MILLER, JOHN, farmer, livestock breeder and importer, and politician; b. 12 May 1817 in Cummertrees, Scotland, son of William Miller and Helen Farrish; m. first 8 March 1848 Margaret Whiteside (1823–66) of Pickering Township, Upper Canada, and they had four sons and four daughters; m. secondly 19 Feb. 1868 Elizabeth Boyer (Byer) (1838–1926) in Pickering Township, Ont., and they had three sons and one daughter; d. 29 Aug. 1904 on his farm near Brougham (Pickering), Ont.
John Miller attended school in both Cummertrees and Dalton parishes and was employed as a land surveyor before emigrating to Upper Canada in 1835. He stayed in Markham Township with his uncle George Miller, for whom he had brought out Leicester sheep and pure-bred swine. Although he had originally intended to work in Canada as a surveyor, he gravitated to farming. As early as 1836 he exhibited Shorthorn cattle, presenting an American bull at the provincial show in Toronto that year. Many generations of his family would be involved in the buying and selling of imported livestock.
His parents arrived from Scotland in 1839 and the following year they bought Atha farm in Pickering Township. William Miller had farmed in Scotland and bred Clydesdale horses there. A friend of Thomas Carlyle and a great reader, he had brought many books with him to Canada. John lived with his parents until 1848, when he acquired the title to nearby Thistle Ha’ farm – so named because of the abundance of weeds – and moved there in March with his bride. In 1855 he began the construction of a spacious stone house (declared a Province of Ontario heritage property in 1977 and a national historic site of Canada in 1979). The dwelling was enlarged in 1875 and ultimately it contained a ballroom. Originally 165 acres, by 1889 Miller’s farm comprised 660. At the time of his death he owned 1,200 acres.
In 1852 his uncle and his father had made their first purchase of stock in Scotland by correspondence. John Miller established the nucleus of his Shorthorn herd – by the 1990s, when it was dispersed, the family claimed that it was the oldest continuing Shorthorn breeding herd in the world – with stock imported from Kentucky that year by his father. In 1854 Miller himself brought in both Clydesdales and Shorthorns. An astute marketer, he understood the value of showing his cattle (and was to win many prizes for them). He would go to considerable effort to promote his stock, taking animals to the Provincial Exhibition in London in 1854, for example, a feat that required travel by steamer to Hamilton and thence by rail to London. Throughout the 1860s Miller was one of the most aggressive breeders, importers, exhibitors, and marketers of livestock in North America. In the early years he relied for his importations on his younger brother William Jr, who had returned to Scotland for educational reasons and who was therefore able to examine and choose stock. In the 1860s John Miller’s activities attracted the interest of future senator Matthew Henry Cochrane of Quebec. It was through him that Cochrane became focused on Shorthorns in 1866. Miller’s importing escalated over the years in spite of the hazards and expense of transatlantic travel. While Clydesdales and sheep (Leicesters at first and then Cotswolds as well, mainly from 1860 to 1880, followed by Shropshires after 1880) played a role in all the Millers’ affairs, Shorthorn cattle were the linchpin of the family operations. Until the 1920s Shorthorns would constitute the foundation of all livestock-importing concerns in Ontario.
Miller first went to Scotland to buy animals in 1869. (He would make the trip six times.) By the 1870s, however, much of his business was being run by his eldest son, William M., and his third, Robert* (his second, James, had become a lawyer). A fourth son, John, would eventually join his brothers in John Miller and Sons. John Miller Sr recorded the firm’s livestock dealings in a meticulous hand, keeping track of the family’s income and expenses. In his earlier years he had favoured the tall English Shorthorns of the sort previously developed by such stockbreeders as Thomas Bates since they were the most marketable, but by the late 1870s the family’s focus had shifted to Scottish cattle, a shorter, stouter type then becoming popular. The Millers acquired Shorthorns from such significant Scottish breeders as Sylvester Campbell, Amos Cruickshank, William Duthie, and William Smith Marr. Frequently associated in these purchases was their neighbour James Ironside Davidson, to whose family they were related by marriage. William M. Miller was the chief importer-buyer for John Miller and Sons until his premature death in 1886, after which Robert took over. Major sales were held at Thistle Ha’, with Americans travelling even from the west coast to purchase livestock from the Miller firm.
John Miller was elected to the municipal council of Pickering Township in 1867, and served on the township and county councils almost continuously from 1867 until 1890. Deputy reeve of the township for six of those years, reeve for nine, and warden of Ontario County in 1876, he was an auditor of the county’s criminal-justice accounts throughout much of the 1880s. A member of the Dominion Short-horn Breeders’ Association, Miller was also a long-serving president of the township and county agricultural societies. He had appeared in 1880 as a witness before the Ontario agricultural commission [see John McMillan]. In 1883 he stood as a Conservative for Ontario South in the provincial election, opposing fellow farmer and breeder John Dryden, but was defeated in this strongly Liberal riding. Four years later he ran against James David Edgar* in the federal constituency of Ontario West and lost a second time. In 1902 he was chosen president of the St Andrew’s Society for Whitby and Pickering. In religion he was a Presbyterian, at his death the oldest member of St John’s Church in Brougham.
He was active to the end, having “wanted to wear out not rust out,” as he had told his daughter Agnes. In 1904 he died of apoplexy and arteriosclerosis while sitting in a chair in a cornfield near his house. His portrait, part of the art collection assembled by Chicago’s Saddle and Sirloin Club, now hangs in the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.
AO, F 1232 (Miller family fonds); RG 80-8-0-295, no.20827; RG 80-27-1, 12: 4; RG 80-27-2, 47: 30. Univ. of Guelph Library, Arch. and Special Coll. (Ont.), XA1 MS A139001–12 (Miller–Davidson family coll.). Pickering News (Pickering, Ont.), 5 Sept. 1904. Stouffeville Tribune (Stouffeville, Ont.), 20 June 1935. Geo[rge] Buckland, “A few days with the Messrs. Miller,” Canada Farmer (Toronto), 4 (1867): 280–81 (letter to editor). M. [E.] Derry, Ontario’s cattle kingdom: purebred breeders and their world, 1870–1920 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 2001). Farming (Toronto), 14 (September 1896–August 1897): 21. [J. W.] G. MacEwan, Highlights of Shorthorn history ([Guelph], 1982). D. [McL.] Marshall, Shorthorn cattle in Canada ([Toronto], 1932). Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers, 1882–83, no.3, app.B (The herds and flocks of Ontario): 93–117; Sessional papers, 1905, no.24 (report of the live stock registrar, 1904). Ont. agricultural commission, Report of the commissioners (4v., Toronto, 1881), 4: 18–24. A. H. Sanders, Red, white, and roan … (Chicago, 1936); Short-horn cattle … (Chicago, 1900). “Thistle Ha’: a national historic farm”: www.thistleha.com (consulted 26 Jan. 2017).