UNION CITY, INDIANA.
Of DAYTON DAILY NEWS AND RADIO’S ‘JOE’S
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
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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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,’
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
‘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
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.