William (Wilhelm) Miller ‘Wild Bill’

Memories and facts about my father

William was born in North Dakota in 1907, second son and fourth of Lambert and Katherine’s eleven children. At that time North Dakota was untamed land where homesteaders built their farms and properties without conveniences or help from the governments. Families were large and children from the age they started walking, learned how to work. Our ancestors built schools and churches to also teach morals, principals and education.

Growing up on a farm, my father’s first chores were gathering kindling, wood or feeding animals. By the time he was ten at the latest he was helping with harvesting and planting as well. He would attend school only when he didn’t have to help with day long chores.

There are letters with the German’s from Russia Historical Society that say Grandpa moved to Canada in the Maple Creek area (St. Joseph’s colony) in 1914. William was 7 years old. Shortly after Uncle Johnny was sent to work out and lived with my Uncle John and Aunt Mary Folk who owned an orchard near Kelowna, British Columbia. My grandfather was left with two girls and my father to help him with the hard labor required. Mom often told me my Aunt Lizzie was as tough as a man – and a worker. She would be eleven at the time. For whatever reason, I know that my dad must have worked in a manner few would understand today, even though he was seven.

Dad, William Miller

As he grew older, William gained the nickname ‘Wild Bill’. Stories that have circulated around about his antics would explain why. William liked to gamble, drink and party. My memories of my father are mainly of his laughing, teasing, encouragement and card playing skills. His other skills weren’t trivial either – he could ride the wildest of bucking horses and his shot (whether guns or darts) was awesome to watch.

When I was about ten or eleven our horse, Bond refused to leave the barn when I was going out to ‘get the cows’. It was blustery and stormy. He began bucking and twisting with ferocity. I fell off, stunned. I was used to bucking horses by that age. I started crying – not because I was hurt – but because I was a little ashamed of myself for falling off. While sitting on the ground, crying, I watched my dad come out and mount the horse. I think he understood why I was crying because he didn’t say anything to me. I watched the most amazing bucking-bronco show I’ve ever witnessed. At first I was surprised because I rarely saw my father ride a horse, then I remembered my father could have ridden in rodeos and won the purse. When the horse stopped acting up, dad dismounted and handed me the reins. He gave me a boost up (Bond was a 19 inch high horse) just smiling. I rode off to get the cows without even thinking about being traumatized or scared.

My dad surprised me many times. When I was old enough to know him, he had stopped many of his previous activities, but his skills sometimes showed through. He loved to read. Both mom and dad encouraged us to love reading too. I was fascinated with words, cowboys and horses. When I was younger I would say I was going to be a cowboy in Whomping when I grew up. (I picked it because I was reading all Zane Grey books). Dad enjoyed my saying that and would tell me to explain to others what I was going to be.. Finally, after laughing, he explained it was Wyoming – not Whomping.

Dad cutting down a tree
Dad cutting down a tree

My father gambled and broke horses for a living until he married. In my investigations I discovered he had two uncles in Leipzig, Saskatchewan. One owned a livery stable and one owned a hotel. I imagine my father spent much time at both establishments. He managed to stay fancy free and single until he was 32.

Then he met Emma Edith Frey – his polar opposite. Emma’s family begged and pleaded with her – trying to change her mind. But she was over 21, lived in Canada and could make her own decisions. Emma didn’t drink, smoke, gamble or swear. Emma’s upbringing said that life was about hard work, seriousness and being pious. Emma was a true lady. But Emma was stubborn. Against her family’s wishes she married Bill.

On September 16th, 1938 Emma married her beloved William in Wilkie, Saskatchewan.

Mom and Dad
Mom and Dad (Emma and Bill)

Their love for each other withstood all obstacles from poverty to death. For his wife, Bill gave up everything to make her happy. Emma in turn learned to laugh and not take life so seriously. And regardless of what happened their love for each other was tangible and never faltered.

The first order of business – Emma did not consider breaking horses and gambling to be a livelihood – so Bill got a job working in a sawmill in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He rode logs down a river to prevent their jamming. I don’t think my father was much interested in farming, although he knew how to do it very well. I imagine riding logs was just edgy enough that he agreed to a more stable job.

Two of my brother’s were born in Port Alberni – Reginald William and Lambert Anthony.

Then trouble started. Bill decided to join in a fight for worker’s rights. Back in the 1930’s and 1940’s Unions were much needed. If you wanted to work you followed company rules.There were no rules applying to wages or conditions. My dad wanted to improve especially the wages. I don’t think ‘conditions’ were much on his mind. He liked to live dangerously and I don’t see how conditions might be improved – riding logs down a river. Now there are machines that have replaced manpower. In the process of gaining rights there were many fights and hard feelings floating around. I learned how to be loud and vocal I’m sure from my father. I don’t think he sat silently on the side-lines waiting for others to protest for him.

One day a manager in the mill gave the order to lower the ‘bull-whip’ that pulled the logs into the mill even though my dad was still on the logs. My father went into the river and dropped 40’ – his back broken. That he managed to get out himself and lived to tell the story is a tribute to his strength and determination. But his days of ‘riding’ the logs was over.

With his father’s help, he returned to Saskatchewan to farm. Grandpa was about to retire. He sold his farm outside Wilkie and with the money bought a farm for dad and a house in Wilkie, Saskatchewan for himself and Grandma.

While I was growing up my father and his youngest brother (Uncle Roy) never got along. The story I heard was that although all Bill’s siblings were established and didn’t need the money and nine of them didn’t mind Grandpa’s helping dad.  Uncle Roy did. Considering it was dad at home who helped Grandpa farming the most and Uncle Roy as the ‘baby’, didn’t have to do much, it is odd that he is the one that would complain. Uncle Roy demanded that dad pay him his ‘rightful’ share – which dad did (pride was another trait my father had and taught me). He had to mortgage the property to do so. It set us back badly and we grew up as ‘poor as church mice’. Dad didn’t tell me this story because I never asked. I heard it from others though.

I never saw much of Uncle Roy, but most dad’s other brothers and sisters visited all the time. I liked my Miller uncle and aunts for their ‘happy-go-lucky’ natures. By the time I was born mom’s Frey family accepted my father – probably appreciating how much he gave up his wild ways for mom. The Frey uncles were not that interested in children it seemed to me and mainly ignored us. But the Miller’s were always ‘fun’ to be around, playing cards with us, teasing us or hiding candies in their pockets to tempt us to give them a hug. I remember lots of laughter and card playing whenever they visited. Mom played cards too – but now they played Rummy,Crib or Bridge – not ‘five-card stud’ or other poker games dad used to play.

Dad played superior cards regardless of what the game was called. Dad used to make us play cards whenever no one else was around to play with. Most my brothers and sisters liked playing cards. I, however, found playing cards a boring game. I preferred moving and doing physical activities. At a card-party at the school one year the only person that seemed even slightly interested in having me as their partner was my dad. I was very absent-minded when I played. So, I became his partner and he won the tournament by himself. (4 to a table – move to the next until the winner).

Farming was easier now. We had vehicles – a tractor, a combine, a seeder, a truck for hauling grain and a car mainly used to go to church or the times we had to go to town for groceries. Sometimes we went with our parents to town. They would stay at Aunt Nora’s playing cards and we would get .25 cents which gave us a ticket at the theatre and a box of popcorn. We loved the movies as we didn’t have hydro – so we had no television.

But in the winters we lived four miles from the highway on a gravel road. Mom stocked up for the winter and often she did no shopping for months. We had no hydro or running water so life was still a tough round of work even for us as we grew up. My mother still cooked on a wood and coal stove. This stove still heated our huge, rambling house. Mom still washed clothes with a wringer washer and hung the clothes out to dry.

When Bill and Emma moved back to Saskatchewan in the mid-1940’s, more kids soon arrived. First they had a daughter, Nola Dianne. The priest in Wilkie was not happy with the fact there was no saint in her name. A few years later they had another daughter, Mary Magdeline. Now the priest was happy again – although maybe Mary Magdeline might not have been. A year and a half later another son was born – Larry John. Emma was busy. My mom made our clothes and was a fantastic cook. She kept the house and her children very clean. She also did chores – churning butter, hauling water for wash and milking cows – just to name a few. Yes, life was much easier now. Then Patrick Alfred came along. Then Isabelle Anne.

We went to church faithfully on Sundays. We were all baptized, went to First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Reg and Lambert mainly helped dad with the seeding and harvesting. We all learned how to drive the truck,haul and shovel grain, and haul feed/bales for the cattle. In the winter we often went nowhere except school for months if the weather was cold and stormy. There were few visitors in the winter.

There was only one day, a real custom to our ancestors that was never missed. January 9th, was dad’s day. This day was much more important than all holidays except Christmas and Easter. This was St. William’s day. I will always remember the celebrations on dad’s Names-day. The feast was superb – with home cured hams, chicken, kuchen, strudels, cookies, cakes, pickles, buns and sausage to name a few things we had. Dad made homemade wine – chokecherry, Saskatoon berry and even raspberry. Compared to wines I have now they probably would never win a contest but we were allowed to have ‘sips’ and thought it was very good.  Although raspberry was very bitter and always needed sugar added. This was the only day that Emma allowed Bill to have ‘alcohol’ in the house (other than his wine – which I never saw him drink unless he had company). My mom’s brothers were phenomenal musicians and all had instruments to play. They could pick up a tune without reading music sheets. Our kitchen was cleared in the center (a large kitchen about 26 feet long – hardwood that Nola and I washed/waxed and polished faithfully every Saturday). Then we danced and adults danced with the children as well. We learned the waltz, the fox-trot, the butterfly, the bunny-hop and the polka.

Some winters – as January is a very harsh month in Northern Saskatchewan – people would leave their cars on the highway and we would go pick them up using horses and a hayrack. I would always want to go on that ride regardless of how cold it was. The sleigh-bells would jingle as the horse hooves would make a crunching sound in the packed snow and the moon and stars would glitter off the banks piled everywhere. It was always a mysterious awesome trip and was exactly like I imagined Bethlehem and Mary and Joseph’s trip to the stable was. I don’t know why – but that feeling has never left me. Now I know they were in desert lands but I still have that feeling whenever I think of riding to pick up our friends and relatives on a crisp, cold winter night.

In the summer we often visited Uncle Emil and Aunt Mary (mom’s brother, dad’s sister) who had children our ages, Uncle Eugene and Aunt Eva (mom’s brother), Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Jack (dad’s sister) and Aunt Lenora and Uncle Jimmy who lived in Wilkie. Most the other relatives visited us and on dad’s side mostly lived in British Columbia. Nola and I went to catechism in Wilkie (Catholic Church Sunday school) to prepare for Confirmation/First Holy Communion. We stayed with grandpa and grandma Miller, (Lambert & Katherine). My grandmother would be diagnosed ‘obsessive compulsive’ by today’s standards as she was obsessed with cleanliness, but that didn’t prevent her from treating us like little princesses.

Once during lent we stayed with them. Each night after supper we kneeled at a chair while Grandma leading the way said the rosary. We also did this at home with mom leading the prayers. But grandma would say the rosary in German and we weren’t as proficient in that language as we could have been. In German ‘pray for us’ and ‘pee the bed’ sound very similar. So Nola as loud as could be said ‘pee the bed’, probably knowing very well what she was saying. There was dead silence – then grandpa started laughing. Grandma did too, although she was very quick to correct Nola’s error.

Nola didn’t like the outdoors or animals much. I loved both. I fought, thought and connived to get out of working in the house in any way I could – usually to no avail. But I never gave up trying. Nola looked for ways to stay in the house. In some ways I don’t blame her. Every time she stepped into the yard, mom’s prize gander – a huge white bird, would attack her. I could go out, Larry could go out or anyone else could go out and be fine.

We sometimes had to help to separate a calf from a milking cow as well. Nola just cringed but couldn’t escape that chore. And of course it seemed that the cow, sensing her distaste, would head in her direction – thinking maybe it was the weakest link?  Once a cow came at her – and although Nola was neither a jumper nor a runner – she managed to run and clear a wagon to gain safety in an instant. She was also terrified of horses and thought of every trick in the book to make sure we only walked if we ever had to ride the horse to school. I would always prefer that outside work.

Not all our chores were pleasant. One of the worst chores I can imagine was picking stones in fields literally all day long with the sun beating down on us and no shade. I tried to get out of it every time. Afterall I was allergic to dirt. I can’t understand why no one sympathized with me, just as I can’t understand how we didn’t all get skin cancer. But we didn’t. We stopped for lunch, not to go home, but a packed lunch where we moved into the sparse shade of some lonely cottonwood to eat. Then it was back out picking stones.

The other chores that were ongoing from the time I can remember were gathering kindling, hauling water or wood and wiping the dishes. As Nola was the older – she washed – and I had to dry the dishes. At some point in my life I learned – always finish your chores first – then enjoy leisure time which was spent reading my beloved books or riding in the wind. I love the wind even today for two reasons. The wind always clears my head. If I get uptight or confused the wind always manages to blow this away. The other reason is because the wind is a great excuse to have messy hair

Then Emma and Bill’s last child was born – James Peter. By this time we were growing up and he fast became our communal baby. Jimmy worshipped our dad and followed him around like a puppy-dog when he was old enough. Reg was now working in Wilkie, an Auto-body man and Lambert (Dusty) had joined the Navy. After the navy he married Marie Merchant and was living and working in Toronto.

One day in October, 1964 tragedy struck. William ‘wild Bill’ died. It was harvesting time and dad went out to the fields to run the combine early in the morning, long before I was awake. Reg came home from work that evening and went out to the field to relieve dad. It was dark. The news Reg brought home was heartbreaking. Later we found out dad died from a heart-attack. We will never know why. He comes from very hardy stock – his parents, siblings and his ancestors’ way back to Mannheim lived into their 80’s and 90’s. Dad was only 57. It was a very hard situation to deal with. I was 15 and this was the first real ‘hardship’ I had to face. My mother was my rock. She helped me through this and revealed a strength I have rarely seen.

Life changed forever. Mom didn’t have a driver’s license and moved into Wilkie. A few years later she sold the land to Tom Frey, her nephew. We all grew up and moved away.

My mother continued to live in Wilkie. She was the strongest person I have ever met. I have absolute and complete respect and love for my mother and all she taught me. She is now an angel in heaven, looking after her children. She will live in our memories forever.