We recently received a call from Roger Miller at Miller Orchards on Baumhart Rd. in Amherst, Lorain County. His family has owned and operated the family farm and orchard (now totaling 500 acres) since 1840. He now has one of the largest apple orchards and the largest cherry orchard in the state. (We visited Mar. 26th, and there was still a nice selection of apples and cider for sale in the family store, despite the 4″of snow and 28* weather.)
The Mueller Family, originally from eastern Europe, came to this country shortly after its founding and settled in Connecticut. They shortened the family name to Miller and decided to venture west. They settled near the village of Plato, founded in the 1820’s, which was later renamed Amherst. They began planting fruit trees and farming in the area known as the Fire Lands of the Connecticut Western Reserve.
(Following the American Revolution a broad stripe of western unsettled lands were given to Connecticut. These lands, in what would later become northern Ohio, were designated The Connecticut Western Reserve. The western part of the Western Reserve was given the name “Fire Lands” because the resale of this land was intended as financial restitution for residents of the Connecticut towns of Danbury, Fairfield, Greenwich, Groton, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, and Ridgefield. Their homes had been burned in 1779 and 1781 by British forces during the American Revolutionary War. “Fire Lands” was later spelled as one word, ‘Firelands’.)
Roger said that his family were always great savers of the farm’s artifacts and he had 5 sets of harness hanging in the barn. They were last used about a hundred years ago when the family switched from horse drawn equipment to tractors. Generally harness needs to be oiled at least every couple years to remain supple, but the Miller harness is in surprisingly good shape for its age.
Roger allowed me to climb up in the loft in one of the barns, and there were many pieces of horse drawn field equipment, a horse and a half hit-or-miss engine, a great Victorian couch covered in leather, a sleigh hanging from the rafters (that had been there as long as Roger could remember), the local school house bell and much much more.
After we loaded the harness, we stood talking for a while. Every farm family has stories they have passed down and Roger had some good ones. Years ago the cattle herd got sick. They finally called the vet who also couldn’t figure what was wrong. The pasture was good, barn clean, no colds or virus, feed was fine, nothing was wrong. They finally checked the water trough. And it held, ….moon shine!
The family farmed so many acres of fruit trees, they kept hired help. One of the men turned out to be a “shiner”. He was stealing the farm corn and cooking it down to make liquor. Roger’s grand-dad was in the habit of checking the barn animals the last thing every night. He’d make sure the lights were out, the doors shut and that all was well with man and beast. But he always felt like “something” was watching him on his rounds.
As it happened, there was. Men from local farms were showing up at his barn, after he had turned in for the night, to pick up their jolt of booze. Once the cow “water” was discovered, the family put two and two together. Grandma remembered seeing a man standing behind a tree after dark one night. Roger’s dad (then a boy) said he had been surprised one night when he came home late from school one evening and saw too many men at the barn and grand-dad recalled how doors he had shut, mysteriously opened by morning. And so the business of their enterprising hired man came to an end. —The unfortunate help later hung himself in the same barn. The family thought it may have been in despair at the loss of his “extra income”, or, more likely, the result of drinking a bad batch of his own miss made hooch.
The harness we received from Mr. Miller is, naturally, of the older style. Until fairly recently all harness was made of leather. In the last couple decades neoprene harness has come into use, especially among the english and some more “modern” Amish. (Neoprene is sort of an all weather “plastic” material that is very tough and requires no oiling.) The museum has two sets of heavy, draft horse, leather harness that was used many years ago on the King Farm in Hinckley and the five sets of Miller harness. We also have a set of road horse buggy harness purchased at an Amish harness shop south of Kidron in Holmes County. Leather harness must be oiled with neats foot oil as required (with heavy use as often once a year). Most harness shops have a large wire basket suspended from the ceiling by a cord and pulley. The harness is loaded in the basket and lowered into a large oil filled vat or barrel and the leather is allowed to soak for several hours. The basket is then raised and the harness drips dry for a couple days.