, the “embryo town” at Siding No. 3 1/2 had over three dozen residents, a railroad freight house, regular train service, and a post office.

Alerting potential settlers was the next order of business, and William H. Miller took on that responsibility. In his first issue of the Hand County Press, on 4 January 1882, he informed readers, “Dakota lies almost exactly in the latitude of sunny France,” and its rivers and “numerous lakes” are “kept up by the rain fall on its surface.” Hand County, he continued, is a “rich agricultural and grazing region,” suitable for cultivating wheat, corn, oats, barley, flax, potatoes, and other vegetables. Thanks to its nourishing prairie grass, “there is no better place” to raise livestock. Miller Township and the four others open for filing already had 175 homesteaders, and the town of Miller had a well-stocked grocery store and lumberyard, with a hardware store and livery stable soon to open. Liberal railroad rates were available to those who wanted to take a look or make the move. Moreover, there was a hotel to receive them and a freight depot to shelter their possessions. A second hotel and passenger depot would be ready for the anticipated spring rush of one thousand or more immigrants. Without a doubt, the Press article assumed, the newcomers would be like the “class of settlers” already there —”sober, industrious and honest” and “determined to make a prosperous and thriving place of it.”

A bond signed by two Miller sons and eighteen of “the best business men” promised twenty acres of land along the tracks to the Dakota Central Railway. Henry Miller could not sign the bond until he made final proof on the land, but the railroad pressed ahead with the passenger depot in February. The Hand County Press hailed this achievement as well as the opening of a second hardware store and lumberyard, a coal and feed store, blacksmith shop, general store, bakery and restaurant, two drug stores, and two saloons. There were several land agents ready to take people out on the prairies, and the three town wells meant that homesteaders would have no trouble finding water. The editor duly noted the arrival of new settlers from Audubon, Blairstown, Marshalltown, Atlantic, Belle Plaine, and “other points” in Iowa. John Douglas Miller joined his brothers in the growing town, and the paterfamilias paid frequent visits while waiting to sell his six-hundred-acre farm and ten-room house near Blairstown.^” The father, noted his editor son, was convinced by the new houses and stores that Miller was going to be “the magic city of Dakota.”

The one dark cloud on the horizon was the arrival of the Porter brothers on Turtle Creek. They reportedly gave half of their land to Dakota Central Railway in return for a depot on the west side of the creek, one-third mile closer to Miller than the original Siding No. 3. In addition, the Porters were trying to “buy” some Miller carpenters and businessmen. Henry Miller thought it was duplicitous of T. J. Nichols to sell land to the Porters, and he planned to go directly to Marvin Hughitt in Chicago. A shoulder injury, however, made it necessary for him to write the railroad magnate from Blairstown about “the prosperity of the colonists and the town of Miller.” Relocating Siding No. 3 and bringing another town into existence would definitely, he claimed,

retard our growth. .. . What need is there for this state of affairs? There has been [in Miller and its vicinity)… an emigration of solid, substantial citizens four times, at least, in excess of what we agreed to do. … The Colonists at Miller located there in good faith .. . (expecting to] receive the treatment due from a great corporation to trusting patrons. The men engaged in locating and building the town of St. Lawrence have induced no one to emigrate… Why do they locate so close to Miller? … They know that no new country can support towns closely packed so they come near enough to crush out altogether… I hope the matter will be looked upon in the light of right.

As an inducement, Henry Miller concluded his letter with an offer of “up to half … if need be” of the five hundred acres that he and his sons owned in Miller Township if the Dakota Central Railway would simply “discontinue the town of St. Lawrence.”

The railroad did not snuff out this competitor, but the hamlet was no match for Miller. By September, the editor of the Hand County Press could crow, “Adventurers from Chicago, with more money than brains or principle, cannot change the result by means of a rival town in close proximity.” Saint Lawrence is a threat, he continued, “which exists mostly on paper. Miller will remain, as she now is, the metropolis of the best agricultural county in the territory.”

A large number of businesses went up in Miller in 1880 among them the eight thousand-dollar Vanderbilt House, which had room for two hundred guests.

South Dakota Historical Society

A large number of businesses went up in Miller in 1880 among them the eight thousand-dollar Vanderbilt House, which had room for two hundred guests.

Evidence of progress was easy to find. Three Miller lawyers and land agents built Metropolitan Hall, a community center used during 1882 as a schoolhouse and headquarters for the Sunday School and Presbyterian services conducted by Rev. A. S. Foster. A large clothing and dry goods store occupied two lots, and directly across from the railroad station, an eight-thousand-dollar,
three-story hotel with a mansard roof and accommodations for two hundred guests was built during the summer and fall of 1882. Its owners, John Morrow, Peter Anderson, and William H. Miller, called it Vanderbilt House. The town had a brass band, a debating society, and a chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. A subdivision east of Broadway was being readied for a large group coming from Atlantic, Iowa; two advance agents, A. D. Hill and Joseph C. Yetzer, were overseeing construction of the town’s first bank. South of the railroad tracks, the Henry Millers were occupying their spacious new home. An Iowa visitor wrote in August that Miller was “a very lively town for its age… By actual count there are thirty-four business houses,… and anything from a pin to a self-binding reaper can be procured… The carpenter’s hammer and saw can be heard at all hours of the day and in all directions.”

Following his customary practice of mentioning new arrivals in the “Booming Town,” editor William Miller noted on 23 August 1882: “G. H. Carroll and family arrived last week from Webster City, Iowa. Mr. Carroll has for some time held the office of county surveyor of Hamilton County and is a man of large business experience. He will invest in Miller town property and become a fixture, as it were.” George Henry Carroll was indeed an active Miller booster until his death in 1925, but the thirty-three-year-old surveyor, land agent, and lawyer who came to town in 1882 was scarcely “a man of large business experience

The eldest of eight children in a Dorchester County, Maryland, farm family, George Carroll struck out on his own at age twenty one. He attended a business college in Philadelphia and worked in that city until 1873 when he ventured west to Milwaukee and then to Chicago. To his sister, he confided an urge to go even farther west, for it is the “natural impulse with mankind in this country” and “I am no exception to the rule.” His mother’s aunt was living with her son, Hewitt Ross, near Hook’s Point, Hamilton County, Iowa, and Carroll paid them a visit in 1875. He liked the small settlement on the banks of the Des Moines River and stayed on to teach school and survey land. Toward the end of the decade, he moved to the county seat, Webster City, to read law. Admitted to the Iowa bar in September 1879, he was also appointed notary public for Hamilton County.

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Alice Milburn, eight years younger than George H. Carroll, was also teaching school near Hook’s Point. Her mother had died in 1863, her father in 1874, and she was “keeping house” for her younger brothers. We know from her diary that Hewitt Ross was a neighbor and friend to the Milburn children and that “Mr. Carroll” was one of her suitors. She married him in May 1880, and they settled in a flve-room house in Webster City with a fine garden and two large trees in the front yard. Their first child, Charles Milburn Carroll, was born the following April, and a few months later George H. Carroll was elected Hamilton County surveyor. He helped lay out tbe new town of Stratford just south of Hook’s Point on a Chicago & North Western branch line. He, Alice, and baby “Charley” were in Stratford to witness the arrival of the first passenger train, a “grand scene.”*’ The Carrolls appeared—according to Alice’s diary —to be firmly rooted in Webster City. They attended lectures, participated in church affairs took a strong interest in politics (he a Republican, she a Democrat), and subscribed to a large number of journals. Alice’s financial accounts make it clear that George, whose office was in the courthouse, was earning a good income from surveying, legal work, and land sales.

Yet, on 1 July 1882, Alice wrote that her husband was “thinking seriously of going to Dakota.” It is “not a bright prospect to me,” she said the next day, “but I will do as husband wills and try to be happy too.” George Carroll may have read in the Hamilton
Freeman, a Webster City publication, about Dakota wheat crops; he may have come across Chicago & North Western brochures; or he may have learned about it from Hamilton County farmers. He paid seventeen dollars for a round trip to Miller, which indicates that he was unaware of Henry Miller’s cheaper fare for prospective settlers. When he returned on 24 July 1882, the die was cast. “Husband had bought a claim and taken a pre-emption,” Alice recorded. “Talked till sleep overcame us of Dakota, our future home. Husband is pleased with the place. I cannot feel as he does.”

Resolved to “shake off her sadness at “going so far West,” Alice Carroll plunged into packing. Early in August, her husband left on the freight train with their furnishings, horse, and buggy. She and son Charley bid farewell to relatives before taking a Chicago & North Western branch line to Minnesota, where they transferred to the Dakota Central, They arrived in Miller on 15 August, and George Carroll escorted them to temporary quarters in the upstairs of a small, unfinished house. They slept in their own beds but ate at the hotel until the Spencer L. Sage family and one other joined them. Thereafter, the three women shared one cook stove. Finding no satisfactory houses to buy or rent, the Carrolls paid fifty dollars to the Miller brothers for property on the southwest corner of West Second and Hand streets. Workmen began digging a cellar on 24 August, not a moment too soon for Alice.

The young mother worried about Indians and confided in her diary: “The disease of homesickness almost makes me frantic. I do not like the country. The wind blows exceedingly hard, everything is so dusty,… clothes are dirty.” By early September, the Carrolls could move into their own house, although plasterers and painters were still working and carpenters were constructing the barn. Completion of the cupboards and bookcases coincided with Alice Carroll’s realization that she was “beginning to like Dakota.” The little town had “improved,” her neighbors were congenial, and rides to the Ree Hills and the Saint Lawrence grove proved that “some large trees” and cool springs really did exist in the territory. Furthermore, her husband’s claim, five miles from town, had “fine wheat soil,” and he was “getting some business now.” During the “lovely autumn days” of October, she and Charley made a point of walking to the station to greet the passenger train. “How the people climbed out here,” rejoiced Alice. “I was glad to see them. We hope to get the Co. Seat located here.

With an estimated fifteen hundred people in Hand County, one fifth of them in Miller, the Hand County Press thought it was time to decide the all-important question. Where is the county seat? William Miller wanted the territorial governor to designate a temporary seat until voters could act in November. Of course, he thought his town should have the honor because it was twice as large as Ree Heights and Saint Lawrence put together. “We only look for justice,” he added/’ While Hand County had an easier time selecting its seat than did other Dakota counties, the procedure was quite acrimonious. Ree Heights and Bramhall were pitted in mortal combat and thus seemed out of the running, but Rex-Saint Lawrence could claim that it was the oldest settlement and nearly as large as Miller.

In September, Governor Nehemiah G. Ordway appointed a three-member commission to handle Hand County organization. It consisted of John MacCandish King, who favored Rex-Saint Lawrence, and George W. Livingston, a highly respected farmer who lived near and supported the town of Miller. The third member was supposed to protect the interests of the third town. L. W. Lansing, a resident of Siding No. 4 who was selling lumber to both Ree Heights and Bramhail, later recalled that residents of that area “figured that with the balance of power we might get into the game and sell a few lots. So we sent a man to see Governor Ordway who promised us a County Commissioner But someone saw [Ordway] last and he sent up a private secretary to act for us.” The third commissioner was actually the governor’s nephew, who did not live in Hand County. William Miller was incensed and claimed that the governor’s nephew would “have the balance of power and favor the town having the freest barrel What could the old schemer do to make money any easier?”

Stung by the criticism, the commission decided to hold its meetings alternately in the rival towns rather than select a temporary seat, and it set a date for the election that would decide the issue permanently. Meantime, the St. Lawrence Tribune reminded voters that its town had Turtle Creek and a grove of trees and that it was near the center of the county. The Hand County Press claimed that the Porters were townsite speculators and that they were so unsuccessful that they had to bribe Miller residents with offers of a half-dozen free town lots. The pitifully few buildings in “Wrecks,” as the Press named the rival RexSaint Lawrence, could not compare with the substantial structures in Miller. Hand County’s first bank was soon to open its doors in Miller and that town was in the center of the county.

The Hand County Press, edited by William H. Miller, a son of town-founder Henry Miller, played a leading role in the 1882 campaign to locate the Hand County seat at Miller

South Dakota Historical Society

The Hand County Press, edited by William H. Miller, a son of town-founder Henry Miller, played a leading role in the 1882 campaign to locate the Hand County seat at Miller

On 7 November, a majority agreed that Miller had a stronger claim on the county seat. Of the 666 votes cast, 32 went to Ree Heights, 282 to Saint Lawrence, and 352 to Miller. Saint Lawrence and Miller accused each other of putting up outsiders for thirty days to qualify them as voters. The Tribune charged that “unscrupulous capitalists of Atlantic, Iowa,” bought the election for Miller.” Lansing, an election clerk in Ree Heights, remembered that “a man came up from Miller with folding money and bought our balance of power and Miller got the county seat.” Of the 124 voters who cast their ballots in Ree Heights, 31 were local chauvinists, only 13 favored Saint Lawrence, and the rest voted for Miller.” With or without the “folding money,” Ree Height would probably have supported the closest and largest town. George Carroll voted early in the day and assured his wife at noon that their town would win. The Carrolls drove over to Saint Lawrence in the afternoon to gauge the activity there. That evening, the men of Miller gathered to receive the returns. Hearing “the bells ringing and cannons booming,” Alice Carroll “knew Miller had won” and was “pleased with the result.”

George Carroll sent the good news in a long letter to his father. It was “a sharp contest,” he acknowledged, but “now we are running along in matters of government like any other counties.” He knew the Maryland farmer was “anxious to know what kind of a country it is where a man can get land for nothing. You naturally infer that it is wild. Not so. I was never among a more civilized people in my life.” Hand County is “gently rolling” prairie, so rich that “government land is picked up within eight to ten miles of the railroad on each side.” In a letter to a brother in Maryland, he reported, “I am getting along very nicely… I live comfortably. I take a good many newspapers… We enjoy almost every luxury here that you do.” He conceded, however, that canned Maryland peaches were inferior to the fresh ones he had relished in his youth.

William H. Miller, the jubilant editor of the Hand County Press, responded to the election results with the query, “Why not endeavor to have the state capital located at Miller?” He predicted that the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul would be building through town in time for the “grand rush” of spring settlers. Meanwhile, he reported on increased acreage under production, crop volume and price, and land prices. The next fall, the paper featured a letter from the Bloomington, Illinois, press that said Hand County farmers were getting thirty-five bushels of wheat per acre, one hundred bushels of oats, twelve hundred dollars for proved-up, quarter-section claims within five miles of Miller, and six hundred dollars if within ten miles. The Miller editor asked for and soon got a commercial laundry, a wagon manufactory, and boot, and shoemakers. With the town and newspaper thus safely established, William Miller sold his paper in late November 1882 to William H. Kephart and George G. Seward. They were soon joined by John A. Bushfield, formerly with the Atlantic Telegraph in Iowa, who would remain with the paper until 1918. Retiring editor William Miller joined his father and brothers in the Miller Town Company, which owned a half-interest in the expanded 320-acre townsite and was sole proprietor of an addition called South Miller. In the same year that the Hand County Press changed hands. Spencer L. Sage became sole owner of the Dakota State Journal, another publication in Miller.”” Booming “The ‘Hub’ of Hand County”*’ would have been pointless for both newspapers if the town had slowed its pace of improvements.

 The survival of a railroad boomtown depended upon its ability to make the
improvements tkat would attract new business. Tke competition between
rival towns for rural customers was fierce. Saint Lawrence's steampowered flour mill /above), built in tke mid-1880s, was soon surpassed by a
more modem operation in Miller.

South Dakota Historical Society

The survival of a railroad boomtown depended upon its ability to make the improvements that would attract new business. The competition between rival towns for rural customers was fierce. Saint Lawrence’s steam-powered flour mill (above), built in the mid-1880s, was soon surpassed by a more modem operation in Miller.

That essential ingredient in town growth —”building up on its own merits,” as editor Bushfield expressed it—brought both economic and social changes. Soon after the Hand County Bank opened, twenty-five businessmen, including George H. Carroll, formed the Miller Cooperative Association. Its purpose was to promote “internal improvements” in the town. The name soon changed to Board of Trade, but its function remained the same. The businessmen encouraged boardinghouses to accommodate farm families wishing to spend Saturday night in Miller and people holding down claims who needed shelter in the winter. When Redfield in Spink County courted farmers in the northeastern part of Hand County, the board retaliated with road and bridge improvements. Don Porter alarmed them by spending twenty-two thousand dollars on a steam-powered flour mill in Saint Lawrence; they countered by offering a one-thousand-dollar bonus and free land to a man from Sheridan, Iowa, who built and operated a flax mill in Miller. Neither the flax mill nor a small broom factory were very successful because farmers concentrated on wheat. In 1886, therefore, Henry Miller and his sons invested in a first-class flour mill. The three-story structure had the best machinery available, and the Miller Roller Mills soon eclipsed the Saint Lawrence mill and, in fact, operated at a profit until 1900.”

Taking stock of what Miller offered the residents of Hand County in the mid-1880s, editor Bushfield enumerated two hotels and six boarding houses, three agricultural machinery stores, four blacksmiths, three hardware stores, a furniture store and four dry goods establishments (one of which geared its prices to “the present prices of grain”), three coal dealers, four lumberyards, four doctors, three drug stores, the Hand County Bank plus two smaller banks, and twenty-one people who bought, sold, and loaned money on land and practiced some law.

Throughout the 1880s, there were other ways in which the town measured up as a county seat. In 1884, the “Atlantic capitalists” built a frame courthouse, which they rented to the county, and citizens paid for the five-thousand-dollar “permanent” schoolhouse with graded classrooms. In 1884, J. Linn Roll, a cashier at Hand County Bank, built a roller-skating rink with a portable stage so that it could be used by theatrical groups. Two years later, he invested five thousand dollars in an opera house capable of seating six hundred people. Lavishly appointed with walnut and cherry woodwork and kerosene lights, it also had meeting rooms on the lower level. The popular new community center opened in style with a formal dress ball. Voluntary associations proliferated —an orchestra, glee club, women’s coronet band, the Miller Dramatic Company, the Literary Society, and a female Reading Circle that evolved into the Woman’s Club of Miller in the 1890s. The Masons, Grand Army of the Republic, Knights of Pythias, and Improved Order of United Workmen made their appearance in the 1880s, as did Hand County branches of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The Presbyterians built the first church in Miller in 1883, with the Methodists following a few years later. Catholics held services in the courthouse until they built on land Henry Miller gave them in the southern part of town. Close to Henry Miller’s own house was the Evangelical church to which he belonged. Every spring, the town’s founder imported a large shipment of ten-year-old willow trees, stored them in his barn, and sold them at bargain-basement prices to residents. In 1888, a special tree sale and Arbor Day celebration produced a border of green around courthouse square. Though still too small to seek official incorporation as a third-class city. Miller nonetheless inaugurated limited town government in 1884 and “annexed” South Miller at the end of the decade.”

Fourth-of-July celebrations reinforced the town’s premier position in Hand County. Typical activities included oratory, prayers, music, baseball, foot races, horse racing, eating and drinking, and the traditional “grand display of fireworks.” In 1884, Miller devised something extra and invited “reliable and steady” Indians from the Fort Thompson reservation to participate. Over three hundred Sioux camped west of town, several chiefs spoke, and there were pony races and war dances at the fairgrounds. Indian women performed dances on the main street of town. Merchants watched with delight as trainloads of white Dakotans poured into Miller for the celebration, and the Hand County Press estimated that “the Indians left $1,000 … during their sojourn here.” The leading dry goods store hired an Indian to serve as clerk and interpreter. In addition to such Independence Day activities, the Ree Valley and Hand County Agricultural Society sponsored county fairs in October, but these were discontinued in the 1890s because they could not compete with the much grander state fairs.

After trying for nearly three months to locate water in Müler. artesian-well drillers struck the "river Yang-tse" in July 1886 at a depth of 1,115 feet beneath the comer of Broadway and First

South Dakota Historical Society

After trying for nearly three months to locate water in Miller, artesian-well drillers struck the “river Yang-tse” in July 1886 at a depth of 1,115 feet beneath the comer of Broadway and First
 George H. Carroll, whose land office occupied the second floor of this building,
was active in Republican party politics and served in the elective offices of
Hand County surveyor. Hand County judge, and city justice for Miller. J. W.
Coquillette, who had a clothing and dry goods store in the same building, married Henry and Nancy Miller's only daughter, Carrie.

South Dakota Historical Society

George H. Carroll, whose land office occupied the second floor of this building, was active in Republican party politics and served in the elective offices of Hand County surveyor. Hand County judge, and city justice for Miller. J. W. Coquillette, who had a clothing and dry goods store in the same building, married Henry and Nancy Miller’s only daughter, Carrie.

Miller had always taken precautions against fires, locating its fairgrounds at a distance due to “the inflammable character of all of our buildings.” But the drought that started in 1883 and persisted for nearly a decade caused shallow wells to dry up and hampered the volunteer fire fighters. The dry weather increased the danger of prairie fires and provided Saint Lawrence with one selling point: its good town well. In December 1885, a blaze destroyed one store in Miller, but, fortunately, the fire was contained. In the spring, the town council decided to issue bonds in order to hire artesian-well drillers from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Drilling began in April just south of the Vanderbilt Hotel at the corner of Broadway and First. It continued without success through May and June as costs mounted and dissension spread. At last, on 17 July 1886, at the depth of 1,115 feet, the drillers found the “river Yang-tse.” “Water, Water, Everywhere,” heralded the Press. “Miller’s great, aqueous fountain” was “a beautiful sight indeed.” The water came “boiling out” at 140 pounds pressure and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, perfect for laundry and bathing, said the editor. The “firing of anvils” announced Miller’s good luck to the county, and huge crowds spent the remainder of the day admiring and celebrating. Even the trains stopped to let passengers and crew observe what was only the ninth artesian well in Dakota Territory. Town officials soon decided to channel their “new born Mississippi” west of town into “Artesian Lake” and develop a park around it. They issued more bonds to finance water pipes that conveyed the precious liquid into twenty public hydrants. Water inspired the Miller Hook & Ladder Company, and in 1888, “the Hooks” took an unprecedented five first prizes at the annual territorial tournament. The approximately fifteen thousand dollars spent on drilling and creating the water works and city park was money well spent.

Drawing water from a hydrant instead of a well must have been an important event in Alice Carroll’s life, but, alas, she had given up the “foolish habit” of keeping a diary. In addition to her son Charley, there were two little girls in the family by 1886, and three more sons would arrive in the next decade. Despite her household responsibilities, she was active in the Methodist Ladies Aid Society and the Reading Circle. She found great satisfaction in her husband’s admission to the territorial bar and election in September of 1884 to the new post of city justice. Always active in Republican party affairs, George H. Carroll managed to buck the Union-Labor and then the People’s party tide and win the offices of Hand County surveyor and Hand County judge. When he was reelected for the second time to the latter position, editor John Bushfield remarked: “There’s only one Carroll. Hence the inimitable George H. was requested by the voters to continue to act as Hand County’s supreme court.” Family letters make it clear that times were hard in Miller and in Hand County during the late 1880s and early 1890s, but neither of the Carrolls thought about moving elsewhere. One of George Carroll’s advertisements pointed out that although other land agents had disappeared, “Carroll, of Miller, like Tennyson’s Brook, has gone right on in his own conservative way His references are the people he does business with. In 1889, he led a campaign of positive publicity to counteract the negative effects of droughts and blizzards on population growth. Even though the railroad company cooperated by distributing over two hundred thousand brochures, the attrition caused by poor weather was undeniable. Newspapers estimated that the county had about ten thousand residents in 1888, over one thousand of them in Miller; yet, in 1890 census enumerators found only 6,546 in Hand County, 536 in Miller.

Hard times and farm discontent led Saint Lawrence to believe that it could raise the county-seat question once again. An 1887 act of the territorial legislature required a two-thirds majority to change a county seat, but Saint Lawrence believed that its new creamery and farmer-operated flour mill pointed the way to “A New Deal.” The frame courthouse in Miller was cramped, and the county treasurer’s office and records were as vulnerable to fire “as a stack of hay on the prairies.” Hand County deserved a thirty-thousand-dollar brick building, said Spencer L. Sage, now editor of the St. Lawrence State Journal. It just so happened that an associate of Don Porter, Edward A. Driver of the Chicago suburb of Riverside, was ready to help. He offered to purchase the one brick building in town and present it to the county immediately. If Saint Lawrence won the referendum scheduled for 6 November 1888, he would contribute five thousand dollars toward construction of the type of building that Hand County deserved.

The Hand County Press, which had dismissed the rival community as “Miller’s eastern shady suburb” four years earlier, now quickly noted that Saint Lawrence proponents refused to acknowledge the county jail or the landscaping of the courthouse square that Millerites had provided at their own expense. Driver’s so-called gift was certain to raise county taxes, the editor continued, and Saint Lawrence would never be able to match Miller’s three grain elevators, three warehouses, roller mill, wide array of stores and services, piped water, and superior fire protection. To clinch the case for Miller, a citizens’ committee, including George H. Carroll, raised five thousand dollars and deposited it in a Court House Fund in the Citizens Bank. It was payable to the county commissioners if Miller retained the county seat. When the ballots were counted. Saint Lawrence had 1,049 votes and Miller had 939, a safe margin for victory for the latter since the challenger had to have a two-thirds majority. At a ceremony in the opera house, the town celebrated its triumph over Saint Lawrence and the election of a Republican president. During 1889, a spacious brick-veneered courthouse was constructed in the square, and the Baptists took over the “old courthouse” as their place of worship, thus giving Miller yet another church.

There were two occasions in the 1880s when Saint Lawrence and Miller buried the hatchet. At mid-decade, owners of land between the two towns pushed the idea of joining the Third Street of each town to create a tree-lined boulevard, an ideal location for a territorial capital. In 1889, with statehood finally at hand, the scheme came to life again. Huron, Watertown, and Pierre were the leading contenders for South Dakota’s capital, but ardent Republican Spencer L. Sage apparently believed that a new City of Harrison located halfway between Saint Lawrence and Miller on the Dakota Central Railway had a chance. Even Hand County voters thought otherwise.

A substantial Hand County courthouse was built in 1889, after voters failed to approve the removal of the county seat to Saint Lawrence.

South Dakota Historical Society

A substantial Hand County courthouse was built in 1889, after voters failed to approve the removal of the county seat to Saint Lawrence.

Luck —both good and bad —played a part in town survival. The misfortunes of Ree Heights and Saint Lawrence were, like its own artesian well, fortunate events for Miller. Between them, Bramhall and Ree Heights platted an incredible 240 acres of town lots, but they were never populated. The Bramhall wells failed in the early stages of the drought, and residents retreated to the original townsite. “Moving buildings was a regular business,” L. W. Lansing recalled, “and we kept long timber to be used with wagons for that purpose.” As publisher of the Ree Valley Free Press in the mid-1880s, Lansing tried every trick in the book to sell his town to prospective settlers. By then, Ree Heights was also having trouble getting water, and the population was dwindling. The publisher as well as the remaining readers jocularly referred to the newspaper as “The Bladder.” In April of 1889, a prairie fire spread from Hyde County into Hand, jumped Ree Heights’ one-hundred-foot-wide firebreaks, destroyed over a dozen buildings, and damaged many others. In the wake of this disaster, shopkeepers pulled up stakes and headed for Miller. The final blow came on Christmas Day, 1890. A defective flue caused another conflagration that took everything except the hotel, post office, and a few empty buildings. “Under present conditions and circumstances,” opined the Hand County Press, “the town will probably never recover.”

Irked and intrigued by Miller’s artesian well. Saint Lawrence bonded itself and began drilling in 1887. There was water at 1,160 feet, but it refused to rise to the surface. Another one thousand dollars took the townspeople deeper into sand, gravel, and debt. The site was abandoned, but two others were explored before Saint Lawrence gave up the quest. Some worried taxpayers departed for the haven of the county seat. Others followed in the 1890s, with their buildings in tow despite court action to prevent such removals. Both Saint Lawrence and Miller escaped the numerous prairie fires that touched twenty-eight of the forty townships in Hand County in the spring of 1889. The smaller town’s luck finally ran out on the night of 18 December of that year. A flue fire in a structure on the main street spread through the business district, consuming ten stores and several homes and causing twenty-four thousand dollars worth of damage. At the outset, a messenger sped to Miller, and within thirty minutes twelve skilled fire fighters were at the scene with their hook and ladder truck. As the Hand County Press noted on 19 December, however, they could do little to mitigate their “Neighbor’s Misfortune.” Saint Lawrence’s peak population of around six hundred dwindled to just over three hundred by 1890. Census enumerators ignored Ree Heights.

 The Miller Hook & Ladder
Company swept the 1888 territorial hook and ladder tournament, but it could do little
when a flue fire consumed
much of the business district
of Saint Lawrence in December 1889.

South Dakota Historical Society

The Miller Hook & Ladder Company swept the 1888 territorial hook and ladder tournament, but it could do little when a flue fire consumed much of the business district of Saint Lawrence in December 1889.

Prolonged drought, prairie fires, and the 1893 panic and ensuing depression knocked some of the bounce out of the county seat. There was no more talk about “metropolitan airs” or “booms” or “rush” of settlers. Instead, editor Bushfield acknowledged, “Farmers are howling for more neighbors, business men are howling for more farmers and it all winds up in a howl and nothing more.” He did point out that his partner, William Kephart, had enough faith in the land to sell his share of the newspaper and take up farming outside Miller. Shortly after the Hand County Bank fell victim to the 1893 panic, the editor tried to console “the businessman, the farmer, mechanic or professional man in this community who is inclined to be discouraged.” The absence of “anything upon the credit side,” he said, “is duplicated by nearly every one in nearly every other locality.”

The hard times tested the commitment of Hand County farmers and townspeople alike. A surprising number of Millerites passed that test. John Ahern, one of the early settlers, scouted the Pacific Northwest but ruled it out as “impracticable.” The “gloom, damp and general surroundings gave persons .. . a tendency to commit suicide.” Seven of Henry and Nancy Miller’s eight children cast their destiny with the town. Six sons participated in the newspaper, a dry goods store, land sales, grain elevators, and the flour mill. The only Miller daughter, Carrie, married J. W. Coquillette, proprietor of a clothing and dry goods store and star of the Miller Hooks. At least one Miller family member could be found in every civic and voluntary association in the town, and their political affiliations included the Union-Labor and Prohibition parties. William H. Miller’s death from pneumonia in February 1892 was a serious blow to the father, but it did not slow him down. The seventy-two-year-old patriarch was shoveling snow in February 1897 when a heart attack ended his full life.

Marching through the historical record of new towns on the Great Plains are scores of people whom John C Hudson in Plains Country Towns characterized as “boomers, swindlers, robbers, and worse.” Their usual goal was peddling land and moving on, but some of them “also came to believe in their own dreams.” Henry Miller is a refreshing example of a promoter who believed in his dream before he founded his town. He chose a place where he and his sons fully intended to stay and raise their families. He had the capital to extend assistance at critical points in the town’s early history, but he, his sons, and many of the settlers drawn to Miller understood that in the long run the community had to build “on its own merits.” It was fitting, therefore, that the pallbearers at “Uncle Henry’s” funeral in the Evangelical church were not sons or relatives but eight stalwart “pioneers of 1882,” including Hand County Judge George H. Carroll. No doubt they were chosen because they shared Henry Miller’s faith in what the community could become. By 1897, full economic recovery was at hand, and the funeral was also a celebration of their feat in planting a county seat on the Dakota prairie where no one had expected a town to arise.

South Dakota History is the quarterly journal published by the South Dakota State Historical Society. Membership in the South Dakota State Historical Society includes a subscription to the journal. Members support the Society’s important mission of interpreting, preserving and transmitting the unique heritage of South Dakota. Learn more here: Download PDFs of articles from the first 43 years and obtain recent issues of South Dakota History at

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