Iron-Man Frank Miller in the engineer's cab of his 80 horse Case A familiar sight at the Old Time Threshers & Sawmillers, Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390
UNION CITY, INDIANA.
There are steam engineers, and there are steam engineers. Some are of the squat, broad-chested, oily-overalled type, others the gaunt, bent-over, big-veined variety with barely enough energy to get through the day's work of oiling up and throttling the big engine under their command. And then there is another kind, though a bit more rare the engineer who, though complete master of his machine and the job it is performing, nevertheless impresses others that he could well have fitted into other professions quite as well as running a steam engine, such as qualifying in the field of education, the world of business or the political arena. In other words we now and then see the polished, intellectual kind of steam engineer who could well fill a roll in a diversity of callings besides the art of running a steam engine. And that is the kind of engineer that Frank Miller, sawmiller. lumberman, thresherman and elite impresses others to be.
If Walter Cronkite was interviewing Frank Miller, he no doubt would employ the term, 'charisma', in describing that unexplainable, almost mystical aura that radiates about the personality of Frank Miller whether he's throttling his big eighty horse Case, serving as head sawyer, or riding the gang plows during the steam engine plowing demonstrations at the threshing reunions. But whatever he's doing at the moment, his total personality and bearing leaves the impression that he is indeed the master of all of these and more too.
As for me, behind the arm that jerked the throttle, the erect physique and the quiet, positive demeanor, there appeared to be the mind of the educator in the man, Frank Miller. But after years of quietly observing and trying to equate the man, he confided that he didn't have the opportunity to attend high school. All of which proves my strongest convictions that education comes not from college books and campus but by living experiences which engrave their images on the receptive mind and character they enrich.
When most other farm lads his age were heading for the pre-ivy league portals of the local high schools, armed with their eighth grade diplomas, while Dad and Mom supported them in their pursuits of a higher education with the family cream check, Frank Miller was tagging along with his uncle to begin a career of threshing in the wild and woolly northwest.
'At only fifteen I passed my examination to become a steam thresherman in the courthouse at Fargo, North Dakota,' reminisces Iron-Man Frank Miller. 'All they asked my uncle was one question 'What part of a steam engine do you notice first when you sec one coming?'. And ho answered, 'The smokestack'. But they made me take the full examination of thirty questions, and I got twenty-nine right out of the thirty which wasn't bad,' chuckles Frank.
From then on Frank Miller and his uncle began steam threshing in the raw, untamed northwest around the Fargo area.
'At nights we slept in a haystack if they didn't set it afire before you got to sleep,' muses Frank. 'And snakes they were everywhere, and I've always been scared to death of a snake. Even a snake an inch long would make me jump two feet high if it crawled in front of me now. Yet I've never had any close calls or even been bitten by one. But I just can't help it.'
Frank shared all the experiences of big-time threshing along with the hundreds of others who ventured into the old west to earn their bread and thresh the golden grain.
'We ate in a cook shack, or cook car,' recalls Miller. 'They also had a sleeping car, but actually there were too many bed bugs in them. I couldn't stand them. But their cooking it was better than any restaurant you ever ate in. It was just like home cooking. They also carried a cook and a dishwasher with them wherever they went. We ate such things as ham and beans things that really stuck to your ribs, I can tell you that. And even in the afternoon you had lunch. They fetched lunch out to the fields. They fed you real well.'
'Frank, I suppose you've talked over some of these old experiences with another Iron Man, John Limmer, who also helped thresh around the Fargo, North Dakota, area years ago?' said I.
'Yes, John and I have talked over our threshing days out there many a time. It was just like he said. Whenever the cook ran out of meat, they just up and killed another critter. Sometimes they were pretty skinny though. I remember once they killed a critter right outside the cook shack. And it's just like John said, you could see the heads of critters lying all around. But if I remember correctly, it didn't seem there were many flies around out there. They could put the meat right out in the open and get by pretty good.'
'There were plenty of tramps out there in those days. They'd work only a day or so to get enough money to move on,' reminisced Frank. 'Then they'd all hang on the next train and leave for some place else. As John said, they looked like flies hanging on a piece of meat when the train pulled out.'
'One never knew but that they'd steal you blind, those transients. John said he used to sleep with a two-foot club in his hand to protect himself.
But we always tried to hide away in the straw to sleep,' laughed Iron Man Frank Miller. 'You never knew when a tramp would get off of a train and wind up with you in the same straw stack next morning. In fact I always felt it a good idea to get up before they did.'
Then there were the eerie sights of seeing straw stacks burning at night as far as the eye could see.
'I remember seeing as many as fifteen straw stacks all burning at once all around the country,' recalls Frank. 'You see they couldn't plow straw under it would burn the ground out.'
'The outfit I was with didn't haul the grain to town or try to market it.
They'd just scrape off a place and run it on the ground in a pile. Maybe they'd sack a few loads, what they could store in the barn, and the rest they just piled on the ground outside. After all it didn't seem to rain much up there, then during the winter they'd haul it away. It wasn't wet and would still be good not hurt a bit,' says Frank.
'Those were the beginning days of America's growth and greatness,' recalls Iron-Man Frank Miller. 'In 1924 I came home and told my father that in a few years he'd be out of the threshing business. But he wouldn't believe me, and wanted to know why. I told him the combines would be coming in. Dad argued that out there the wheat would stand up, but here it wouldn't. But in 1929 I saw the first combine in our county of Pulaski County, Indiana. By 1935 I'd say at least fifty percent of the farmers owned a combine, and now I suppose eighty percent own them.'
'I saw the transition first in the northwest during my stay from 1923 to 26,' 'minds Frank. 'The first combine I saw was headed up by thirty-two head of mules. It cut a twenty-foot swathe through the grain field. However the mules just pulled it, as the combine was powered by steam, using an upright boiler.'
'It was hard work then, but it seemed that every part was interesting. Workers didn't seem to get aggravated when they were told to do a thing in those days,' reminisces Miller.
Recalling my own boyhood to Frank Miller, that of being a small town boy and not a farm lad, I related my youthful experiences of delivering groceries on a big bicycle for the neighborhood grocery how thrilling it was to ride close behind a buggy and 'listen to the rhythm of the horse's hooves, then uptown to watch the big electric interurban cars, and only a block further, the many steam passenger and freight trains arriving and departing the old hometown. Everyone seemed to be so busy and the small towns had such a thriving business.
'I'll never forget when I left the farm and moved into Star City, Indiana,' recalled Frank. 'The railroad Was only a couple blocks away. I thought I never would be able to sleep, but after only two weeks I never even heard them. Then later I got to going down to the depot land I'd spend hours watching the steam trains. You know steam may not fit into our modern economy, but steam engines hide nothing from the eyes and are so interesting to watch. We threshermen have the most expensive but the finest hobby in the World. And more people come every year here to Ft. Wayne to see the threshing.'
One of the most colorful figures at the Old Time Threshers and Sawmillers, each year at Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Frank Miller can be seen doing about every kind of job around the reunion grounds Whether it's plowing with his big eighty Case, throttling it on the well-worked sawmill, or helping Harold Gay with the thousand-and one scheduling and placements that always enliven the reunion programs. But whatever you see Frank Miller doing, you can't help noticing that Frank Miller the man and the gentleman is there doing the job too.
'My Dad would have turned over in his grave if he'd heard me throttle that big Case in that wet ground, plowing,' mused Frank one day at the Jim Whit by reunion. 'I only wish you'd had your recorder out there in the field at the time. I hope I don't ever have to do it like that again.'
'We try to make things so interesting here that you never hear folks mention such gadgets as radios and T-V's,' confided Frank.
Though Iron-Man Frank Miller never even got to high school, let alone college, he can brag that his big Case eighty did make it to the university campus where it opened the eyes of the 'book larners'.
'Yes, my Case went to college, at Purdue University,' mused Frank. 'I believe it was in 1963. They put it right up on the fraternity yard, about ten foot higher than the sidewalk. It was really a show-piece. It was there for four days,' says Frank. 'I don't know how many thousands of people were there to see it, but they had all the grass tromped away. They didn't give us much notice to get it there from only midnight till morning,' laughs Miller. 'At the time they called me I didn't even have a man to haul it, but by 2 a.m. I was ready to be on the road to down there. We were ready to set up by morning. We furnished a sight that was new to everyone around there who saw it.'
To Frank Miller, the man and the engineer who's had steam in his blood, as he says, 'All my life,' we offer an honored seat in our Hall of Iron Man Fame. For the endless days he's labored to thresh the grain on the wild northwest frontier, to the more refined age of exhibiting his mighty eighty Case that the legend of America's greatness in which he once participated shall never die, we salute Iron-Man Frank Miller.
For the tireless hours he's spent and will continue to spend (we hope) in keeping steam up that the pistons may fly so the wood will be sawed, the ground plowed and the grain threshed at the Jim Whit by Old Time Threshers and Sawmillers Reunions, we offer a salute as his only pay and reward.
May you, Iron-Man Frank Miller, be ever as perpetual and long-lived as that mighty eighty Case, that the new America may ever be reminded of the old America that made the new America great lest we forget.