The desk clerk at the exclusive Santa Barbara hotel was abrupt with the dusty stranger inquiring about a room. Sure, the man’s clothes were covered with alkali dust from the Carrisa Plains. And due to the hot day, he smelled pretty bad too. But, to judge this man solely based upon his appearance was a mistake. The traveler looking for lodging that day was Henry Miller—thee Henry Miller.
Miller and his partner Charles Lux had amassed more land, wealth, and power than most kings. Through opportune purchases of old Spanish land grants, Miller & Lux owned over 1,200 square miles or 800,000 acres of prime grazing land in California. He was then and remains today the largest landholder ever in the history of the United States and perhaps the world. Miller could drive his 80,000 head of beef from Mexico to San Francisco on land owned entirely by his brand. He was the Cattle King with a legion of hired hands awaiting his every command.
Henry Miller was also a visionary who forged partnerships with ranchers to irrigate his vast empire. Without a doubt, he knew his “dirt.” He built the best canal system in the west—a system that would endure and become the infrastructure for the emerging agricultural breadbasket.
But to the desk clerk that day, watching Henry carry his luggage into the lobby, he was an ordinary drifter. His slight build and pointed beard made him look more like a preacher than a cattle baron. And worst of all, the thick German accent betrayed him as an immigrant. The finer hotel establishments looked down their noses on non-Americans. So, it was not surprising when the desk clerk curtly advised Miller of cheaper hotel accommodations down the street where he’d be more comfortable.
Most men of Henry Miller’s stature would have put the clerk in his place, calling for a manager and demanding an apology. But, Miller waved off his ranch superintendent, who tried to intervene. At the hotels Miller frequented, the desk clerks fell all over themselves trying to please him—this one treated him like a hobo. The Cattle King thanked the offending clerk for his suggestion and walked out into the evening, shrugging off the insult.
On the train back to Gilroy, Miller would explain to his superintendent: “If I had raised a row, the clerk would have lost his job. And, I guess he needed it more than I needed the room.”
Henry Miller’s kind and unassuming nature may have relegated to him becoming a footnote rather than being recorded as the greatest cattle baron in history. He is not famous for fighting Indians like Charles Goodnight or a bloody range war, such as the one waged by John Chisum. The U.S Postal Service has yet to issue a commemorative stamp to honor his significant role in advancing the fledgling state.
As a German immigrant, his self-made success was resented at the time by the leading citizens of the new Bear Flag Republic. The popular sentiment was that California and the fortunes won was exclusive to real Americans.
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