My idol

My idol in the cattle business has been dead now for over a century but the lessons he taught are timeless. His name was Heinrich Kreiser but that was before the man used his political influence to get his name changed by an act of the California legislature to Henry Miller. (This was the name of the ship that brought Henry from Germany to the U.S.) You might recognize Henry more by his nickname, ‘The Cattle King,’ or by the ranching operation he built (with a Frenchman named Charles Lux) called Miller and Lux.

Henry was a German butcher who was making a nice living feeding the gold miners and the gold rich boomtown that itself had gone through a name change from Yerba Buena to San Francisco. It didn’t take long for Henry to see there was more money to be made raising cattle than butchering them. So he spent $1.15 per acre buying up old Spanish land grants and when he died he owned 1.4 million acres, making him the largest landowner in the U.S. (He controlled 14 million acres or 22,000 square miles). Using irrigation he began transforming California’s San Joaquin valley into the richest farmland in the world and when he died he was also the largest farmer in the country. He owned nearly 80,000 head of cattle plus all that land and was worth $40 million, or a cool $1 billion in today’s money.

It was said that Henry could start at the Mexican border and ride in his buckboard, (never horseback) to British Columbia and sleep on his land and eat his own beef every night. But I doubt this story because Miller would never eat his own cattle but would dine on his neighbor’s beef instead.

A man after my own heart, Henry Miller got rich by being a penny-pincher. For example, there was a law in California at the time that proclaimed that state land that was subject to flooding and could be crossed by boat was worth less money. So Henry built a boat, mounted it on a wagon and ‘boated’ all over the state buying prime land for pennies on the dollar. I guess you could say Henry Miller was a ‘land pirate.’

When visiting his far flung empire Miller would go through cookhouse garbage to see if cooks were wasting food by being too aggressive in peeling the potatoes. If the peelings were too thick the cook got canned. There is also the well-documented story of how one day while being driven in his wagon across one of his ranches he stopped at a wire gate and in a fit of rage he retrieved his axe from the wagon and proceeded to chop the recently built gate into pieces and when he got back to ranch headquarters he fired the foreman and the cowboy who’d built the gate because he squandered Henry’s money by building the gate out of finished lumber.

Although he was kind to his horses he didn’t like for them to be too gentle because that made them easier to steal. He called well trained horses, “sheepherder horses.” Henry also assailed another foreman for using two cats to kill mice when one would do the job just as well. It was said that Henry lived to be almost 90 years old because he wanted to put off for as long as possible the costs associated with a funeral.

All of these stories are well-documented but there’s one story that may or may not be true but it sounds like something The Cattle King would do. With two friends Henry went to pay his last respects to a fellow rancher. As the three men looked at the body in repose in a coffin one rancher said, “Where I came from in Italy it’s a custom to leave a few dollars in the casket so that when the deceased met St. Peter he’d have some bribe money to buy his way into heaven.” 

So the man tucked $10 under Henry’s pillow. The second friend did likewise but when it came to Henry’s turn the tightwad wrote the deceased a check for $40, placed it under the pillow and took back the $20 in change.


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Lee Pitts

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