As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Millermore’s close brush with destruction and rebirth as the first building in our museum, I contemplate what this house means. It means more than will fit in one blog. Millermore has been gathering layers of meaning for 160 years.
It took the first 7 years to build the container for those meanings. For William Brown Miller and his
family in a lonely young settlement, that big house finished in 1861 was a mark on the land, signifying their success. Have you seen their cabin? It is smaller than one room in the new house! It is made of logs, a frontier embarrassment for respectable people who thought they should live in a refined manner. Or maybe manor.
Millermore meant privacy, in all those separate bedrooms upstairs. It also offered a stage for public performance in the formal parlor and the dining room. It meant style, specifically Greek Revival, which was out of style by the time the house was finished but Dallas was far removed from the trend-setting east and its residents didn’t know they should not be impressed. They were ple
Millermore was a big pile of wealth, William’s wealth and that of the rich young widow he married, Emma. Wealth drawn from the land brought the siding from Jefferson and the windows from New Orleans. Such luxury, those huge windows with real glass to make the rooms bright. But William didn’t haul any of the wood, or stack the stones for the chimneys. The work was done by the same people who made him rich—his slaves.
It sounds ridiculous and insulting when people talk about good slave owners and bad ones—how could anyone be a good slave owner and keep owning slaves? Let’s say it is all relative, some were meaner than others, and we have no reason to believe William was among the worst. Many of his former slaves stayed with the family after emancipation, though they could have struck out for a new life in one of freedman’s colonies, or moved to town to seek employment. Maybe the way the family treated them was part of that decision. Descendants of the Miller slaves still gather each year for a reunion and one, historian Donald Payton, devotes himself to researching the history of all Millers, black and white. Sometimes he brings students to see Millermore, where they look for meanings. None of this makes the fact that the Miller fortune and house was built by slavery less bleak. That is one sad meaning Millermore will also carry forever.
As Dallas grew and the Millers prospered, they entered high society. The girls’ room upstairs was probably where his youngest daughter Minnie dressed to be presented in the first group of debutants at Idlewild. It worked-she married Barry Miller, a young lawyer who would become lieutenant governor. The Millers were climbing the social ladder, which in Dallas at that early date may have been more like a step stool.
In the 1880s, Millermore became the family’s “home place,” as in the “old home-place,” where William no longer lived because he and Emma moved into town. He would return before his death in 1899, but for a while he left his precious house behind for a more cosmopolitan life.
The old home-place took on its own cosmopolitan façade when Minnie and Barry moved in. She was the most significant player in making the house what it is today. She gave what was once a much plainer home its four huge columns and its fancy name, which it needed in order to reflect the meanings she saw in it. Yes, the house her father built was too simple to proclaim her view of the family history. It needed Gone-with-the-Wind columns (the movie wasn’t out yet in 1912, but Minnie knew what columns meant) because her daddy’s accomplishments equaled those of any southern plantation owner.
And yes, such a man surely deserved a house with a name, which it never had till Minnie said “Millermore.” A name that would have been ridiculously pretentious for a frontier farmer in 1861, no matter how rich he was, made for a charming country house for the wife of Barry Miller in 1912.
And then there was Evelyn. Not Curator Evelyn who is writing this, but Minnie’s daughter Evelyn, who wrote books. She makes for a fascinating final chapter in Millermore’s life as a private home, and helped push it toward its new life and meaning as a public asset for the people of Dallas. More on that next time, after I re-read her book, Texas Childhood. Guess where it takes place.