When neighboring townspeople returned home to their Brackenheim village in Württemberg, Germany during the mid-1800s boasting of the money they earned in a short time in America, Heinrich Kreiser, a young butcher’s apprentice, knew he would do the same with one exception: He planned to remain in America and never return to Germany. What Heinrich did not know was that he would drive more than one million head of cattle on more than one million acres in California, Nevada and Oregon in the early 1900s, more than any cattleman west of the Rockies. He would also establish America’s largest cattle and meatpacking enterprise and develop a vast gravity irrigation and canal system in California.
Heinrich Alfred Kreiser was born July 21, 1827, the only son and youngest of four children born to master butcher and cattle trader Christian Johannes Kreiser and his wife, Christina. Young Heinrich attended public school until he was 14. His teachers encouraged his special talent for math and admired his exceptional memory, traits he acquired purchasing and herding calves, sheep and goats for his father’s butcher shop. He disliked his father’s harsh treatment and the demanding workload; he failed to get along well with his three older sisters—Frederike, Elisabeth, and Karoline—and had no close friends so after his mother died in 1842, Heinrich left home.
Relying on his experience as a butcher, he found work in Holland for three years and in England for two years where he learned to speak English. Five years later at age 20, he had earned enough to sail to New York. As a butcher’s assistant in New York, he earned eight dollars a month and doubled his income by using the intestines of slaughtered hogs to sell as sausage casings on the side.
During this time in New York, he met and became friends with Henry Miller, an American shoe salesman, who helped Heinrich improve his English.
When news of the California Gold Rush spread, the two young men planned their adventure west. At the last minute, Henry Miller was unable to use his previously purchased non-refundable, non-transferable ticket to San Francisco via Panama. He offered his ticket to Heinrich, who pretended to be Henry Miller and boarded the steamer Georgia April 13, 1850. While waiting in Panama City for the ship to California, Heinrich, now known as Henry Miller, fell ill with the fever that claimed many lives. He spent three months in a hospital before he was able to board the steamship Republic. Henry Miller arrived in San Francisco September 24, 1850 with only the clothes on his back, his gold watch, a walking stick and six dollars. Not enough grubstake to mine gold. He immediately applied for citizenship because now he considered himself an American.
Meanwhile, he found work at a French butcher shop on Jackson Street. He slept and cooked for himself behind the slaughterhouse on what is now Grant Avenue. For eight weeks, he butchered sheep at two dollars a day to build his reputation as a master butcher. He slaughtered and dressed 100 hogs in three days—more than four times as many as other butchers.
When most of San Francisco and its butcher shops burned in the June 1851 fire, Miller leased a lot on Jackson Street, paid to build his own shop, and opened for business July 5. He bought a few calves on the San Francisco waterfront but later found cattle and hogs for a more reasonable price outside the city. His reputation for making superior quality pork sausages spread. He acquired brains and intestines from slaughterhouses as a special treat for his French customers. Business prospered. He hired an assistant in 1853 and entered temporary partnerships to gain additional capital.
Most California cattle were Spanish or Mexican longhorn, leaner and lower quality from a butcher’s viewpoint than sturdier American shorthorn. When Miller learned that a herd of American cattle driven from Salt Lake City arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, he bought the 300 head for $33,000. He later succeeded in breeding ideal cattle for beef production by crossing American shorthorn with Devon and Hereford.
Charles Lux, a German immigrant from Alsace and one of sixty competing San Francisco butchers, approached Miller about jointly purchasing a large herd of American cattle driven from Texas to Pacheco Pass. Miller agreed to buy the 1,600 herd at $67.50 a head and split the purchase price and profits from the meat sale.
On March 30, 1858, eight years after arriving in San Francisco, Heinrich Kreiser legally changed his name to Henry Miller, formed the partnership Henry Miller and Charles Lux Cattle Company that lasted almost three decades, and married Lux’s sister-in-law Nancy Wilmarth Sheldon April 14. Thirteen months later, Nancy and her unborn son died during childbirth. A year later, 32-year old Miller married 20-year old Elizabeth Wilmarth Sheldon, niece of his deceased wife.
As a youth in Germany, Henry Miller trained as a butcher’s apprentice for seven years and another seven years as a journeyman. To pass the master butcher exam, he had to make a fiddle string from sheep guts, cure meat and make sausage. He gained experience in raising and trading cattle, sheep and hogs. He learned the German emphasis on improving breeds and proper range management. In America, one man slaughters the animal and another works in the shop. Miller’s training and expertise gave him an advantage over American butchers.
Henry Miller planned to operate a complete meatpacking enterprise to include not only raising the livestock, but growing hay and alfalfa for feed, managing the soil and building dams and levees to irrigate the land in addition to a slaughterhouse and wholesale distribution and retail sales.
In 1858, Manuel Castro sold two of his nine leagues of his Rancho Sanjon de Santa Rita (Merced County) to Salisbury Haly, who, in 1861, sold it to William Dumphy, the latter deeding half-interest to Tom Hildreth. In 1863, Henry Miller secured his first foothold in the San Joaquin Valley when the land of Dumphy and Hildreth came into his possession along with the Double H brand that later became synonymous with the Miller and Lux Cattle Company. Miller established headquarters at Rancho Santa Rita, thirteen miles east from Los Banos.
Los Baños (Spanish for the baths) del Padre Arroyo, were favorite pools where early Spanish explorers and San Juan Bautista Mission padres, notably Padre Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta during 1808 to 1833, refreshed themselves during missionary trips into the San Joaquin Valley. American emigrants later changed the name to Los Banos Creek.
In 1859, Charles Lux bought part of the Spanish ranch Buri Buri used as grazing land for Mission Dolores and the San Francisco Presidio and built a country home there for him and his wife, Miranda Sheldon Fotter, a young widow he married in New York the year before.
After Tom Hildreth lost most of his American cattle herd in the 1861-1862 San Joaquin River flood, he sold 8,835 acres and all surviving animals to Miller in 1863 for $10,000. Additionally, Miller purchased part of the Spanish ranch Las Animas seventy miles south from San Francisco near Gilroy where he built his Bloomfield Farm. In 1865, Miller & Lux bought the entire Sanjon de Santa Rita ranch and livestock, including the Double H brand, for four dollars an acre. The level 50,000 acres of the finest grassland nine months of the year on the west side of the San Joaquin River became Miller’s favorite ranch.
By 1866, Miller & Lux bought the remaining Buri Buri ranch property to hold cattle and time their delivery to San Francisco for maximum profit. Santa Rita, Buri Buri and Bloomfield formed the foundation of the Miller & Lux empire connecting southern California cattle ranches with San Francisco markets.
Henry Miller, an outdoor person, spent his days riding horseback to scout water supply, soil conditions, topography, microclimates and to evaluate ranching and farming opportunities for the company. Charles Lux used his financial and refined social skills to cultivate business and political connections among the German community associations and elite of San Francisco. Henry Miller and Charles Lux became ideal business partners because of their contrasting personalities.
More than half the land Miller & Lux owned in California by the 1870s was former Mexican land grants lost by the original Mexican owners who could not afford attorneys to prove their titles because of the required documents in English. Tom Hildreth, owner of the Double H brand, bought parts of Sanjon de Santa Rita from the original owner Francisco Soberanes before President Abraham Lincoln signed the title confirmation certificate November 20, 1862.
In 1871, water was valued more than gold in California’s central valley. Miller & Lux secured water rights along the San Joaquin, Kern and San Benito rivers, constructed the most advanced irrigation system of the time to increase productivity of their ranches and farms, bought the San Joaquin & Kings River Canal & Irrigation Company and extended it seventy-eight miles by 1873. Within five years, they added branching side canals and ditches to become California’s first large-scale canal system.
German immigrant Gustave Kreyenhagen built a store in 1870 at the old wagon road about three miles west from the creek on land leased from Henry Miller. An official post office established in Kreyenhagen’s store in 1873-1874 was named Los Banos after the creek. When the railroad reached the town of Los Banos in 1889, Miller & Lux laid out the present site by moving the post office and businesses five miles east to the railroad tracks. California Historic Landmark 550 in Los Banos Park at 803 East Pacheco Boulevard commemorates the site.
(California Historic Landmark 548 in the restaurant parking lot at the Canal Farm Inn, 1460 East Pacheco Boulevard, marks Miller’s ranch headquarters for the Los Banos division. The present inn was built on the ruins of Henry Miller’s 1873 ranch house.)
Miller & Lux gradually increased their holdings. In the 1890s, they owned land extending sixty-eight miles along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley from Firebaugh’s Ferry in Fresno County to Arroyo de Orestimba in Stanislaus County; thousands of acres in the Buena Vista Lake district of Kern County; 200,000 acres on the east side of the valley; thousands of acres elsewhere in California, including their original holdings in the Santa Clara Valley, and ranches and brands in northwest Nevada and southeast Oregon. They grazed 100,000 cattle and 80,000 sheep. When their animals were driven from any of their ranches to market in San Francisco, it was always possible to feed and rest the herd and vaqueros on Miller & Lux property.
Henry Miller employed white Americans as buckaroos, carpenters, blacksmiths for eighty dollars a month, and farm managers for two hundred dollars a month. He was known to treat his non-white workers well and highly regarded his long-time Hispanic vaqueros and German, Italian and other European immigrants who tended crops and cattle feed for eighty dollars a month. Chinese gangs built canals and levees. Sixty Chinese cooks earned twenty-five to thirty dollars a month serving at Miller & Lux ranches.
Miller annoyed his foremen, managers and supervisors by giving detailed instructions on the care of all animals, soil and agricultural management, raising seed, irrigation, production of lard and tallow, proper disposal of kitchen scraps and ordering supplies. Miller prepared for emergencies by building dams and levees against flooding and creating additional hay piles and alfalfa reserves against drought. He issued precautions against fire on all his ranches.
Miller & Lux and their Double H brand were so prominent and respected in the West that their checks were honored as cash.
A Double H branding iron is displayed in the Spirit of the West exhibit at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.
Henry Miller cared and felt responsible for the welfare of all Miller & Lux employees. He provided them with good food and housing, donated money or groceries to those in need or ill, paid for the education of many of their children, and presented Christmas gifts to all employees and their families.
Although his wife and children never lacked life’s necessities, Miller later regretted not spending more time with them. The first of four children born to his second wife died in infancy. Henry Miller Jr., born in 1862, Nellie Sheldon, born in 1865, and Sarah Alice, born in 1871, lived with their mother in a grand home on fashionable Rincon Hill in San Francisco most of the year when they attended school. Henry Miller joined his family there on special occasions.
From his Santa Rita Ranch headquarters, he arose daily before sunrise to ride horseback thousands of miles every year in heat, cold and rain to check all his ranches. He rarely saw his family for months at a time. Occasionally they visited him at the Santa Rita Ranch or spent weekends and vacations at Bloomfield Farm in the nineteen-bedroom mansion Miller built in 1888.
(In 1975, E Clampus Vitus Mountain Charlie Chapter No. 1850 dedicated a plaque at Mt. Madonna County Park, Santa Clara County, Highway 152 at Hecker Pass Road, describing all that remains of the Henry Miller summer retreat: one large foundation of his main house and two smaller foundations of homes he built for his adult children. Some fountain ruins, terraces, trees and shrubs that once graced the grounds of the estate survive.)
After his arrival in California, Henry Miller neither spoke nor wrote the German language. He disliked anything German and had no desire to teach his children the language, traditions or culture of his homeland. But when American doctors were unable to cure his medical issues, he returned to Brackenheim in the spring of 1875 and received treatment and rest enabling him to resume his business in California in the fall.
The first of personal tragedies struck when Miller’s youngest daughter, whom he affectionately called “Gussie,” was thrown from a horse and died at the age of eight. Miller then laid out the Merced County town of Gustine in memory of his favorite daughter.
Daughter Nellie married James Leroy Nickel, a Yale-educated lawyer, in 1884. Miller thought Nickel an arrogant city person and a terrible judge of character.
Henry Miller Jr. disrespected his parents, never attempted any productive work or desire to succeed in any occupation, and became an alcoholic.
The Miller & Lux legal agreement dated June 24, 1875, guaranteed that when one partner died, the other may continue to run the company for seven years without liquidating assets to pay any heirs. After Charles Lux died in 1887 at age 64, his heirs challenged the agreement. After years of litigation, Miller eventually bought out all heirs to become sole owner of Miller & Lux by the end of the century.
In 1891, the American Cattle Trust, a Chicago meatpackers organization that controlled the midwest meat markets, founded the South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company and Western Meat Company in an attempt to take over West Coast meat markets. Two years later, Miller helped organize the Butchers’ Board of Trade of San Francisco and Alameda counties as a boycott.
Henry Miller believed his son-in-law lacked good managerial skills and leadership qualities and had no interest in the cattle business, but as a favor to his daughter Nellie, he appointed Nickel vice president of Miller & Lux.
After forty-five years of marriage, Henry Miller’s wife Sarah Elizabeth died July 21, 1905.
The 1906 San Francisco fire and earthquake burned the Miller & Lux slaughterhouse along with most of San Francisco’s Butchertown. Henry Miller saved his adult son from their burning home on Rincon Hill, but Junior died the following year at age 45 of a venereal disease.
Swift & Co. and Armour & Company focused on slaughtering and distributing livestock through wholesale networks. By 1912, Miller & Lux had combined land, water and ranch management, livestock production, wool-pulling establishment, slaughterhouse, marketing and sales of meat products to create America’s first agribusiness company.
When Henry Miller retired in 1914 because of failing health, son-in-law J. Leroy Nickel became president of Miller & Lux. Henry Miller died two years later on October 14 at age 89 in daughter Nellie’s San Francisco home. He was buried at the family estate on Mt. Madonna.
The holdings of the cattle baron who once grazed more than one million head of cattle on more than one million acres were valued at fifty million dollars. His estate was appraised at forty million dollars. Business acumen and a special talent for math enabled Henry Miller to remain debt free.
Leroy Nickel’s sale of the Miller & Lux breeding herd and Double H brand to Henry Miller’s rival Gustavus Swift in 1933 eventually led to the downfall of the Miller & Lux empire.
Formerly known as Heinrich Kreiser, the young German butcher’s apprentice in Brackenheim who had no close friends as a youth and failed to get along with his three older sisters, Henry Miller never forgot the difficulties of less fortunate outcasts. Although the young butcher disliked his German culture and traditions, the cattle baron remembered his roots. Henry Miller sent money for his sisters to come to California. When his sister Elisabeth died in 1870, Henry Miller and his wife reared her four children. After sister Frederike died in 1891, Miller arranged her burial at the Bloomfield Farm Cemetery. Miller paid education for his nieces and nephews and left all relatives well provided for in his will including trust funds for his great-grandchildren.
Henry Miller also bequeathed money to the city of Brackenheim for the poor on condition the city maintain the graves of his parents. In honor of the native son who pursued his dream and succeeded in America, Brackenheim not only named a school and a street after him, but rental from the Henry Miller apartment residence maintains the gravesite and supports social welfare causes.