Miller Farms Nursery is celebrating 50 years this Saturday, Aug. 3, and what better way to celebrate than with a big party? There will be food, including barbecued steak sandwiches, homemade pasta salad, and cake served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and you can dance to the bluegrass styling of the Compost Mountain Boys from noon to 2 p.m.. There will be balloons and face-painting for the kids, and at 2:30 there will be the Grand Prize Drawing for a $2,000 Snapper riding lawnmower.
It’s been a good 50 years, but believe it or not the Miller Farms family history goes back even further than that. Before it was Miller Farms, it was just ‘the Miller’s farm’, a farm on Central Avenue owned by Herb and Evelyn Miller. Herb Miller was born in Sacramento in 1909, and arrived in the tiny town of McKinleyville at the age of 4. In 1912 his parents purchased the 100-acre farm stretching from the present-day nursery to Hiller Road to the north, and west to McKinleyville Avenue. Herb Miller grew up on the exact site that the nursery sits today.
In 1932, at the age of 23, Herb married McKinleyville resident Evelyn Turner, and three years later they had their first son, Dick Miller. Four years later they had their second son, Don, and it was the two brothers who would guide the family farm through some of the most dramatic changes in Humboldt County’s history and grow Miller Farms into the successful business that it is today.
“It was a totally different era,” said Don Miller of growing up during McKinleyville’s early years. “You couldn’t play baseball, because you didn’t have 18 guys.” When Evelyn enrolled Don in Washington School, behind the present-day Shell station on Central Ave, it gave the school enough kids to fill out their first four classrooms.
Don Miller has fond memories of those days. As kids, they would go swimming in the Mad River near the metal bridge, along the present-day Hammond Trail, and afterwards they’d have a barbecue. “That would be our summer treat.” Herb would also take the brothers out fishing in Trinidad Harbor in his rowboat. “Just good old times,” says Don. “Great memories.”
When it came time to choose their own careers, Dick and Don Miller decided to get into the family business. “Mom was a 4H leader for years,” said Don, “and dad was the first Grange Master of the Dow’s Prairie Grange.” It was through 4H that they began their ranching careers. By 1955, Dick Miller had branched out into the poultry business, and a few years later Don took over the dairy operation. In 1959 they decided to join forces, and at one time the brothers had about 12,000 chickens and 180 dairy cows. They were one of the first in the area to employ the new high-tech chicken machinery similar to what’s in use today. “We were probably one of the largest modern egg producers in Humboldt County,” said Don Miller. They had an egg vending machine that let you to choose the size eggs you wanted.
Despite their different personalities, the two brothers formed a very successful team. “For the younger part of our careers we were inseparable,” said Don Miller. Don’s enthusiasm and Dick’s measured approach usually led them to the right middle ground. As Don likes to say, “It takes a positive and a negative to start a car.”
During the brothers’ early ranching careers, McKinleyville was experiencing its first wave of growth. The Great Depression saw millions of immigrant workers from the south head to California to find work, and Dick Miller says that it was easy to find work at the time in the area’s 50-60 sawmills. By 1952, enrollment at Washington School had grown from 13 kids to 50. In 1956 the McKinleyville Shopping Center opened up with a Food Mart Grocery and Ron’s Villa Pharmacy.
“The families that moved in here were all hard-working families,” says Don Miller. As McKinleyville grew, so did Miller’s business. The brothers had landscaped Dick and his wife Joan’s house along Central Ave., and the locals took notice. “People saw it and wanted it,” said Don. They sold the leftover shrubs that they had purchased, bought more, and sold those too. In 1963 they obtained a nursery business license, and Miller Farms Nursery was born.
Landscaping started to become popular during the 1960s, and during this time lending agencies required front lawns and shrubs for houses. When a friend came to the nursery needing a lawnmower one day, “We bought six, and then we were in the lawnmower business,” said Dick Miller. Slowly but surely, the nursery evolved into a home and garden center. “Next thing you know, we needed to hire mechanics for the power shop,” said Don Miller.
In 1969 the dairy operation was moved down to the Arcata Bottoms, and by 1970 the Miller brothers were transitioning from ranching to running the nursery full-time. “By then we thought ‘This business has proved itself to hold its own.’” One day the family doctor asked the brothers to install a chain-link fence at his house, and although they had never done it before, they gave it a try. Then they were in the fencing business. “We’ve challenged ourselves,” says Don Miller, “but for every challenge we would study up and be prepared.”
“Our job was creative and you didn’t get bored,” says Don Miller of the evolution of the business. “It made it so you enjoyed your job.”
Miller Farms has grown with McKinleyville. “All these things have happened from the needs of the community,” said Don Miller. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that they were simply in the right place at the right time. Part of Miller Farms’ success has to be attributed to a willingness to change and the foresight to stay one step ahead of the latest trends. “One of my sayings has been ‘innovate or evaporate’,” said Don.
The family has also always stressed loyalty to their employees along the way. “One of the things we’re really proud of is our employee longevity,” says Don Miller, who said some people have been there 40 years. “Fortunately we had the best-of-the-best employees, people that had the same work ethic as we did.” Miller Farms has also always been a family business, with three generations of Millers working for the company.
These days, it’s a time of transition for the Miller family, as Don and Dick Miller are mostly retired. “Right now, we as a family are planning to pass the torch to the next generation,” says Don. “They’ve proven over the last seven years that they can run a successful business and serve the community.”
A lot has changed in 50 years, but Miller Farms Nursery is still there, going strong. These days they do solar powered automatic gates, decorative concrete, irrigation systems, sod instillations, retaining walls, landscaping, and more. Here’s hoping the next 50 is even better.
Miller Farms is located at 1828 Central Ave, and they can be reached at (707) 839-2563. They are also on the web at millerfarmsnursery.com.