Since this is our last column for this school year, we decided to tell you a few of our favorite Henry Miller stories that we came across while researching other columns at the Milliken Museum.
The first shows what a shrewd businessman Henry Miller could be. Whether the story is true or not is still in question, however pictures and first person accounts found at the Milliken Museum indicate that it probably is true.
It seems that in the 1880s Henry Miller found a way to profit from the federal government's Swamp Act passed by congress years before. The Swamp Act was intended to help people reclaim land that had been flooded by overflows of the San Joaquin River. Specifically, you were allowed to lay claim to any swamp (flooded) land that you could row a boat across. Miller waited for the land of the flooded San Joaquin to dry, then hoisted a row boat onto a wagon chassis and drove for miles over the previously flooded land, thus claiming it as reclaimed swamp land.
Another story shows a side of Miller's temper. It seems a fire broke out in the Canal Farm olive orchard where Miller had built a barn and planted the orchard. Fire crews rushed to save the barn. Miller took his hat off, stomped on it and shouted, "Forget the orchard! Save the olives!"
Stories also abound about Henry Miller's kindness toward his neighbors. Billy Stockton, another of Los Banos early residents, recounts the time Henry Miller came to him and said: "I am 84 years old and I don't want any of my old friends to be in trouble after I pass away. Mr. Stockton you owe me $9,000. How much can you pay?" Stockton replied he could pay almost nothing. Miller told him just to give him a $1,000 and the two pieces of property that were mortgaged to him. Stockton couldn't pay the mortgage anyway, so he borrowed the $1,000 from friends and the debt was cleared. "I went home and told my wife. I was so relieved and happy. That night in bed I cried like a baby," Stockton said.
According to Mr. Shannon, who claimed to be on the inside of many of his business affairs, Henry Miller forgave at least $350,000 dollars of the books in mortgages and notes together. At that time this was enough to buy the whole Henry Miller ranch. In today's dollars Mr. Shannon said it probably is worth forty- or fifty-million dollars.
I can't help but reflect on the past stories we've shared this year in response to the questions sent in from Los Banos residents. From vampires that weren't quite vampires to the old train depot, I learned even more about the history of this town through interviewing the long-time residents and searching through old records in the Milliken Museum than I ever could have written. The little stories that explain the greater pieces of history aren't always heard, so it was particularly rewarding to share the maybe forgotten accounts that paint the bigger picture of Los Banos, the one that has spanned back for generations. Not being a native of Los Banos, many of the stories I wrote about were stories I'd heard for the first time, so I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to learn more about this town where I've spent the greater portion of my life. As I move on to college this fall, this column was an interesting way of getting to know my hometown as if I had a grandma who had lived here her entire life. I'm grateful for the chance to get to know Los Banos and to share the old stories, funny anecdotes and answer the questions that others had about this town. So, thank you to anyone who had a question that led us to learning about the history of where we live, to the people who helped us answer these questions, thank you to Dan Nelson at the Milliken Museum, Thaddeus Miller at the Los Banos Enterprise and thank you to Mr. McNally for assembling the column and for always helping us out. As we write this last column, we are reminded there are still many questions left about Los Banos, and that even little towns have grand histories.
"Ask Us" is produced by Tim McNally's Advanced Placement American government class at Los Banos High School. Do you have a question about the history of Los Banos? Submit it to Mr. McNally's class by email to tmcnally@losbanos usd.k12.ca.us, by phone to (209) 826-6033 or by mail to Los Banos High School, 1966 S. 11th St. Los Banos, CA 93635.