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The 101 Ranch

Buffalo Bill with the 101 Ranch Show - 1916

The story of the 101 Ranch began in Kentucky in the early 1840s with the birth of George Washington Miller. Destined to be patriarch of the Miller family, he would rival the flamboyant William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody as the originator of the world's very first Wild West show and rodeo.

It is altogether fitting that the genesis of the 101 empire was Kentucky. Only the fifteenth state to enter the Union, in 1792, it was the first state beyond the Alleghenies and a pioneer land that yielded early frontier legends such as Daniel Boone and Kit Carson.

Many Indians and the English and Scotch-Irish settlers who hailed from Virginia and the Carolinas referred to the Kentucky country as the "hunting ground" because of the abundance of game. Later, in the era of fierce battles between Indians and white intruders, the region became known as the "dark and bloody ground."

Despite its raw natural beauty, Kentucky was not a land for the citified or the weak. This became clear to the whites and Indians alike when their cultures collided and the region channeled more and more settlers into the Mississippi Valley and the lands beyond.

White frontiersmen—rugged trailblazers and hunters—who ventured into Kentucky in the 1700s became known as "long hunters" because they made extended trips over the mountains in search of game. Together, they helped to shape the most persistent myths of frontier America, recounting vivid tales that fueled the imagination of future generations of pioneers born in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Iron Tail/Nickel, 1913, 101 Ranch Poster.

Born on February 22, 1842, to George and Almira Fish Miller, George Washington Miller was a true son of the South. Although some records give his birth year as 1841, Miller's birthdate of February 22 was never in dispute, and it provided his parents with an obvious choice for his name.

The baby arrived at his father's ancestral home in Lincoln County, near the town of Crab Orchard, in central Kentucky. The Miller residence was near Hanging Fork Creek. According to local legend, the tributary was named in early settlement days when two desperadoes who had escaped from Virginia authorities were captured and summarily hanged from a tall tree at the fork of a stream.

For reasons unknown, George Washington Miller's paternal grandfather, Armstead Milner, had changed the family surname from Milner to Miller. A farmer, he is listed in early Lincoln County records as both Milner and Miller in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A 1795 tax roll lists him as "a white male over 21 with 2 horses, 3 cattle."

101 Wild West Ranch, 1931, Poster.

George Washington Miller grew up not really knowing much about his father and the Milner/Miller family. His grandfather John Fish primarily raised him. George and his brother Walter, born in 1837, spent their formative years at the Fish homestead where, according to family records, "everything was done in a grand manner."

Early on, his surroundings in Lincoln County influenced George greatly. Formed in 1780 as one of Kentucky's oldest and largest counties, it was named for Massachusetts native Benjamin Lincoln, a distinguished general in the American Revolution in charge of the Continental forces waging war against the British in the South.

George Miller was taught that his home county claimed many firsts in Kentucky history, including the first brick house, first mill, first circular race track, first white child's birth, and first Kentucky governor.

From his grandfather and other old-timers, the boy heard tales of the scalpings and skirmishes on the "dark and bloody ground." He learned that much of the murder and mayhem took place along the pioneer trail known as "the Road to Caintuck," "the Great Western Road," or "the Kentucky Path," but most often called "the Wilderness Road." The well-worn path ran right through Lincoln County and Crab Orchard.

Stories of such conflicts instilled a deep sense of pioneer pride in George Washington Miller, whose early years in Kentucky established in him firm principles of courage, honor, and perseverance. These pioneer tales set the stage for a drama that George Washington Miller's three sons replayed until the final curtain fell more than ninety years after their father's birth.

Perhaps there was no greater influence on young George W. Miller than the stories of Daniel Boone. Like his fellow Kentuckians, Miller grew up hearing tales about the legendary frontiersman. So revered was Boone that some folks considered him a latter-day Moses who had led his people—waves of white settlers—into the so-called promised land of "Kentucke." Exaggerated accounts of Boone's exploits, especially at Cumberland Gap and on the new Wilderness Road that ran north through the fertile bluegrass countryside, inspired three future American heroes—Davy Crockett, Kit Carson (perhaps a distant relative of Boone and of Mary Anne Carson, G. W. Miller's wife, according to incomplete Carson family records), and William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Destined to become the standard for a multitude of other western legends, Boone served as the model for the hunter-heroes in James Fenimore Cooper's adventure novels.

Vince Dillon, Boys Reading Miller 101 Advertisements, photo.
click image to enlarge

George Miller was a three-year-old boy in 1845 when Kentucky officials supposedly dug up the bones of Boone and his wife and brought them back to a site above the state capitol, in Frankfort. But there are those in Missouri who claim the wrong body was sent. They believe the remains of a slave, and not of Boone, rest in Kentucky. Even in death, the Boone legends have persisted, and have helped to shape the national myths of the frontier.

The terrible collapse of his parents' marriage permanently affected young George Washington Miller, and he immersed himself in the rich history, culture, and folklore of mid-nineteenth-century Kentucky in his new life in his grandfather's home.

In time, he readily came to accept the life of the ruling class and his place among the landed gentry on a busy Kentucky that depended on slave labor. Although Kentucky was a border state and did not maintain vast plantations such as those in the Deep South, slavery remained a venerated institution. As late as 1860, Kentucky had 38,645 slaveowners, surpassed only by Georgia and Virginia.

101 Ranch Show, c. 1930, in Mexico-South America.

Music and dancing at masquerade and fancy-dress balls, hunting and horseback riding, and relaxing on spacious verandas made for idyllic days and nights for Kentuckians such as George Miller and his extended family.

Ironically, within a decade, many of the men who had danced with their wives would be fighting one another in the bloodiest combat that has occurred on American soil. Indeed, just as Miller reached his twenties, those halcyon times came to an abrupt halt for the entire South.

Danger permeated the air, as thick as the cloying aroma of honeysuckle. War clouds loomed up and down the Mason-Dixon Line. There would be parties and horse races and good times again—but not for a very long time.

The 101 Ranch was started by the Millers' father. Col. George Washington Miller (a Confederate veteran) lived the life his sons could only dream of. Inspired by stories of Daniel Boone, Miller took his pregnant wife and two young children out of Kentucky and across the prairie in 1870. Bound for California, Miller instead got sidetracked into business. Ruthless, bigoted and salty as salt pork, he first raised hogs in Missouri, then began taking hog meat and cattle down the Chisholm Trail into Texas.

101 Panoramic
click image to enlarge

The ranch stretched over four counties of leased Indian lands and covered 101,000 acres - hence the name - south of Ponca City in the early 1900s. The self contained ranch had its own tannery, dairy, ice plant, electric power plant, cannery, cider mill, and 25,000 long-horn steer. They even had their own money! The ranch was in operation for over 50 years before splitting up into small farms in 1931. The 101 was a working showplace, self sufficient and employed thousands of people.

Company Store

The ranch consisted of a school, show grounds, general store and cafe, hotel, newspaper, magazine, blacksmith shop, leather shop, dairy, saddle shop, meat packing plant, oil refinery and even its own scrip (money). Homes for employees were available on the ranch along with guest houses and a "Dude Ranch". It was a city within itself consisting of a population of around 3,000 people at any given time.

The 101 Ranch became one of the largest diversified farms with cross breeding of animals and agricultural products. In 1903, Col. George Miller died and the ranch was taken over by his three sons. Each of his sons had a specialty that made the ranch pay off. The oldest was Joe Miller, an expert in grains and plants. The middle son, Zack was a cowman. The third son, George was a financial wizard.

In 1905, Joe started the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, an expansion of the yearly rodeos that featured roping, riding, bulldogging, Indian dancers, trick roping, riding and shooting. The show traveled all over the world. The Millers also introduced a sport called the "terrapin derbies". The People that were a part of the show touched a whole nation with their stylized depiction of the characters of the frontier. The players, actors, and some of the real people were characters in their own right.

White House

The 101 Ranch in Bliss Oklahoma, would make an important contribution to the history of Wild West Shows. The 101 Ranch exemplified ranching in all its old time picturesqueness. Thousands of cattle, horses, 150 frieght cars all made for an impressive sight and reputation for the 101.

On this immense ranch, started in the 1890s, grew a dynasty of show cowboy tradition. Wranglers, buckaroos, trick shooters, ropers, and cowboys of all sorts, embodied the incannation of the vanished west. The show featured as many as a thousand performers; Indians, clowns, sharpshooters, Russian Cossacks, bull riders, and musicians, entertained large crowds at rodeo grounds and stadiums across the country in Europe, Mexico, and Canada.

Many 101 Ranch performers made the jump to film careers just as the Western was becoming an art form. Tom Mix, Hoot Gilson, Buck Jones, and Ken Manard, all began at the 101 before they became film stars. Bill Picket the founder of modern day bull dogging was from the 101. The Western film meant one thing "action". Chases, Indian attacks upon a stagecoach, stampedes of cattle or bison, and shoot outs, all part of Wild West shows. The movies drew upon dime-novels, James Fenimore Cooper novels, and Wild West shows for their plots and story structure. The traditional story of crime, pursuit, showdown, and justice which became the staple of these westerns was rooted in Wild West shows of the past.

Trick riding, 101 Ranch.

From chronicles of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to biographies of such figures as John Wayne and John Ford, historians have documented the transformation of the West into a form of entertainment. A single ranch where the West was turned first into a road show and later into some of the first filmed Westerns succeeded in building a bridge between the factual West and the fabled one. The rootin' tootin' show, held up all those Western films lying at the heart of American popular culture to the glaring spotlight of truth. No amount of truth will ever deflate the Old West. Its fables are too integral to the American self-image to be gunned down by the introduction of mere facts.

In 1908, E.W. Marland, an oilman who was down on his luck, met the Miller Brothers and through them E.W. was able to drill on leased Indian lands. In 1911, E.W. made it pay off and went on to become a millionaire oilman, U.S. Congressman and 10th governor of Oklahoma.

In 1927, Joe Miller died of carbon monoxide poisoning. His death, along with World War I and the depression saw the ranch begin to decline. George died in 1929 in an automobile accident. Zack tried to keep the ranch a profitable business, but found himself and the ranch sinking deeper into legal problems. The problems eventually overtook him and the ranch. In 1937, he left for Texas where he died in 1952.

But while the 101 prospered for many year and Wild West defined the cowboy around the world the 1920's resulted in the decline of Wild West shows. Radio and film had begun to replace live shows and the 101 Ranch suffered a terrible flood in 1923 later to go bankrupt in 1931. Buffalo Bill was long gone and the 101 Ranch having its bones picked by scavengers. What the banks, depression, war and death had not taken from the ranch, deterioration, fire and the Salt Fork River has claimed. Little remains of the once fabulous empire, but the memory of it will live on forever. Today the cowboy indures as an archetypal hero. The myth of the cowboy riding in from somewhere else, driving cattle, chasing outlaws, fleeing the past to confront the future, has become permanently entrenched in the American experience.


The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West
Founded in Oklahoma in 1893, the 101 Ranch created one of the most exciting and influential traveling rodeo shows ever to tour the country. Featuring countless cowboys and cowgirls, including such Western legends as Buffalo Bill, Geronimo, and Bill Picket, it was only a matter of time before it caught the glittering eye of Hollywood. From the legendary cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail to the origins of the mass entertainment industry, Michael Wallis masterfully tells the enthralling history of not only the 101 Ranch, but the last days of the American Frontier.


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