April 17, 2018
The Isaac Miller House
DEFINITION: Joined together or brought into contact so that a real or notional link is established.
From the wrought iron balcony of the 1859 Isaac Miller House, hundreds of stories have unfolded – and they continue to emerge, highlighting unique Southern family legacy and innovative founders’ history. As one of the highest points in Buchanan County, this impressive former plantation located along 3003 Ashland Ave. boasts a detailed Civil War history, including escaping a Union burn order three times; a replica of the Lincoln bed; original pre-Civil War furniture brought to St. Joseph by covered wagon; and, a U.S. patent from the 1860s for a corn planter. And that’s just the start of its treasures.
From the upper story balcony, the original owners, Isaac and Jane Miller, would have gazed across the hundreds of acres of a self-sustaining plantation and hemp farm. They most likely witnessed from the same spot, the Union troops approaching and preparing to commandeer the home during the Civil War. Napoleon Bonaparte Miller, the second heir, lived nearly a century. He was a “gentleman” and from the same perch may have awaited friends to join him in the gentlemen’s parlor for whiskey and a lively discussion. The third heir, Virginia Miller, certainly witnessed the increasing prosperity and growth of St. Joseph’s Ashland area during a high point of community development.
The Isaac Miller House is a visual icon along Ashland Avenue. This red brick, two-story structure is built in the Classic Revival style featuring an inviting porch – a hallmark Southern architectural element recalling the family’s Virginia roots. Isaac Miller arrived in the 1830s bringing his Southern heritage with him to what eventually became St. Joseph, Mo. He claimed 320 acres as part of the Federal Land Grant under President Polk. To be granted full ownership, the U.S. government required that the owner had to harvest a paying agricultural crop, build a permanent residence on the property, fence it in and pay a small pittance. For Isaac Miller, the pittance was a dollar per acre that he paid within the allowed decade-long window. He established his farming operation as one of the first landowners after the Platte Purchase and became one of the area’s most successful farmers.
In 1847, Isaac contracted William P. Blair to build the house that is still the family home. The contract states the construction price was $4,500. He added a kiln to the property and the bricks to assemble the house were made on-site. The iron work encircling the porches is original and brought to Missouri from New Orleans, named “puddle iron” for its early creation process. Most of the interior wood is Minnesota pine except the main staircase railing that is made of native Missouri walnut.
At their peak of land ownership and agriculture, the Millers had acquired a total of 550 acres for their antebellum hemp plantation. With seven daughters and two sons the home was built to accommodate a large family. Nancy notes that Mr. Blair, the builder, ended up quite beyond his projected budget for the project. Upon its completion, he is said to have staged his own death by pretending to jump off the Leavenworth, Kan., bridge and then fled to California rather than claim bankruptcy.
One of the war stories Nancy shares is about a butter churn. Union officers asked a servant girl in the home for something to eat. After explaining that their troops had already eaten all the family’s available supplies, she emptied out the contents of a butter churn and filled it with apples from a tree on the grounds. She brought the apples in and set them before the unsatisfied officers. They were further angered by her response. The girl fled the room through a wooden door – and as she shut it, the soldiers threw the butter churn against it. The two indented marks of where the churn hit the door are still there and are an often-viewed historic focal point.
The Miller women saved more than their father. There weren’t a lot of marrying choices in the area at the time, and some of the seven Miller sisters married soldiers. Their family home remained intact even though, as Nancy said, “the home was ordered burned three times, but stopped by the Miller women who courted the Union soldiers.” Following the Civil War, Isaac passed and a “the market for hemp plummeted as people discovered other materials,” said Nancy. “There wasn’t much of a labor force around either to work on the plantation. At the time of Mr. Miller’s death, he believed he was broke.”
The family and their home, nevertheless, survived and moved forward. At every turn on a modern day visit, early objects connect visitors and family members with the home’s previous owners. The summer kitchen showcases original exposed brick, which Nancy painstakingly sanded one by one. Inside the kitchen’s hearth, the original hook for hanging cooking pots still hangs. On the hearth mantle rests an 1867 clock – still in full working order – bought by the Miller children to replace one stolen by Union troops. Above the mantle, tucked behind a picture, a small child’s handprint is neatly pressed into one of the original bricks. On a nearby wall is an 1860s corn planter and its accompanying original U.S. government patent papers, invented by a Miller family cousin.
The spacious home has a ladies’ parlor with pocket doors, and a replica fireplace, because as Nancy explained, “they didn’t know how to build a house without a fireplace, but wood stoves had just come into fashion for heat so they had both.”
In the ladies’ parlor, Jesse James’ personal butter dish is on display inside a cabinet. Nancy said it was bought at auction by the Millers for 25 cents, and still had rancid butter in it at the time of purchase.
One item is of particular interest and rarity – an author-signed copy of “Gone With the Wind.” Nancy shared that the book was acquired by Virginia, her husband Bill Miller’s mother. Virginia attended a luncheon in Atlanta where author Margaret Mitchell spoke. At the luncheon, Mitchell visited with Virginia about the Miller plantation. The author said told her, “that’s exactly the vision she had for Tara as she was writing, but the editors changed the home from her vision.”
She also recalled moving into the home as newlyweds and sharing the space with Bill’s mother Virginia for 28 years. Rooms had been closed off and some areas were in disrepair. Nancy began restoring and repairing each one, and laughs about how “nothing bothered Virginia. She was content to wait until Spring even when some ceiling plaster fell. She enjoyed the home in any state.”
Today, Nancy often meets her great grandson Brody Paul “at the tree,” the site of a former large walnut tree between her home and his. Her son and daughter-in-law, Billy Paul and Lisa, live just down the hill on original Miller property. Sections of the former 550-acre plantation have been sold over the decades, including sections to build K-Mart on the North Belt and the Sav-On store, among other business properties. The heart of the Miller story is still the home itself and the surrounding family acre.
“I consider it an honor just to be able to maintain the house,” says Nancy. “It’s my home, but it’s also a legacy. Even on days I’m thinking about my own concerns, I can walk in, shut the door, and shut the world out. I feel so connected to the family members who lived here before and that’s a very comforting feeling. This home has withstood the Civil War and every other war after that, and everything that’s happened in the world. It’s still standing. There’s something very special about that,” she adds. “It’s always been a place our family enjoys as a real home, alongside its unique history.”
The family’s weekly Sunday dinners help keep the family connected to their roots and each other. “The faces have changed at the table over the years, but the feeling hasn’t,” Nancy adds.
In addition to enjoying the gift of having family members nearby, Nancy said she “likes things neat.” That trait helps her continue to preserve and maintain each room of the home, finding surprises at every step. She noted that a basement area of mismatched brick in an arched design is a point of curiosity for the family. “It’s possible that the Millers hid some precious housewares or other items, knowing the Union troops were coming. Someday,” she said, “we’ll find out, but that may be an adventure for future generations of Millers. We keep finding things out in the strangest of ways, and it’s fantastic.”
You’re going to hear a lot of “I love downtown” from St. Joseph residents and guests. Downtown is coming alive block by block, with awesome surprises at every turn.
Built in 1873, the Buchanan County Courthouse, with its majestic white pointed dome, stands as an architectural icon during the day and casts a warm stately glow over downtown St. Joseph in the evening light.
When it comes to home-cooked breakfast and lunch, you get it Betty’s way. Or you don’t get the darn thing at all.
Games of chance and dining establishments have been a part of St. Joseph, Missouri’s uncommon character since the earliest settlers gathered to let off some steam and gamble on optimistic odds.
The drive throughout downtown has become more colorful in the last five years, thanks to the creation of larger than life murals that convey the unique spirit of St. Joseph.