His legal name was William Johann Miller, but to the folks in Ballinger he was known as Billy Miller, or just "Uncle Billy."
His legal name was William Johann Miller, but to the folks in Ballinger he was known as Billy Miller, or just "Uncle Billy". And you would have to go pretty far to find a person who did more than he in the area of development and progress of Ballinger in its early days. Over 120 years later, his handprint can still be seen today. He built the first cotton gin in Runnels County, the first and only flour mill in Ballinger, the first electric plant in Ballinger, and the first ice house in Ballinger.
While many of the early businesses in Ballinger were built of wood and canvas, Billy Miller built his store of brick, and his handiwork is still on display at 103 South 6th, just East of the Runnels County Courthouse. Today it is Alejandra's Restaurant, but in the beginning it was W. J. Miller & Company. From that store Billy sold oats, hay, corn meal, flour, fresh herring, Irish potatoes, butter, eggs, onions, Louisiana syrup and genuine cream cheese. In addition, he sold Studebaker wagons, McCormick harvesters, and Challenge windmills. Billy would eventually pass the baton of the Miller store to his friend, Adolph Schawe. The Miller and Schawe families would remain good friends for decades to come.
Billy Miller was the older brother of Charles Miller. You will remember Charles as the man who built the “rock house on the hill” and he was a founder and officer of Ballinger State Bank & Trust, as well as the First State Bank of Rowena. But, Billy was the first to settle in Ballinger and had he not done so, it is likely Charles Miller would not have come, either.
Billy Miller lived in Hempstead, Texas, and worked for his father-in-law, Daniel Ahrenbeck. The Ahrenbeck brothers were well known builders for having built the first cotton seed oil mill in the state of Texas. Their business over the years in Hempstead had its ups and downs, but by 1886, the business was on the downside. Just two years before, Billy’s young wife, Minnie Ahrenbeck Miller died, leaving him with a two year old baby girl named Adele.
Between Billy and Daniel, together they had about $1,500. They heard there was a new town being laid out at the western end of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad. About 20 lots had already been sold. For two men that knew how to build things, the prospects there looked good. So, Billy Miller and Daniel Ahrenbeck, with Billy’s little four year old daughter, Adele, picked up and moved to a new town called Ballinger.
Here is Billy’s account of what happened next: “I arrived in Ballinger June 28, 1886. The next day was lot sale day. About fifteen thousand people were there, nearly all men. There were about fifty saloons and eating places and only one house. The rest were shacks with lumber and cloth and some tents. The first lot brought $1,575 and was 30 by 120 feet, bought by a man that had a house on the lot and a saloon. I presume his receipts for the day would pay for the saloon. About $160,000 dollars worth of lots were sold that day. I bought one lot for $135, was influenced to do so by a cousin, C. McGinnis.” (Randy’s note: The address of his lot was 300 Phillips).
“It was very dry that year in Runnels County and the year before. The country did not look good to me, and as I went to the railroad car to settle for my lot, my name was called stating there was a telegram there for me. It was from my father stating that the U.S. government had awarded us the contract to deliver one million pounds of hay to the Fort Concho at San Angelo. So I had to stay there and make arrangements with freighters to haul the hay to the fort. This induced me to put up a house on my lot. It was two story with a stone room below. So my first occupation was selling hay. Soon I got groceries and later handled wagons and machines. A few days after the lot sale, I took the stage for San Angelo to see the quartermaster. This was at the fort and made arrangements for the hay. It was the 4th of July and dry all the way. I did not see enough grass to feed one goat. At Willow water hole we found some water not hardly fit for stock to drink. I was for once really thirsty and so was a traveling man with me. I was nearly spitting cotton and I noticed a soldier tent near the place and went to them hoping to get some water. “Why?” he said, “back there a piece is an arbor built out of brush--you can get beer on ice.” We rushed to the place. Our tongues almost choking from dryness and ordered a quart bottle and some crackers. It was like pouring water on hot iron the way the beer went down. It was Anheuser Busch best bottle, I thought, but it might have been the most developed thirst that ever got hold of such a bottle, anyway we surely enjoyed our meal. We arrived in San Angelo about 6 p.m. At that time it was a wide open town and gambling and liberty ruled supreme.”
When Billy Miller came to Ballinger, the lay of the land looked nothing like it does today. It was largely ranching country where the value of the land was based solely on how much wild grass would grow on it to graze cattle. Fences were few and far between, and what farming there was consisted of growing wheat.
In 1887, the first manufacturing business in Ballinger was built by Billy Miller. It was called Ballinger Milling Company. It was located on the corner of Hutchings and South 1st, just West of Elm Creek. The area farmers could now take their grains to Ballinger for making flour to sell, and for their own family food.
But, Billy Miller was about to about to make an even bigger contribution that would change the landscape of Ballinger and Runnels County forever. Here again are Billy’s own words as to what happened next:
“When I first came to Ballinger, a farmer, Mr. Muncy, planted some cotton on the Colorado River about two miles below Ballinger. This was a dry country and cotton does well in a dry climate. I decided to go in the ginning business again, a business we had in Hempstead; and in order to get people to plant cotton, I got in a car of cottonseed. Some I sold mostly to sheep men for feed. I advertised free cottonseed to anyone that would plant and I promised to put up a cotton gin so they would not have to go to Coleman County to get it ginned. The first year I ginned 76 bales. Mr. Muncy, the man I spoke of, raised another half bale that year 1887, and another half bale later. We took some to the Coleman gin so the one half bales were different grades of cotton. He brought same and had it on the gallery in front of my store. Many people had never seen a bale of cotton. I kept it there mostly for an ad to induce planting.”
“In 1888, I had the gin up. I shipped the first bale of cotton to Galveston and soon got a letter stating same was mixed packed and an unlawful bale. I explained to them that we raised only half bale in the county one year and another half the next year so we had to mix same being all the cotton we had. So they succeeded in arranging matters satisfactorily considering the condition.”
The Runnels County farmers now recognized they could make more money planting cotton than wheat. Plus, their cultivated land that might have been worth $5 per acre was now worth upwards of $10. Farmers could sell part of their holdings and payoff their remaining land free and clear. Soon after a cotton craze took over and resulted in an influx of settlers into the county.
Billy noted, “In 1908 I ginned over 2,000 bales of cotton and Ballinger received 52,000 bales of wagon cotton; more than any other town in the South. So I was not mistaken that cotton raising would be a success in Runnels County. I made little profit ginning cotton the first three years. About 1890 Ballinger was incorporated and D. Ahrenbeck was alderman a while. Afterwards I was alderman for eighteen years. We built waterworks mainly; in fact, it was all improvement, for I took great interest in building dams on the Elm creek for water storage. There I had some experience in building dams. The lower dam I built first, beginning on the south side where the rocky bank made a firm anchorage. On the north side was a high bank but loose soil resting on the rock foundation. So, I extended the rock dam across the creek to within ten feet of the bank and waited for high water to wash the soil out. This it did by making the water force itself around the end of the dam 4 feet high. Then I extended the dam about 10 feet more. Then I extended the dam all the way across and it was a success.”
The gin was located on the same property as the mill, just South of the mill building. Later on, Billy built an electric plant on the East side of the mill. He installed a 75 kilowatt generator and ran lines to subscribers in Ballinger. Billy had 23 subscribers, and he charged each of them a dollar per month per light bulb.
In 1901, Billy lit up the Runnels Courthouse for the first time by installing ten light bulbs throughout the building. He charged $10 per month for the electricity, plus he rented the bulbs to the county for a total of $1.75 per month. He also installed four light bulbs in the county jail for the same rates.
Billy and Charles Miller, along with P.J. Baron, bought the Nichols pasture West of Ballinger from the brother of P.T. Barnum and plotted it off for development. They bought the land for $1.25 per acre, and sold it for $2.00 and $3.00. The Miller brothers were first-generation German-Americans and were raised in Bellville, Texas, which was a strong German community. So, they actively recruited German immigrants and first generation German-Americans they knew from that area, Austin, and Galveston. P.J. Baron was an immigrant from the Czech Republic, so he naturally sought out those of his own heritage. Out of that land development came the community of Rowena. The last plot of land they sold would later be known as Lowake.
Billy Miller remarried and had four more children, all born in Ballinger. Their names were Leona, Emy, Minnie, and Bertram. Leona and Emy were both school teachers, while Bertram became an electrical engineer for General Electric. Minnie died of tuberculosis in 1914, just as she was coming of age. Billy eventually sold all his assets in Ballinger and moved for a time back to the Austin area. In 1914, he moved to Kansas to be near his beloved daughter, Adele, the same little four year old daughter who came to Ballinger with him back in 1886. Billy Miller died in her home on April 5, 1934 at the age of 79.
Sources: A very special thank you to Susan Horovitz for her incredible Miller family pictures, “The Story of my Life, by a Born Texan” by W.J. Miller (as told to his daughter, Emy Miller Applegate), “Runnels Is My County” by Charlsie Poe, “Ballinger Bicentennial Rural Heritage” by Neuman Smith, “Runnels County, Texas Celebrating 150 Years” (pictures), the Ballinger Ledger, the Winters Enterprise, the Hutchinson News, the Abilene Reporter-News, the Taylor County News, James Hays, and Jerry Eoff.