Owen Miller: Trees and Chickens
Central Hotel, c 1906, owned by Owen Miller
Owen is standing under the lamp post on the left
The following is a reprint from “City of Fillmore, Golden Anniversary Year, 1914 – 1964,” published by the City of Fillmore. It’s not clear who wrote this particular portion, but we know Lawrence Hinckley at least contributed to the publication.
Owen Miller’s Pepper Tree
In the early days there were a number of pepper trees in the business block of the town. Old timers tell the following story about one of these trees.
Owen Miller ran a hotel and livery stable in the center of town and one of the largest of Fillmore’s pepper trees grew directly in front of his hostelry. After Fillmore was incorporated, the first and second Councils ordered all pepper trees in the main block of Central Avenue cut down to make way for the installation of sidewalks. Owen had the reputation of being a pretty good man with a gun, and he passed the word around that he would shoot any man who chopped down his tree. Thereupon he sat on his front porch with a gun conspicuously between his knees.
Second Mayor of Fillmore
One morning Everett Pyle, a member of the City Council, walked down the street and stopped in front of the hotel. He carried an axe over his shoulder.
“Good morning, Owen,” said Everett.
“Good morning,” said Owen. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to chop down this pepper tree.”
“Chop down that tree and I’ll shoot you,” said Owen.
“I have neither chick, nor child,” replied Everett. “If you shoot me, I’ll not be missed, and you will hang for murder, and this tree will be cut down anyhow, so go ahead and shoot.
With that Everett started chopping away. Owen Miller got up, went into his hotel and didn’t come out for three days.
[Editor’s note: Here’s different version of what happened to the tree:
Owen Miller, town constable and bootlegger owned the Central Hotel, south of where Sprouse-Reitz building is now. When the City dads decided in 1917 that the pepper trees looked countrified in a business district, they ordered them cut down. The crew worked north from the railroad track until only one tree was left, that in front of Owen Miller's Hotel. Dale King tells us what happened next.
Owen liked the shade on his front porch, and out he roared with gun in hand and told the crew to get lost or he'd shoot, and he meant it. The crew took off.
A few days later Everett Pyle, Fillmore's second mayor, came by with ax in hand and told Owen he'd come to cut down the tree.
"You touch that tree and I'll kill you," roared Owen,
"Well, " said Everett calmly, "look at it this way. You shoot me and you'll go to jail and somebody else will cut down the tree."
Owen just pointed his gun, and Everett went away. You didn't argue with Owen. (The west was still a bit wild in Fillmore.)
A week or so later Owen took his pack train up to Lockwood Valley to hunt, and while he was gone, down went the tree.
Owen was furious when he came back. He put a sign on the hotel's screen door that said, "Everybody welcome here but Everett Pyle. Everett Pyle keep out!"]
Mel Phillips, c 1900,
In Santa Paula beside the Union Oil Building
Owen was a colorful and unpredictable character and Mel Phillips, who lived and ran a taxidermist shop across the street from him in the early days, tells this story: Owen Miller’s chickens were constantly digging up Mel’s garden and helping themselves to the berry bushes. One day he saw an old hen and thirteen chicks in his yard. He watched the chicks grow until they were fryer size. By this time his patience was at an end, so he took a string, made a loop in it, and snared himself a couple of fryers. The fryers kept coming and Mel kept snaring them and living high off fried chicken. Finally, he had captured all thirteen so to top it off he stewed the old hen. He felt sure Owen had a pretty good idea what was happening to his flock, but his neighbor said nary a word. A few days after the old hen had landed in the stew pot, Mel was visiting with Owen over near the Miller livery stable. Just then some of Owen’s chickens walked by and he said, “Mel, I have more of these blamed chickens around here than I know what to do with. You look like a man who would enjoy a good chicken dinner so catch yourself a couple of fryers and take them home with you.
That ends the stories from 1965, but as was written in “Crime and Punishment, Part Two,” Owen Miller was not just the constable and hotel owner, he was supposedly the most successful bootlegger in the area, much to the ire of the County Sherriff.
Edith Jarrett wrote:
“Once when the Ventura sheriff decided that Miller had gone too far, he planned to sneak in unexpectedly and administer a little punishment himself. But someone had tipped off Miller, who removed the bottles from his little hotel and buried them all in the manure pile behind his stable. The sheriff searched the place in vain. No evidence.
After he had gone, Miller went out to uncover his cache. It had been a hot day, with the sun shining on the barnyard. You know what happened. Every bottle had burst from the heat. Even Miller got a good laugh out of the story when he told it himself.”