Henry Miller’s Infamous Boat Ride
At the end of the last edition of Under the eaves…, Henry Agard asks a question about Henry Miller riding around in a rowboat attached to a wagon bed. Well, here is the story, it comes from Ralph Milliken’s notes in 1950.
I always doubted Henry Miller ever taking any such boat ride as many had heard of. “Utter nonsense,” I declared. Just another of those colorful stories told about Henry Miller that have no foundation in fact. I remember the whopper that Miller owned so much land that starting from the Mexican border to Oregon he could camp every night on his own land. I had worked as a clerk for Miller & Lux and knew that simply was not true. I did know about the time the San Joaquin River was overflowing from five to ten miles wide throughout the west side of Merced County and the fact that Henry Miller coming from the Bloomfield by way of Pacheco Pass, had to row some 18 miles to reach his headquarters at Santa Rita. Since Henry Miller had passed on and I could not give him a call to ask, “Mr. Miller, is it true about your boat ride?” I did the next best thing. I made contact with his first and only chauffeur who was living in San Francisco. On my next trip to the city, I made arrangements to meet with him.
It’s quite true,” was the first thing he (Henry Agard) said.
In those days, Government surveyors were in the habit of running the survey lines to the water’s edge of any swampy land that they came to. They classified these areas on their maps as Swamp and Overflow lands. If the land was only temporarily under water, it still could not be homesteaded or purchased. To reclaim the land, the land seeker needed to put up levees or dig drainage ditches. He would be much more successful if he swore an oath that he had been all over the land in a boat.
If the land was truly only temporarily underwater one year and dry land for years after, you can see that this might present a problem for anyone who wanted to homestead or purchase the land. Our Henry solved the problem in his own unique way. He mounted a rowboat to the running gear of a lumber wagon, climbed in and had his Italian driver Chris, drive him all over a tract of land along the San Joaquin River north to present day Los Banos.
When Henry went to the land office to take the oath, both he and his navigator Chris, could swear that they had ridden all over the land in a boat with a clear conscious. This satisfied the government clerk and Henry got the land that he wanted. The clerk did not think to ask: “This is summer, how did you do that?” or “Was your boat on wheels.” It is said that Miller received thousands of acres this way.
One Man Show Henry Miller in the San Joaquin, Edited by Charles Sawyer, Interviews by Ralph Milliken, Los Banos: Ralph Milliken Museum Society, 2003)
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