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Family Stories


An Autobiographical Sketch of My Life
by John Thornton Miller

April 1st, 1914 -

The task of writing an autobiographical sketch of my life is requested of me by one of my children - a work had I begun a few years ago would have been much lighter, for then I could see good, and now my eyes are dim and my mind is not so clear, and my memory is so impaired that many incidents I would gladly record will be forgotten.

I was born in the great old state of Georgia. The very name is precious to me, and I still love not only the name of the state, but the county of Dade, and the town of Rising Fawn - now quite a town - on the Chattanooga and Wills Valley Railroad. My mother and father recorded the day of my birth at the 14th day of October, 1839; I being the sixth child, with three brothers and two sisters older, and three brothers younger than I.

The older brothers married and went away, and the farm work and leadership fell on me. The three younger brothers and myself did most of the farm work. What piles of corn and garners of wheat we made! What fine hogs, meat and lard! To get out on the road, or farm, with a fine yoke of oxen and a good wagon was a fine past time. It was fun to load the team and see them get down to pulling. Sometimes I would walk out on the wagon tongue and get astride 'Old Buck,' and get ditched. This was not so funny, but it mixed in occasionally.

April 2nd, 1914 -

My father's farm of 420 acres lay in a little creek, which I shall call Cove Creek, because it drained what was in the early days of that county called the Lost Cove. Sometimes this stream would get out on our land. It was crooked, and in the crooks the land was very rich. Bill and I called these little crooks 'newks.' My, what corn we made in those newks! This Cove Creek emptied into Lookout Creek - a larger stream, and it in turn emptied into the Tennessee River 20 miles below us and at the mouth of the Lookout Valley about eight miles southwest of Chattanooga, to us a big town then. We did our marketing there. Corn, meal, potatoes, and other farm products were hauled there. We did not grow much cotton then except for home use. We had no gins, and had to pick the seed out of the cotton with our fingers. This we usually did after supper before bedtime. And now, children, you may think this is a romance, but it is a fact as sure as you are born. Then mother carded the cotton and made our summer wear. One pair of red leather shoes - homemade, at that -was our share of shoes a year. These we got about the first week of December. We were proud, and 'stepped high." On these creeks, we boys would fish, and swim, and kill moccasins. I dream of the creeks, and newks, and swimming holes and canebrakes now some nights. They all look just like they did sixty years ago - that is, in dreamland. The old foot-logs, the wash place, the mill over on the bank, the big scaly-bark tree just there by the wash place - I shall never see them again only in dreams.

Well, children, I have said enough about the creeks and the farm. I could write all day of reminiscences of the days spent up and down the creeks, of hairbreadth escapes, snake scares, strangles, and deep wadings. But there are some other matters of which I must tell you. There is Old Pleasant Grove Log Meeting House, and the school a mile away. Professor A.R. Morrison is teaching. He was the best teacher I ever had. The house was a big pine-hewed log house with great cracks. We boys who were in arithmetic would sit out of doors to study, throw stones at the birds, talk and laugh and have a good time generally. Well, the preacher preached in this old house and when it was Circuit Preaching Day, we quit work about ten o'clock in the morning and went to meeting. (I wish the people would do that way now.) The preacher would sometimes come home with us, and Bill and I were always glad, for mother always fixed something good to eat when he came. We would likely have chicken, biscuits, ham and gravy, or sausage and such like.

Somehow, I learned to love the preacher, and that learning has been a habit of my life. I still love a man of God. There have been many changes since those days in the modes of living and acting, but the Word of God has not changed, and the Word is not lost. If I could I would go back there and walk over the old places so sacred to me, made so by the scenes and experiences of my youth. There are mountains there one of which I would balance against all the mountains of Montgomery County (Arkansas). I desire to stand in the valley of my birth and gaze on those lofty peaks and cliffs! When I was seventeen years old I began to feel the need of an education, and asked my father for the sum of one hundred dollars, which then would pay my way ten months in an academy at Trenton, Ga., the county seat. Father said, "All right, John, make a big crop this year, and I will send you next year." We made the crop and when we got it harvested, I asked him for the money. He told me that that was more than he had been able to do for the other boys and so put me off. As a result of my disappointment, I started to Texas.

I started from home on the sixth day of October 1858, with my now sainted brother, Joe. As I remember the big comet was in the West. (I wonder - was this Halley's comet? I think it was.) My brother located in Pike County, Arkansas. Then moved to Dallas, in Polk County. He bought the Little John Longacre Farm, now owned by B. F. Thompson. There, Joe's wife died in September of 1859. Later my father and James, my oldest brother, moved to Polk County, and in December of 1860, I went back to my native state. I married, there, Miss Sarah L. Russell, a sweet little Christian girl of seventeen summers, with whom I lived sixteen years, having born to us five children -three boys and two girls.

We had passed through the War Between the States, and we moved to Arkansas, settling near Charleston at Hickory Ridge, Sebastian County. There we buried my wife - leaving me almost a wreck. The sadness and loneliness and sorrow of such an ordeal no one knows except those who have experienced it! Having five small children, their mother gone, poor in worldly things, one hundred miles from and of my people, set me in serious straits. I could not leave my children and I could hardly stay with my children. What could I do? It began to be a serious question and rather difficult to solve. I was then thirty-seven years old. Time sped on. Gloom impenetrable settled down about my home. But the Good Lord always 'tempers the wind of the shorn lamb.' So I was married to Mrs. Joan Lackey, with whom I have lived these thirty- seven years happily. She proved to be indeed a wonderful mother to my motherless children and a congenial companion to myself.

May 19th, 1914 -

The longer I live the thoughts of home and home life, home comforts and home influences and training, crowd in on my mind; and now that I am nearing the seventy-fifth mile-post of life's journey I am thoroughly convinced that for a boy or a girl there is not and cannot be any other influence so great as the home. I fear sometimes that our American home life is falling down in the very essentials at the outset of education.

The home may be poor and destitute of the luxuries of life. But it is home -sweet old word! Not many words in our language so precious - in fact no word so sweet except, perhaps, the word 'mother.' Mother! The sweetest thought trembling down the path of life! The crowning though of home!

I recall an incident occurring on my trip from Georgia to Texas, in 1858, near Tuscumbia, Alabama. In our tent some time in the night I awoke. I was sick, oh, so sick I did not know that I could ever get well. I thought I might die in the night. Yet my mind was clear and the past years of my life passed in review -my home, my brother Bill who had been my play-mate, my chum, my yoke-fellow in the fields, in the creeks, in the squirrel hung, in the fishing days. The farm work and the manifold duties of a farmer boy all passed in my mind. Oh, if I could only be with my mother, dear sweet old soul, and say to her, "Mother, I am sick." And hear her say, "You will be better in the morning, my boy," and have her put her sweet old hand on my forehead and bend down and kiss me. But the spell passed and we drove on and on to the great West. But, my dear mother, I can never forget your kindness, and when I get HOME-thank God for the word! I trust that I shall be allowed to see you. I shall there try to make amends for all the heartaches I have caused you. I know now that all will be forgiven me.

When but a child I would follow my dear mother to the big spring at nightfall to get water for the night. After dipping the pail in the water and lifting it our, she would sit down and say, "Son, let's pray.' So she would pray and I would sit and look into her old wrinkled face and hear her whispering to God about us children and pleading for us. Well, thank God for a praying mother! These memories and environments of home, the preaching, the Sunday Schools, the religious meetings; these made on my mind and in my soul impressions for everlasting good. So the thought of religion and getting home to Heaven became the absorbing themes of my life. From my earliest recollections, I had no other thought than that I would become a Christian and live for God and heaven. And often when alone I would plead with him to permit me to be a Christian, but I always had such a sense of my unworthiness, as always to be afraid He would not allow me to be saved. And these thought were horrible to me, to think I should be lost - how could I bear it? But these awful experiences were all the while leading me up to the feet of Jesus, where I could look up through my tears to the Great Face of a loving Savior and receive His smiles and His pardoning love. When I came to the place where He showed me that He did not save people because they were good, but because they were bad like I was, it was easy for me. Thank God, Jesus came to save sinners, and not the righteous!

May 20th, 1914 -

I sought and received the forgiveness of my sins in August 1861, at a camp meeting at Bird's Chapel, in Dade County, Georgia. My conversion was so definite - I may say, so sweet and so satisfactory -followed by so great peace - which I could never be made to doubt that I was reconciled to God. My consecration was so full as not to leave a hoof behind. I immediately erected a family altar, and while it has been a rule of my life to keep up family worship, we have neglected it at times, to our great spiritual loss. Soon after my conversation or even before, I felt impressed that I should preach the Gospel and asked the church after a few years, for license to preach; and in October, 1870, the Quarterly conference gave me the license. Timidly, I undertook work as a local preacher. I always wanted to join the conference and be a traveling preacher and spend my whole time in the work. But I did not join the traveling connection. I have done what I could as a local preacher. In May 1876, bishop Wightman ordained me as a local deacon at Russellville, Arkansas. I have don some little supply work, and feel now that I should have joined the Conference, yet I may not be entirely to blame for not doing so. And now the day is far spent and I am in the evening of my of my life, and the results of my work are with the Great Head of the church. Amen.

Well, (again looking back) the war was now over, the south subdued and our entire Southland almost all devastated, the people poor and discouraged. I am at Lavergne, Tennessee, on the Nashville and Chattanooga, Railroad, sixteen miles from Nashville, in a great country - with only $500.00, which we have saved in the last year. I have been at work for the United States government at pretty good wages; have traded, run the blockade from Nashville, and sold to Negroes such little things as I could get out of Nashville undetected. My wife and my two girl babies compose my family. My brother, George, who lived in Arkansas was with us. He persuaded us to return with him to Arkansas. So about the 15th of July 1865, we hired a man to take us to Nashville - gave him $5.00 for the trip. At Nashville we got aboard a steamboat, and went down the Cumberland River to Smithland, thence down the Tennessee River into the Ohio thence down the Ohio to Cairo, Illinois. We there took the big boat, "Ben Stickney," and ran down the Mississippi to Napoleon, where we took the Glide No. 3, for Little Rock, Arkansas. At Little Rock we purchased a wagon and team and moved overland to Polk County, arriving at my father's farm on August 1st.

Our people were all poor now and in a hard shape financially. So we had to begin at the bottom with only a few dollars in cash, and our living to buy. I did not like Arkansas, and thought I would go back to Tennessee, but George always influenced me, and we stayed. So we are here yet. I got hold of a hew hogs, a pony, a cow, a bull-tongue plow, a sprouting hoe - and went to work. I would turn the pony out on the grass with a bell on. We would hunt him in the mornings. We had no bedsteads, except scaffolds pinned to the wall. We lived three miles from Shady Grove Church and schoolhouse. There we went to church, where the Rev. W. Wakely baptized me and received me into the M.E. Church, South.

I worked hard and saved as much as possible. We lived a rather hard but happy life. We were 150 miles from a railroad and market. That first fall I went to Center Point and bought two bales of cotton, and took it to Little Rock. Sold it for 36 cents a pound. Bought a few supplies - a barrel of salt for $6.50, a pair of cotton cards at $2.00, some little Oznaburge at 60 cents a yard, a little coffee at 60 cents a pound. I was gone three weeks on the trip. I began to get acquainted, and secured a little school to teach at a little log cabin where the village of silver Center now is. Wade Hilton had a little water mill just down on the creek. Sometimes we could get some corn ground and when the creek was low, he could not grind. The next nearest mill was on Big Fork, ten miles away. We would go down there and stay all night. Maybe we would get a peck of meal and maybe not. We would grit the corn and make hominy, but we would scrape about some way to keep from starving. There was not a steam mill in the whole county, a county that was sixty mile long and fifty miles wide. There were not more than three hundred voters in the whole county. How is that for neighbors? Game was plentiful. Anybody could kill a deer if he could shoot. I could not see them until they had left me. Cattle could be bought cheaply. We would dry the beef and it would answer for meat and bread. Acorns were plentiful and the hogs would thrive on them. We did not feed the cattle. They would live through the winter on the range. Was I what you would call a pioneer? No, there were then old settlers. I could name a few of them, but there is not need. I write these little details down to impress on you boys some of the troubles and trials through which the older generation has gone in order that you may be a little happier and a little better. I soon moved to Pike County and bought a place on the Little Missouri River. Kept it two years and sold it, moving back to Polk County. But in Pike County, my oldest son, Gip, was born, and he being our first boy, we thought him the finest of all boys. Well, he grew up, was a good boy, industrious, tenderhearted, a young man of good sense and well balanced, but he did not have the chance to go to school.

Back again in Polk County, I bought a farm on the Washita River from brother George, and paid him $1000.00 for it. I lived on it three years, and sold it to Barry Vaught, and moved again. Well, I have never been satisfied and have moved around a great deal. Had I been still I might have saved more of the world's goods, but, "The soul seeks creation through trying something new." The only reason I have not seen the world over is that I have not had the money on which to travel.

Our next boy was one we called Wallace Gladwin, a fine little fellow and quick to learn, growing up to be an excellent schoolteacher, and today his whole talk is 'school, school, school'. Going back a little in time, while I was in Pike County, I was made a Mason at Dallas Lodge No. 128. I was zealous for the institution for a long time, and have had active participation in its teachings, but it seems now that through this country the time-honored order is way-worn and heavy laden Unscrupulous men have crept into its portals and the great light is being dimmed by men who do not strictly adhere strictly to the great teachings. I write it down here that no institution among men can live and prosper to success only as it is related to Jesus Christ. The church itself will die if she cuts loose from Christ. There is life and power from nowhere else.

In 1870, leaving home I took a trip to Texas after my wife's mother, Mrs. Russell, who lived with Col. A. A. Hughes, a gentleman who married my wife's oldest sister and lived in Travis County on the Colorado River near Austin. I came back to Lampasas Springs and by Gatesville. Well, I had a time in the black mud. I did not like Texas. It was so sticky and everybody cursed. I would camp by myself. I had no weapons except my Bible and hymnbook. I would sing a song and pray by my fire before going to bed, and ask God's care over me and my property through the night. I had no bad luck on the trip of 1000 miles. I praise the Lord for His care, and I think I shall always keep the faith. But for his mercies, I should have been in eternal despair. Pardon me for my so frequent allusion to the phase of my life. Someone has said, "In Italy all roads lead to Rome," so in this life of mine all thoughts lead to God. Mrs. Russell did not like Arkansas and I had to send her back to Texas, at a cost of $65.00 - at that time quite a little sum of money. And money was a very much-needed luxury. For about this time some of the children needed to be placed in school; and right here is the great problem of the family. To rear a family and not educate the individuals of it is a calamity to the children and a curse to the world. So I began to cast about as to how to have the children trained. There were no very good schools in reach, and the system of free schools had just been set up and was not in good running order yet. So to educate a family of some size was no little task.

(This paper is so soft and spongy that I cannot write longer with a pen, so I shall have to do the remainder with a pencil.)

Vernon was my next boy. He was quite a little fellow, and is still small. But he has grown up to be a good substantial businessman, and somewhat of a moneymaker. He is the baby boy of my first wife. The girls have grown up and married. The first born of my union to Mrs. Joan Lackey was a fine boy. We gave him the name of Marvin, for one of our great bishops. He was a good spirit and we admired him very much. But at the age of 18 he passed away and brought to our home and hearts the saddest day of our lives. But I know God knows best, and I submit.

I began to sell goods and made some money at it and helped my younger boys about going to school. John Cotton, our next oldest to Marvin, is a fine judge of human nature and of men. He is absolutely honest and despises a falsehood or the one guilty of falsehood. The next one, Eddie, was stillborn. Then came Joseph Jones, high spirited and ambitious and quick of perception, graduated from Ouachita College and studied in the University of Chicago, and has developed into a good schoolteacher. Last, but not the least, coming to our home was Robert Franklin, our baby. He is the largest of all of them, and a fine fellow. He is at home with us now. He and Cotton are the stay of their mother and father. Don't you all think this is a pretty good family? All are rather intelligent, all in good health, all happy, and none guilty of crime. It is much to be thankful for.

In 1892, I took quite an active interest in politics. I made speeches in interest of the farmers and laboring people. Having all my life been a democrat, I thought my party and the Republican Party were ignoring the interests of the masses and catering to the classes. I though the time had come for a change in the political complexion of our country, so I took up the cause of the Populist Party and was elected to represent Polk County in the Legislature in 1893, and again in 1895. My opponents were outstanding leaders of the whiskey and gambling ring, which has since been demonstrated by the untimely death of the man I had the honor of beating. We had a stormy season in 1893. In 1895, I introduced the first bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors in the state. Of course, it failed to pass.

Submitted by Cynthia Forde

John Miller b. December 25, 1803 TN,
Nancy Mary Miller b. July 6, 1806 TN,
married 1826 - Monroe County, TN
Moved to Dade County, Rising Fawn 1835

Their son and author of the journal: John Thornton Miller was born October 14, 1839 in Dade County, GA