MILLER, ROBERT, livestock breeder and importer; b. 15 July 1857 in Brougham (Pickering), Upper Canada, third son of John Miller* and Margaret Whiteside; m. first 3 June 1896 Josephine Baldwin Harding (d. 29 Oct. 1918) in Waukesha County, Wis., and they had one surviving son; m. secondly about 1921 Josephine’s sister Jessie M. Harding, 27 years his junior; they had no children; d. 24 Nov. 1935, with Jessie, when their car was struck by a train in Langstaff, Ont., and they were buried two days later in Stouffville, Ont.
Robert Miller was born into a Scottish family of outstanding importance to the livestock community of Ontario. The Millers had immigrated from Dumfriesshire to an area northeast of Toronto beginning in 1832. Robert’s father, John, arrived in 1835, bringing livestock with him. The following year he exhibited an American bull at the Provincial Exhibition in Toronto. It was the beginning of a multigenerational involvement in the buying and selling of imported animals. While sheep and horses would play a role in the Millers’ business over the years, Shorthorn cattle drove the family operations, as they would all livestock-importing enterprises in Ontario until the 1920s. In 1899 Robert was to tell fellow breeders, “My father came here over sixty years ago and brought Shorthorns with him then.… I know nothing else.”
Robert was born in the Brougham area of Pickering Township, likely on his father’s farm, Thistle Ha’. His interest in quality livestock developed at an early age; when he was 10 years old, he successfully exhibited sheep. He attended the local school, and had completed his education by the age of 16. He then took up farming full time, actively participating in his father’s livestock enterprise, John Miller and Sons, for which his elder brother William M. served as chief buyer. The Millers obtained Shorthorns from such significant Scottish breeders as Sylvester Campbell and Amos Cruickshank. Surviving catalogues show that the company orchestrated major sales; Americans from as far away as Oregon came to Thistle Ha’ to purchase livestock. The Millers’ interest in the importation of pure-bred animals was shared by many farmers in their region. Among them were James Ironside Davidson* and John Dryden*, with both of whom the family became connected through business and personal ties.
Robert was effectively in charge of the firm’s operations after William left home following his marriage to Mary Ironside Davidson in 1876. With William’s early death ten years later, he would act as chief buyer as well. His initial trip to Scotland for John Miller and Sons took place in 1881. “Before long,” an obituary would note, “his wisdom in the selection of stock for Canadian breeding purposes gave him a reputation in the British Isles, France and Germany.” By 1920, when he undertook his last voyage, he had crossed the Atlantic 25 times to purchase Shorthorns and other stock for himself, the family, and clients in North America, Mexico, and Central and South America. His merchandising powers helped make Thistle Ha’ an even greater centre of livestock activity. They also enabled him to broker sales for other breeders. It was he, for example, who induced the Canadian Pacific Railway to buy Ontario bulls for the improvement of western stock. The first group – some 70 head – was shipped in 1898 or 1899. Robert sold animals with ease, but he did not always command high prices for imported or home-bred stock. Importing was expensive and he often lost money. While he tended to focus on selling to farmers, not industrialists procuring expensive stock as a hobby, he occasionally acted on behalf of such wealthy breeders. In 1900, for example, Edwin Stewart Kelly, an American rubber-tire manufacturer, asked him to acquire a herd of Shorthorns in Britain and put no limit on the price.
The Millers’ close relationship with Americans aided Robert’s marketing efforts. The connection that the George Harding family, Shorthorn and sheep breeders in Wisconsin, had with Thistle Ha’ provides a prime example. George Harding was an agent for many American breeders late in the 19th century and sent his son Frank Waller to Thistle Ha’ several times a year to purchase both sheep and Shorthorns. Robert married Frank’s sister Josephine in 1896 and the couple moved to Stouffville. While operating his own nearby farm, Burnbrae, Robert continued to work with John Miller and Sons until the organization broke up on John’s death in 1904. The Harding link enhanced Robert’s international marketing, not just in the United States but also outside North America because Frank, as secretary of the American Shorthorn Breeders’ Association from 1913, spent much time boosting the breed in Mexico and South America. Frank’s trip to Argentina in 1914, for example, resulted in Robert’s selection as a sheep judge at the Palermo show in Buenos Aires in 1916. At some point Robert had also bought livestock for Porfirio Díaz, long-time president of Mexico, and he had been made a life member of the Livestock Association of Mexico in 1902. He promoted the selling of Canadian animals in these countries.
In addition to cattle, Robert bred horses (Clydesdales and hackneys) and various kinds of sheep over his lifetime. He probably imported more sheep into Canada than anyone else. After his death in 1935 Duncan McLean Marshall*, a fellow Shorthorn breeder and Ontario minister of agriculture at the time, would comment that “all good beasts of the field appealed to him, but Shorthorns and sheep were a passion.” When stomach-worm disease destroyed his flocks in his later years, he concentrated more on his herd of Shorthorns. As a hobby, he kept and bred ponies. He was the first in Canada to bring in Welsh Mountain ponies and he initiated the Welsh/hackney cross. He also had a few Shetlands as pets.
Among his most important achievements, in terms of the history of Canadian livestock breeding, was his tireless, and successful, work in the 1890s and the early 20th century to reduce railway rates on shipments of pure-bred livestock. Also significant were his attempts to have tariffs raised on non-pure-bred animals and thereby to restrict the importation of inferior stock. He undertook to put Canada’s tariff regulations into perspective for breed associations by explaining their historical context. In 1904 he supported the contentious plan to nationalize all the country’s pedigree records, which up to then had been maintained by various provincial-government departments and private agencies, and locate a central office in Ottawa. His imprimatur was critical to a shift in outlook on the part of breeders. Fear of government control of their affairs had made many resist the idea. The respect Robert commanded in the livestock industry engendered faith that no such interference would result. So did the assurances of the federal minister of agriculture, Sydney Arthur Fisher*, during the meetings held in 1905 to establish the new entity, the Canadian National Live Stock Records. Still, opposition persisted.
Robert railed against the regulations put in place to restrict the entrance into Canada of tuberculous cattle. Like many others, including John Dryden, he argued that the compulsory – and notoriously inaccurate – tuberculin test introduced in 1894 by the chief veterinary inspector, Duncan McNab McEachran*, would destroy the importing business. In 1899 he stated that if the testing regulations were not removed, he would emigrate to the United States. (Neither happened.) He was particularly heated that year because animals he had imported in 1898 were ordered slaughtered even though the test results were unclear, and he received no compensation.
He served many livestock organizations over the years, becoming president of the Dominion Sheep Breeders’ Association, the Canadian Hackney Horse Society, and the Dominion Short-horn Breeders’ Association, and sitting on the executive of the Clydesdale Horse Association of Canada and the Ontario Horse Breeders’ Association. He chaired the board of the Canadian National Live Stock Records twice (1905–9, 1924–25) and also presided at a critical period over the National Records Committee. A director of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition/Canadian National Exhibition from 1902 to 1923, he became its first farmer president in 1923; he was also the first president who did not live in Toronto, an “unusual honour” according to one local newspaper. He sat on the board of directors of the International Live Stock Exposition in Chicago for a number of years, and was a member of the American Shorthorn Breeders’ Association and the American Clydesdale Association. His special love of Shorthorns remained until the end. When he died, he was on a trip that was to take him to the Shorthorn show at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.
Robert Miller was inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1980, and his portrait hangs in its gallery at the National Trade Centre in Toronto. Thistle Ha’, the farm that was his home for around 40 years, was declared an Ontario heritage property in 1977 and a national historic site in 1979.
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