The ruins were barely visible. The falling buildings were almost entirely hidden by the leaves, trees and weeds that surrounded them, but the huge rocks set in a circular formation caught my photographer’s eye. When I got out of the car to get a closer picture, I realized I had stumbled upon something special.
When I first got my digital camera for Christmas 1999, I spent a lot of time stopping to photograph things. This particular time, I had my husband stop and back up when I saw a pile of large rocks in a semicircle that looked similar to the shape an old rock silo might have been. But this rock structure was too large to be a silo. What I found so surprised me and captured my attention that I knew I had to learn more about the man who had once lived here. At home I had several plat books starting at 1956. I was able to pick out the exact owner of the property right off: Barney Miller. I knew that he was the right person with whom to begin my research.
Bernhart Miller, born May 26, 1879 in Sweden, came to the United States in 1890 at age eleven and settled with his family in Carney (Michigan). At twenty-one, Miller left the area to see the big city. He lived in Chicago and is thought to have married during the time he was there.
Miller’s job was to deliver big blocks of ice-until the day he stopped to marvel at the paintings in the Chicago Institute of Art. He said that by the time he came out, all the ice had melted. As a result, he was fired.
City life must not have been in his heart, because he left his wife and returned to settle permanently in Carney in 1915 at age thirty-five. Miller was a big, strong man, without much formal education. He was slow and deliberate in words and actions, and was gentle and very well liked. He may not have known how to read or write, and he never did drive an automobile.
Miller would walk to the Peterson Brothers General Store and carry groceries home, as his mother did before him. It was an often-told tale in the Carney area that Miller’s mother, a very sturdy woman, would carry 100-pound sacks of flour home. It is said she once walked to town, bought groceries, carried them halfway home, stopped at a neighbor’s house to have a baby and then walked the rest of the way home.
In Carney, Miller worked in the woods as a logger and teamster, using a team of horses to drag logs out of the woods. He lived a simple life with no electricity or running water, but was quite a local celebrity just the same.
Many a young man would take his date out to meet Miller, as the late Gene Peterson did with his future wife Eileen. The Petersons would eventually own Peterson Brothers General Store in Carney.
Miller enjoyed having company, and many times offered them coffee when they visited, but they never accepted the offer as Miller cohabitated with chickens and cats. Eileen said the chickens roosted right in the kitchen.
Miller had a small still on his property to make his own grain alcohol, but was not known to be a drinking man; the alcohol was just to take care of his “aches and pains.” One of his favorite foods was Limburger cheese; he always asked for it when he came into the store.
The townspeople all knew Miller loved art. Friends and neighbors would save magazines or the art section of the Sunday paper for him, as he enjoyed looking at the artwork. He would spend his spare time studying the pictures.
Miller was well known locally as an artist, sculptor and woodcarver. By the looks of the buildings he constructed on his property, he was a stonemason, too. The building that was his original home was a masterpiece of rock work. It has the look of an old English castle, with portholes and archways built out of fieldstone, and a tunnel into the lower level and a food cellar.
What made Miller’s work special, though, was the artwork he etched and sculpted into the cement. While the artwork in itself is not that spectacular, the enormity of what Miller created as a whole is astounding. It must have been very impressive in its time.
Miller made many of his designs in large concrete panels and cemented them into the walls and doorways of his home. There are three-by-five foot panels with whole scenes of horses and men. They are his version of his favorite painting, “The Horse Fair” (1855) by Rosa Bonheur.
There are other smaller panels with pine trees, log cabins, bears and even fruit. One place on the frame of a doorway has what looks like an Egyptian molded into the concrete.
The exterior of the structure was adorned elaborately with lines of geometric patterns, rows of acorns and Miller’s initials. His home had many of the same architectural shapes that are found on the Chicago Institute of Art Building.
The building that Miller called his studio had rock walls that were eight feet thick in places. Inside, the forge still stands. Barney liked using the largest rocks he could find to make the foundations and walls of his buildings.
According to Gene Peterson, when asked how he had gotten the large rocks in place, Miller would answer, “The climate did it.”
Of course the person would then ask, “What do you mean ‘the climate’?” Miller would reply, “I would put the rock up on my shoulder, put the ladder up against the wall and climb it.”
The stone pillars that stand guard, one on each side of the driveway, are good examples of his work. There is a large troll-like face on one side that may be a lion, and horses, dogs and deer on other sides of the pillars . Miller was building a sawmill that was to be powered by a windmill but that project never was completed.
In the 1940s, fire claimed the wooden parts of Barney Miller’s home. By then, he was too old to rebuild such a large structure, so he built a modest wood-frame house where he lived for the rest of his life.
Miller was able to salvage several of the panels from his original house to include in the fireplace of his new home, some of which he may have had to chip out of the ruins by hand.
The chimney of his newer home is dated 1951 under an etching of an eagle that appears to also have been done at that time.
Miller had a love of animals, as many of his designs show; he included horses, birds, eagles and dogs.
Stephenson resident Mrs. Kenneth (Millie) Corey said that the Menominee County Library had at one time tried to acquire a pair of Miller’s lion carvings for the entrance to the library, much like the ones that can be seen at the entrance to the Chicago Art Institute.
Miller’s wood carvings were much more detailed than his concrete work. He would start with big thick slabs of wood and then carve or sculpt the details into the wood. His style is unmistakable once you’ve seen one of his carvings.
Barney Miller died December 14, 1961, at the age of 82. He is buried in the Carney Free Church Cemetery. He had two brothers, Delmar and Eric, who were both living in Canada at that time. No children were listed as survivors.
Today the remains of Barney Miller’s homestead are preserved behind the security of a locked gate, still guarded by a cement carving I call “The Troll.”
The current owners, Gunter and Elly Kusig, have invested a lot of time in clearing brush, cleaning up the unsalvageable buildings and preserving enough of the original structures to leave an overall impression of the greatness that once existed here.
The small house is now a camp roofed in green aluminum and adorned with new white windows. It sits in the shadow of the huge rock foundation of the house Barney Miller built.
Many of Miller’s wood carvings remain in homes of area residents who knew and loved him. Some of Miller’s pieces once sold for as little as a dollar, but are highly prized collectibles today.
Barney Miller left his mark.
Editor’s Note: The author thanks Gene and Eileen Peterson, Mrs. Kenneth Corey, Jan Corey and Steve Fulford of Weathervane Antiques in Marinette (Wisconsin) for providing information for this article.
Marquette Monthly, Copyright 1999- 2014
Photo credit and thanks to Kori Schei for helping preserve this history.