Pierce A. Miller remembers the days of horse-drawn transportation and preserves them in his collection of antique carriages and wagons.
Fifty years ago every large city was almost as jam-packed with horse-drawn vehicles as it is with automobiles today. Names like Studebaker and Brewster were turning out thousands of carriages each year and making transportation available for as low as $40 to families that previously could not afford a carriage. The livery stable was a sign of prosperity and every town that “amounted to something” had at least one; every enterprising merchant provided convenient places for the hitching of the patron’s horse and buggy, the social state was judged by the kind of animal and carriage one prided himself on owning.
However America’s modes of transportation changed in the 50 years between now and then, for with the birth of a century came the birth of that revolting, smelly, noisy, horseless carriage. Symbolical, perhaps, was one frenzied reaction to this new machine – that of the faithful horse himself, that left mailboxes and fences strewn about in its wild effort to get away from the path of the auto. Thus an old family servant had to be dismissed from his duties.
A wide-eyed, towheaded boy named Pierce A. Miller was growing up in the green rolling Pennsylvania hills in those days. Resting on his plow he loved to shout friendly greetings in Pennsylvania Dutch to passing Conestoga wagons. He loved this day when the country store was the community center, when church picnics and the circus were the main forms of entertainment, when the country doctor came three miles for a dollar and furnished the medicine, and when you went for the water instead of it coming to you. This happened in the good old days when most of the bread was baked at home and what was bought came without wrappers and was un-sliced. A good hired farm hand got 50 cents a day and board. Relatives were then called kinfolks, and how we enjoyed their visits, going on a trip which involved changing trains was considered a dreadful ordeal.
In those days we stood in line at recess in the one-room school, at the uncovered water bucket waiting our turn to drink out of the tin dipper, Uncle Sam and most of us lived within our means. Girls then had a best and a second best dress and they never thought about wearing either one to school. On Saturday we trimmed the coal-oil lamp wicks and cleaned the lamp chimneys. Parents used switches and paddles instead of psychology and it was respectable to act embarrassed at the sight of a lady’s petticoat and a wedding ring was the only security a girl needed to keep the flirts away.
This same Pierce A. Miller, hair slightly grayer now, looked back on this boyhood which he knew so well. It saddened him to think that it might be all forgotten, and that the younger generation, which included his own children, would know little of the age in which he was reared.
In 1933, the same year his youngest son, Bill, was born, Pierce had the chance to rescue an old stagecoach from being junked – and thus began a collection of old transportation that was to grow rapidly. They grew up together, his hobby and his son Bill, and they became fast friends. Whenever possible Pierce enthusiastically added to his collection, which soon included bicycles and autos as well as carriages.
You see, after leaving Pennsylvania for the more promising West, Pierce at different intervals cooked on a train, delivered milk, carried the mail, ran a livery stable and finally settled down as one of the pioneers in the cling peach industry which developed when the thirsty, fertile San Joaquin Valley was fed with mountain water.
The California Ranch, which is what people have called the Miller place for as long as anyone can remember, is blessed with an imposing barn supported with 40-foot timbers and topped with an ornate cupola. It has served for years as a majestic landmark, smiling down on the surrounding green forest of peach trees. Today it holds over 100 of Pierce’s horse-drawn vehicles.
Pierce, with his son Bill, enjoys his hobby immensely. He likes to think of his vehicles as old men who have out-lived their usefulness, but who are helpless to care for themselves and need someone to keep them. But he does not consider them antiques, for although they seem old because of the tremendous changes that have come about in the last half-century it takes no old man to remember when they were in common use. He is gratified to learn that others enjoy sharing his hobby, from the youth to the oldster reliving his youth. A favorite perch of his is on the driver’s seat of one of his carriages, preferably filled with appreciative visitors. Smiling broadly, he says, “One of the greatest pleasures on earth is bringing happiness to others.” IMA
This hobby collection is located on the Miller fruit ranch in the Modesto Irrigation District between Empire and Waterford, 10 miles east of Modesto on Highway 132.