By Mona Lange McCroskey and Curtis Ritter
W. Curtis Miller was born March 30, 1866 in Barrackville, West Virginia. He graduated from the University of Nashville, Tennessee and taught in rural schools in West Virginia for thirteen years. A shy, retiring man, Miller's life can only be traced through the memories of relatives and an occasional newspaper clipping. He himself wrote, "I have always been as modest about appearing in print as I have been about appearing before an assembly to give a talk." About 1900, Miller contracted tuberculosis and ventured to Arizona as a health seeker. Described as a workaholic, he worked at a dairy in Phoenix during the day and also at a night job before suffering a serious relapse.
Miller's sister, Nell, came from West Virginia to care for him. He was made comfortable by cool air produced by an electric fan blowing across a 300-pound block of ice, delivered daily during the hot Phoenix summer. (Nell was to spend the rest of her life in Arizona; she met and married cattleman Ed Ritter and they made their home on his ranch near Kirkland.) As his health improved, Curt Miller also made his way north. He returned to teaching at Perkinsville, where he lived with the Perkins family and tutored the children. In addition to his modest salary, Miller received a few calves each year until he had built up a small herd. During his stint at Perkinsville, Miller rode the train to St. Louis with members of the Perkins family to sell cattle, accompanied them on a hunting trip, and partook of a Christmas dinner that included English pudding, turkey, duck, and ham. For dessert, the celebrants made ice cream from snow on the ground.
During his varied career, Curt Miller was principal of the Jerome school for two years, and from 1912-20 served as Yavapai County school superintendent. In that capacity he visited every school in the county once a month, riding a bicycle on maintenance trails that paralleled the railroad. Eventually the county purchased a Model T Ford for the superintendent's use. On his travels Miller was almost always accompanied by women, but never married.
In 1920 W. Curtis Miller was elected to the state legislature from Yavapai County. Between sessions, laden with three-ring binders, he proofread all the handwritten bills that were passed. Miller also remained deputy school superintendent/supervisor. As such he was an "ex-officio attendance [truant] officer." The Courier reported, "Mr. Miller's intimate and extensive knowledge of the county and its schools. . . is expected to save a large sum of money for the county by keeping school attendance where it ought to be."
Miller's namesake, Curtis Ritter (co-author of this article), remembers his uncle's frequent presence at the Ritter Ranch. Miller was intimidated by the cowboy lifestyle of his brother-in-law, Ed Ritter, who in turn was a little afraid of Miller and referred to him as "the Professor." Ritter was known to use some pretty profane language and the strongest epithet uttered by Miller was "Oh, p'shaw." When Miller came to the ranch he nearly always brought a present for young Curtis, often a book about radio, and once a course on practical electricity. On Curtis' twelfth birthday, Miller presented him with a Crosley "almost portable" radio. Listening to Amos 'n Andy, and later Will Rogers, made a believer of even Ed Ritter.
Miller, an avid traveler, purchased the ModelT Ford he had driven as a county employee and, at thirty miles a gallon, drove it over a million miles, visiting every state in the union and camping in a tent hooked to the car. Curtis Ritter recalls that Miller "coasted down every hill he came to. To be honest, he was just plain tight and he squeezed his nickels." Miller made extended summer visits to St. Petersburg, Florida, his hometown of Barrackville, and Long Beach, California, hoping to regain his still frail health. When Curtis Ritter graduated from high school, his uncle treated him to a trip to Long Beach. Ritter has vivid memories of staying in a cabin on the beach, eating at a cafeteria, riding the roller coaster, and visiting the La Brea tar pits, the Olympic stadium, and Signal Hill.
Besides his passion for traveling, Curt Miller did all his own mechanical work. He liked gadgets and had a compressor that allowed him to start his Model T without using the crank. He was an accomplished carpenter who set cupboards into the three-foot walls, installed the first indoor toilet, and painted the Ritter ranch house, still family-occupied. He dabbled in oil stocks, a practice strongly disapproved of by his sister, and accumulated a trunk full of (mostly worthless) stock certificates. He died in Phoenix on October 31, 1941, at the age of seventy-five.
Mona McCroskey is the Family Historian at Sharlot Hall Museum. Curtis Ritter is a member of a Pioneer Kirkland-area ranching family. Ms. McCroskey has compiled close to 300 oral history interviews of individuals and families in Yavapai County which are available for research at Sharlot Hall Museum Archives and Library.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (courtesy photo). Reuse only by permission.
When Curtis Miller, far right in about 1914, was Yavapai County school superintendent he would ride his bicycle along railroad tracks to every school in the county once month for visits until the county bought him a Model T Ford. Photo courtesy of Curtis Ritter.