MILLER BROTHERS 101 RANCH LAUNCHES CAREERS OF EARLY FILM STARS
Miller Brothers 101 Ranch
The 101 Ranch may have had early beginnings in commerce, but the brand became synonymous in the early 1900’s with some of Hollywood’s early Western stars including Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Jack Hoxie, Mabel Normand, and Buck Jones and in fact, was associated with a fledgling western film production company in California. Wild West shows begun by the 101 led to travelling road shows recruiting hi-profile stars. In 1916 the production combined with Buffalo Bill Cody and toured as the Buffalo Bill (Himself) and 101 Ranch Wild West.
The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch was an 110,000-acre (45,000 ha) cattle ranch in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma before statehood. Located near modern-day Ponca City, it was founded by Colonel George Washington Miller, a veteran of the Confederate Army, in 1893. The 101 Ranch was the birthplace of the 101 Ranch Wild West Show and one of the early focal points of the oil rush in northeastern Oklahoma. It was the largest diversified farm and ranch in America at the time. While much of the ranch land was later subdivided for development, location of the ranch is a National Historic Landmark.
In 1903 George Washington Miller died and the ranch was operated as a trust by the three sons. As the operations continued to grow, the Millers added their own electric plant, a cannery, a dairy, a tannery, a store, and several different mills. The 101 experimented with crops, creating improved strains of corn and walnut, apple, and pecan trees. Promoted as the "greatest diversified farm on earth," the ranch continued to prosper in the early twentieth century.
The 101 Ranch Wild West Show
The Millers' neighbor Major Gordon W. Lillie, who performed as Pawnee Bill, motivated the Millers to produce a Wild West Show of their own. The Millers made their transition from putting on local shows to the national scene in 1907, when they performed at the Jamestown Exposition in Virginia.
In 1908, the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show began the tour circuit in Brighton Beach, New York. Joe Miller, the eldest son, was an exceptional equestrian and star performer. Over the course of the show's history, it's cast included Bill Picket, Bessie Herberg, Bee Ho Gray, Tom Mix, Jack Hoxie, Mexican Joe, Ross Hettan, and an elderly Buffalo Bill.
The 101 earned most of its notoriety from the Wild West shows that it staged. Their show business career began in 1905, when the Millers invited the members of the National Editorial Association to Bliss, Oklahoma, and entertained them with a large exhibition, which they called "Oklahoma's Gala Day." The event showcased the skills of their ranch hands and American Indians, including the famous Apache Geronimo, who killed a bison from the front seat of a car. The show also featured Lucille Mulhall, George Elser, and Bill Pickett. The affair's success led the Millers to take the enterprise on the road. It toured seasonally beginning in 1907. The show had a hiatus from 1916 to 1925, initiated by World War I, before it mobilized again and ran until 1931. In 1924 the production again performed in Bliss for the National Editors' Association. The brothers took the show throughout the United States and worldwide, traveling to Mexico, Canada, Europe, and South America. In 1914 the cowboys and Indians performed for King George V and Queen Mary of England. In Mexico Bill Pickett aroused the ire of bullfighters and the crowd by trying to bulldog one of their famed prize bulls.
Several entertainers who continued their careers in the fledgling motion picture industry had connections with the 101. They included Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Jack Hoxie, Mabel Normand, and Buck Jones. The Millers leased equipment and loaned employees to the Bison 101 Film Company, which produced western films in California. The road show continued and recruited stars, such as boxing champion Jess Willard. In 1916 the production combined with Buffalo Bill Cody and toured as the Buffalo Bill (Himself) and 101 Ranch Wild West Combined, with the Military Pageant Preparedness.
In 1908, when Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill combined their shows into an extravaganza that broke records at Madison Square Gardens in New York City, the Miller Brothers took their show abroad. In England, the British military confiscated most of the 101’s horses, stagecoaches, and automobiles to build up for war, as tensions were building related to the pending World War I. When the Millers' show toured in Germany, authorities arrested some of their Oglala Sioux performers on suspicion of being Serbian spies, they were never seen again. A frantic Zack Miller managed to get the rest of cast out of Germany via Norway, and then to England. Once in London, however, he had difficulty finding a steamship that would sell his people passage. Finally, he obtained passage for his cast on an American ship. Once the cast returned to Oklahoma, the eldest brother Joe Miller refused to pay the Indian cast overtime. As a result, the entire Indian cast quit the show.
By 1916, the two younger Miller brothers abandoned trying to work with their volatile oldest brother. George Jr. and Zack worked at the ranch, while Joe schemed to make the Wild West Show a financial success. Joe Miller hired an out-of-work, aging, and ill Buffalo Bill to star in a World War I recruitment show called the "Pageant of Preparedness." Soon Cody quit the show; he died within a year. Still unwilling to let the show close, Joe continued to operate on a smaller scale. In 1927, Joe was unsuccessful in his attempts to sell his show to the American Circus Corporation
During the 1920s the 101 acts began to draw smaller crowds, which eventually led to financial losses, because the show competed with the burgeoning movie industry, circuses, and other venues including rodeos for audiences. Their show had more problems than most in a business that was harsh in the best of times. During their first year on the circuit, they suffered a serious railroad accident. Later several members of their cast contracted typhoid fever.
In 1926 the Millers lost $119,970. The onset of the Great Depression drastically impacted the ranch, causing the family to fall deeper in debt. On October 21, 1927, Joe Miller died. Two years later, on February 2, George Miller passed away. In 1932 a large amount of the land was divided and leased, and most of the personal property was auctioned. By 1941 the Federal Farm Security Administration had acquired most of the land and developed a farm resettlement program.
Zack Miller tried to carry on alone, but in 1932, during the Great Depression, he filed for bankruptcy. The US government seized the show's remaining assets and bought 8,000 acres (3,200 ha) of the 101 Ranch. Completely broke, the 101 Ranch show closed after the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Zack Miller died of cancer in 1952.
Oil and Miller brothers' decline
In 1908 the Millers had entered into a leasing arrangement with E. W. Marland, who formed the 101 Ranch Oil Company. Oil was struck in 1911 at the "Willie-Cries-for-War" well. Marland would become a millionaire and later a U.S congressman. He was eventually elected the governor of Oklahoma. The company’s 1911 oil discovery led to the founding of the Marland Oil Company, later renamed the Continental Oil Company, and then ConocoPhillips.
National Historic Landmark
The ranch property was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975. The 101 Ranch house and most other buildings were torn down. The 101 Ranch store remained standing until September 22, 1987, when it burned in a fire of unknown origins. Few of the 101 Ranch buildings are left standing today. In 1990, the Oklahoma Legislature designated State Highway 156 as the 101 Ranch Memorial Road. An historical marker is located on the highway about 13 miles (21 km) southwest of Ponca City.