Thoroughly Modern Millermore

The frontier Millers, William and Emma, died in 1899. The Victorian era ended in 1901. Millermore survived to find new meanings in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It was occupied by daughter Minnie Miller Miller and her husband Barry Miller. (so many Millers!) At 58 years old, Millermore had not reached the status of “This Old House,” but was just an old house. Minnie helped it survive the crisis of middle age with a new Colonial Revival porch complete with columns. Her daughter Evelyn filled it with happy laughter, judging by her memoir, Texas Childhood.texas childhood0001

This slim book, published in 1941, presents a rather idealized childhood. Christmas is delightful, in part because Evelyn gets every single toy she asked Santa to bring, including a mini stove and cast iron cookware, as seen in her playhouse here at the Village. Handwriting and spelling were hard, but Papa was a patient teacher. She listened to family stories of the pioneer days, like the little pig they hand-raised in the cabin after a bear took a bite out of its back. She tells of Grandpa William’s heroic deeds, including his Soloman-like decision to split a contested church building in half so that the warring rural and urban factions of the congregation could each take a piece closer to home. As a child she heard about the Civil War. As an adult, she lost a friend in World War I. It is not a great book, but it is pretty good.

So why don’t we sell it in our bookstore—or at least talk about it more often? Because it was written in a time when standard beliefs about racial relations were not as evolved as they are today. Without a background of historical knowledge, it could offend instead of charm. Evelyn was raised in a house where the work was done by servants, each African-American and some descended from people owned as slaves by her grandfather. She does not call them African-American, but no, she does not use that other word either. She uses terms that were the thought polite in her time, but insulting in ours, such as “colored” and “darky.” And she uses them in the nicest possible way, describing playmates and the men who hauled her Christmas tree home and the cook who let her help make cake.

How can we ever figure out what Millermore means if the meanings of words change so much that we don’t know the right way to read them? This is a children’s book full of happy stories, but half the characters lived with discrimination, disrespect and the threat of violence in the Jim Crow south. How should the museum present this sort of information to visitors, who may not listen to another word after the tour guide says “darky” out loud?

Perhaps it is easier to talk about the rest of Millermore’s twentieth-century story, the part where Evelyn and Minnie lovingly preserve the house and it ends up in the museum. “Preserved” is another tricky word-what do you have to do to merit it? They kept the log cabin standing, not an easy accomplishment, but when it went to the museum it was showing serious signs of wear and rot. In the final years of residence in Millermore, the ladies enjoyed public rooms decorated with some amazingly modern orange patterned wallpaper. The house came with few pieces of furniture from its early years, because the family had not chosen to live in a museum of 1862 for a century. It would be great for us if they had-such treasures we would have-but I understand why they didn’t.scrapbook

Evelyn wrote another book of sorts on Millermore, a scrapbook for the students of William Brown Miller School in 1959. It tells about the cabin and house, and about how volunteers from the Minnie Miller Garden Club would be landscaping around the cabin, with the help of several children and of the Miller’s 79-year-old gardener, Will Smith, volunteering his private hours. Will Smith appeared 8 years later in a photograph of ladies from the Dallas County Heritage Society occupying the porch of Millermore to protest its destruction. He was protecting the house.

So what did Millermore mean to Will Smith? I don’t know—historians can only work with the clues we hLadies and Smith on Porchave available. Knowing is nice, but sometimes thinking is even better. What do you think Millermore meant to Will? Or to Evelyn, or Minnie, Emma or William, or me the museum curator? How about the descendant of a Miller slave who is getting married at the museum this year, or a first-generation immigrant child on a school field trip?

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