Harvey James Miller was known to many as Harvey J., perhaps to differentiate him from another Harvey Miller that lived at the same time. He also was known as “the Man with a Thousand Stories;” however, the label “Sage,” given by Ashton Chapman, is more appropriate for him. Aristotle said: “What more accurate stand or measure of good things do we have than the Sage?” And Plato says, “The difference between a sage and a philosopher is that the sage has what the philosopher seeks.”
Harvey was born 110 years ago, on July 10, 1909, the youngest of eight children, to David and Lucinda “Cinda” Barnett Miller, the daughter of the Reverent Spencer P. Barnett and Hannah Honeycutt Barnett. He was named by his mother from one of her dreams, and his middle name after a preacher, James Chapman, who was staying a few days at their house when Harvey was born. Harvey J. married Edith Hughes, the daughter of Dove and Mira Ray Hughes, on January 27, 1950.
He began writing at the age of 12, sending his first story to the Johnson City Staff News about his dog Mack chasing a squirrel up a chestnut tree and ending up on a limb. The editor made him a “country news correspondent for the area” and sent him envelopes with stamps for him to submit his stories.
With a sixth-grade education, Harvey went on, at one time or another, to become the local news correspondent for the Johnson City Press Chronicle, the Mitchell Ledger, the Spruce Pine News, later the Tri-County News, as well as writer for the Watauga Democrat, the Yancey Record, and Erwin Record among others. He had a special relationship with other writers such Mr. S. T. Henry of Spruce Pine, Eliot Wigginton of Foxfire Press, and N.Y Times bestselling author Sharon McCrumb.
Today’s reader, looking for a description of Harvey’s writings, could be tempted to say they come from a simpler more easy-going time. While simpler than many contemporary newspaper readers are accustomed to, they are far from being simplistic. As for the times, when one reads the day-to-day activities Harvey chronicles and the record of people’s lives that he weaves into stories year by year, we realize theirs were complex and demanding cycles of life. Harvey J. Miller offers us the opportunity to feel, if not understand at least in some small measure, the creative character, innate intelligence, tenacity, commitment to the land and each other, and sense of humor that the first generations of settlers in our mountains had and have passed on. Whether we are ready to draw from those traits is another story that he cannot write.
In these weekly columns, we are:
- Drawn into weddings, funerals, births, illness, house fires, visits to and from friends, bumper crops and crop failures, snow storms, and floods.
- Introduced to a champion hog raiser, the snake killing record holder, a child weather record keeper, a banjo maker who preferred possum and cat hides, the eight-year old girl that taught her cat tricks, and a boy with feet toughened to the point he could “bust” out chestnuts with his bare heels.
- Provided bits of history of the area from Indian markings on rocks and arrow heads to the remains of log cabins up in the hollers built when or by whom no one know. However, he was pretty sure that James Barnett, his great grandfather, was one of the first settlers. He tells of the first water wheel corn mill, the first preachers, and dozens of place names with their origins.
- Told of special occurrences such as a snuff salesman coming through the area with samples of sweet and scotch snuff, grading and adding gravel to the roads, arrival of peach vendors, and the appearance of a huge weather balloon over the river.
- Reminded of the annual Griffith cattle drive to the upper pastures, where the spring ramps are growing, time for gathering Balm of Gilead and its selling price, arrival of the first catbirds and first frost, apple butter time, and when to plant potatoes.
- Allowed to follow the lives, sometimes birth to death, of the “best preacher,” a retired postman who began on horseback and later bought a jeep, the oldest woman in the community, and the men who operated the Devil’s Nest Mountain fire tower.
- Given beautiful descriptions of the signs of the seasons, such as elder bloom predicting a good crop, blackbird flocks announcing the end of winter, and “virgin white dogwood” and inch-high catnip welcoming the spring.
- Offered a treasure trove of stories about men walking miles to get to and from railroad building jobs, cleaning your eyes with a flax seed, ghosts haunting roads and hollers, the treasure hidden in Bat Cave, and countless other insights and poetically written accounts of life in and around Pigeon Roost, North Carolina.
Failing eyesight, arthritis and other health related issues forced Harvey J. to end his writing in 1989. He and his wife Edith, along with his brother Fonzer, had moved to Spruce Pine in 1985 to be closer to his daughter Ethel Stafford. No doubt, Pigeon Roost was always in their hearts, but for the remainder of their lives, the Millers attended Freedom Baptist Church, and both are laid to rest in Berry Chapel Cemetery. Harvey J. Miller died December 27, 1997 and Edith followed on April 20, 2009.
It is fitting that we say to the Sage of Pigeon Roost, Harvey J. Miller, what he said in a column lamenting the loss of his antique pocket knife which he had carried for many years, “So, goodbye, old pal.”
Fortunately, thanks to Eliot Wigginton and Ethel Stafford, we still have access to copies of compilations of Harvey J. Miller’s writing. These may be obtained from Ethel Stafford (828) 765-6802 or best, check out the News From Pigeon Roost Books Facebook page.