"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Dreamer, determined Philip Miller — irrigator and rancher

By on September 27, 2017 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Rod MolzahnBy Rod Molzahn

Editor’s note: This story is the first of a series of Bio sketches on prominent early settlers in the valley.

The man crossing the Wenatchee Flat on the big mule in the spring of 1872 was Philip Miller.

He was 37, a native of Bavaria who had immigrated to Pennsylvania where his three brothers and families lived. He stayed there long enough to learn carpentry but he had big dreams. He would go west and find land, about 1,000 acres he thought.

Philip Miller was possessed of great strength, determination and an appetite for hard work. He would need them all to change his dreams to reality.

His first stop on his westerly migration was Missouri. The Civil War was starting as he arrived and he enlisted in the Union Army. He fought in several major battles including the battle of Shilo.

After the war he moved on to take up prospecting in Montana’s Confederate Gulch. When he left there in 1870 he had $5,000 in his pocket from his gold panning labors. That would fund his dreams.

Miller moved on to the Kittitas Valley where he homesteaded 160 acres but after only a year or so he knew he still wasn’t in the right place. In the spring of 1872 he set out to follow the Columbia River north in search of gold. What Philip Miller found was more than gold — it was his dream.

He came upon the Wenatchee Flat, a great, farmable swath of land free for the taking. There were Indians, not a lot and most of their villages were up the Wenatchee River Valley.

A trading post owned by Jack Ingram and John McBride, as well as their homestead claims, were down near the mouth of the Wenatchee River. There was only one other homestead claim on all the rest of the flat.

A young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Perkins, were living in a tent below the Squaw Saddle rocks. They had bought the land from John McBride in the summer of 1871. It had been a difficult winter and when Philip Miller rode up on his mule the Perkins were ready to “trudge, pack and be gone.”

Miller paid only a few hundred dollars for the Perkins’ squatter’s rights. But along with the rights to the land he got a bonus, an unfinished ditch designed to bring irrigation water from Squilchuck Creek to his new fields.

Miller began the arduous jobs of clearing land, working on the ditch with the help of Indian labor and building a one room, log cabin with a fireplace of rocks picked from his own fields. The cabin was floored with scavenged pine boards from abandoned sluice boxes. The boards were worn smooth by gravel and water except for the rock hard knots that stuck up from the new floor.

When Miller had cleared three acres and finished the ditch he planted 2.5 acres in peaches along with five apple and two plum trees.

The original ditch provided water for 100 acres but that would not be enough to irrigate all his dreams. He began acquiring adjacent acreage. He may have purchased additional squatter’s rights from John McBride before McBride left the valley or he might have made additional homestead claims himself.

His final land acquisition was a 640-acre desert claim that could be proved up by bringing irrigation water to the land.

Soon after Philip Miller established himself he began writing to his brothers and nephews in Pennsylvania to come to this new paradise. He extolled on the beauty and productivity of his new home.

His letters never stopped and in 1880 the first of his nephews, George J. arrived. Eventually eight nephews, followed later by seven nieces and his brother, John, joined him.

Nephew Jake, a carpenter, brought his tools when he came in 1887. He found George J., his brother Joe and his uncle John all living in Philip’s cabin. Like all the other nephews before and after him, Jake went to work on Uncle Philip’s ranch and slept on the cabin floor, knots and all.

Jake recalled that when he arrived Philip had eight acres of peach trees, eight acres of apples, some plum and pear trees, five acres of grapes, a small field of Timothy hay and a growing herd of cattle.

Since the market for fresh fruit was small to none, Philip Miller obtained a government license to distill brandy and make wine.

Jake, the carpenter, went to work immediately constructing a wine cellar 80 feet deep into a hillside. The cellar was 30 feet wide and 13 feet high. In later years the cellar became a cool meeting place for community gatherings on hot summer days.

The next project the nephews took on was enlarging the irrigation ditch to water more land. Philip eventually obtained from Kittitas County Superior Court the first rights to 320 miner’s inches of water from Squilchuck Creek. Five nephews, brother John and Philip hand shoveled and built headgates.

The expanded ditch, finished by 1890, irrigated 460 acres including 40 acres of grapes and orchards along with 200 acres of alfalfa. By the late 1890s the ranch was producing 5,000 to 6,000 boxes of fruit and 1,000 tons of hay annually.

The Miller ranch was the showplace of the valley — proof of what the dry soil could do with irrigation water. Newcomers to the valley were all taken up to the ranch to see that proof.

Philip was a liberal host. After a tour of the ranch, visitors were invited to the wine cellar. John Gellatly with his family arrived in Wenatchee on their way to settle in Waterville. John was taken on the tour and consequently never made it to Waterville. He recounted his visit to the wine cellar in his book, A History of Wenatchee.

“When our group entered, he (Miller) poured out a glass for each guest and as I had not been put wise to the pungent nature of his product, and thinking it was cider, I had no sooner swallowed the glassful he had handed me when I began to feel my hair raising and was experiencing several other strange sensations.

“I asked Mr. Miller what the glass contained… he replied that it was seven-year-old Peach Brandy. Having come from a community where any kind of intoxicating beverage was taboo, I found myself in an embarrassing predicament for a newcomer to the valley. Fortunately, however, the glass was not oversize and in due time the spell wore off.”

Philip Miller was considered Wenatchee’s outstanding citizen and ambassador for the valley and its potential.

In 1892 when the Great Northern arrived Philip Miller was chosen, along with Sam Miller, to drive the silver spike.

By 1908 Miller had sold all of his land and holdings and retired to Seattle.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@verizon.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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