Volume 4 , Number 3 , Spring 1971
We met Uncle Ferdie Miller, the Bull Creek Harness Maker, shortly after we moved to Taney County in September 1911. His farm adjoined ours on the west and was located in the southern shadow of Salts Bluff in a great bend in Bull Creek a mile and a half below Walnut Shade and two miles above the mouth of where Bull Creek joined White River.
Ferdinand Miller, as he later told us, was born in St. Louis about 1850 of German descent. I loved to hear him talk with the heavy German accent and his placing special emphasis on certain words was a great pleasure to me. According to his account his family was very poor. He told of getting mash from a distillery which his mother cooked for food. At an early age he was apprenticed to a St. Louis harness maker and here learned the trade he followed all of his life. As an apprentice he learned by long years to do his work well and to take pride in turning out fine harness.
He continued to work at his trade in St. Louis for several years, saved his money and in the later 1870s came to Taney County where he purchased the farm which was to be his home the rest of his days.
The farm located with bottom land in the great bend of Bull Creek is one of the most beautiful in Taney County. Directly west is Salts Bluff so called because of the Epsom salts deposits on the ledges. Here early settlers came from great distances to scrape up the salts from the sheer bluff to be used for medical purposes. This salts is yellow in color because of other additives, but had real purgative powers as could be attested to by a cousin who insisted on over tasting the salts.
The old Harrison-Springfield freight line came directly by the Miller home, and did not follow the creek in the great bend. Here on the west side of his house Uncle Ferdie built his harness shop and in front of his house was a wagon yard where freighters could park their wagons while having repairs made on their harness and at times could camp overnight. Hitch racks were there for local people to use while having harness or saddle repairs made. Uncle Ferdies harness shop became the meeting place for both business and social visits. Here as a mere lad I with my father visited and listened to Uncle Ferdie tell of early days.
I believe that Dad, out of respect, began calling the Harness Maker "Uncle Ferdie" which was taken up by my brothers and sisters and soon afterwards by the entire community.
Uncle Ferdie lived alone for several years. On February 8, 1892 he married Martha Haggard who had three children by two prior marriages. A son, John Haggard by the last marriage was raised by Uncle Ferdie as his own and taught school for several years in the Walnut Shade area. Johnnie or "Shontie" as Uncle Ferdie called him, was the apple of his step fathers eye and was raised as a son. Uncle Ferdie always called his wife "Marsha".
In addition to carrying on an active harness making and repair business, Uncle Ferdie farmed, raising enough corn for hogs, cattle and poultry, but his greatest interest was in his garden and orchard. In a day before the coming of orchard insect pests, Uncle Ferdie set out a fine apple, peach, plum and pear orchard with many varieties of apples and enjoyed the visits of children who were given the fruits in season.
I recall that in front of his house stood a Burbank Gold Plum, the fruit of which was golden in color long before it was ripe. Actually we children looked forward to visits with Uncle Ferdie in the summer and fall to a marked degree because of the orchard.
Uncle Ferdie was a great optimist always looking on the bright side of everything. Dad helped him butcher hogs several years and even though it was snowing or sleeting Uncle Ferdie always said "My isnt it a fine day to butcher!" When crops seemed to be facing dry weather, Uncle Ferdie was always predicting rain.
Ferdie Miller was a man of peace. He took no part in the little neighborhood disagreements. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. We were told that when the "Bald Knobber Problems" were facing citizens of Taney County, Uncle Ferdie took no part. We often speculated that Uncle Ferdie might, as a youth have been involved in some eye gouging affair since he had lost an eye, but we never asked him about this loss.
It must have been the first summer we were in Taney County (1912) that Dad and my brother and I walked by Uncle Ferdies home going to fish in the deep Bull Creek fishing hole below Salts Bluff. Uncle Ferdie, not knowing about the use of a rod and reel, said, "You cant catch fishthe creek isnt muddy! " At Dads suggestion Uncle Ferdie went with us and was amazed that Dad could cast minnows across the creek and catch fish. The first Bass hooked must have given Uncle Ferdie a real thrill. He kept telling Dad to hurry and land him because he would get away and finally ran out in the water, grabbed the line and landed the fish. It was an exciting afternoon as Dad had caught many fish in a day before the use of rod and reel came to Taney County. Enough for our family and for Uncle Ferdies.
With the coming of the railroad through Branson the Springfield-Harrison freight line went out of existence and with it, much of Uncle Ferdies business. When we moved to Taney County most of his work was in repairs for harness and saddles with occasional sets of harness made on order.
When Uncle Ferdie had an order for a set of harness he was excited. He ordered sides of leather from St. Louis insisting on only the best with the good leather on the backs for the lines and tugs. I have watched him carefully cut leather to use all scraps and to get the best possible use of the leather. All splices and doubling was sewed with wax end linen thread. In doing this Uncle Ferdie sat in the saddle of his Sewing Jenny using his feet on the pedals that held the leather in a vice in front of him giving him free access to the use of both hands in the sewing. Harness hames and hardware was purchased in quantity lots from St. Louis.
Dad had tanned a couple of cowhides using the old Oak Bark method and he and Uncle Ferdie together made two sets of harness. I believe these were the last harness made by Uncle Ferdie. Dad worked with him and of an evening. He would tell us how enthusiastic Uncle Ferdie was about making the harness and the care he took in seeing that the best leather was used where there was most strain.
As Johnnie Haggard reached his teens he helped with the farm work using an old team of horses. When we first knew Uncle Ferdie this team was over 20 years of age and not strong enough to plow deep. We farmed this land in the summer of 1920. By this time only one of the old horses was still living. "Old Barney" who was over 30 years of age, had very bad teeth and each day Uncle Ferdie soaked corn for him to eat and cut green grass for him. Both Uncle Ferdie and "Old Barney" were ill. After an occasional trip to Walnut Shade both Uncle Ferdie and Old Barney were laid up for a day or two.
Old Barney did not live through the winter of 1920-21 and Uncle Ferdie failed rapidly. He refused to call a doctor and at Dads insistance a buggy was borrowed and Dad and Johnnie started to Branson with him to see the doctor, but they turned back after a mile because of Uncle Ferdies illness.
On June 10, 1921, Uncle Ferdie sent for Dad and had him, as a Justice of the Peace, draw up a will. He died three days later and was buried in Walnut Shade Cemetery. Recently I looked for a marker for his grave, but could not find a stone. I did find a marker for Martha Miller who survived her husband four years. She was buried in the Cornelison burial plot.
In reading the obituary of Uncle Ferdie, I noticed that he read each week, the Bible discussion appearing in a St. Louis newspaper. Certainly Uncle Ferdie with his love for his fellowman, his care for all growing things... both plant and animal, his industry and dedication to his chosen trade, all furnished him a real Christian life.
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