My idol in the cattle business has been dead for over a century, but the lessons he taught me are timeless. His name was Heinrich Kreiser, but this was before the man used his political influence to change his name 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.
One 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 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. When he died, Henry owned 1.4 million acres, making him the largest landowner in the U.S., controlling 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 this land and was worth 40 million dollars – a cool one billion in today’s money.
It was said Henry could start at the Mexican border and ride in his buckboard, never horseback, to British Columbia where he would sleep on his own land and eat his own beef every night. But, I have doubts about this story because he would never eat his own cattle, he would probably dine on his neighbor’s beef instead.
A man after my own heart, Henry got rich by being a penny-pincher. For example, there was a law in California at the time proclaiming state land 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 one could say Henry Miller was a “land pirate.”
When visiting his far-flung empire, Henry 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. When he got back to ranch headquarters, Henry fired the foreman and the cowboy who had built the gate because they had squandered Henry’s money by building the gate out of finished lumber.
Although he was kind to his horses, Henry didn’t like them to be too gentle because it 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 Henry lived to be almost 90 years old because he wanted to put off the costs associated with a funeral for as long as possible.
All of these stories are well-documented, but there’s one story that may or may not be true. It does sound like something The Cattle King would do, though.
Alongside two of his 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 when the deceased met Saint Peter they would have some bribe money to buy their way into heaven.”
So, the man tucked $10 under Henry’s pillow. The second friend did likewise. However, 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.