FORT DAVIS — Rainfall during October was far short of most of the Trans-Pecos region, as isolated amounts fell in varied parts of the Davis Mountain country, said Albert Miller, who manages the family ranch near Valentine, 36 miles west of here.
“We had more than nine inches throughout the summer, but it was not representative of what actually fell over the ranch, because a three-inch rain fell right in the gauge and didn’t cover more than a third of the ranch,” Albert told me. “The rest of it remained completely dry.
“It has been a very strange year,” he said. “The actual rainfall that we measured does not represent our range conditions, which are at least average. We received about 11.5 inches, so far in the gauge, short of our annual 13-inch rainfall.”
Despite limited moisture, the range has managed to provide average grazing conditions and the cattle look good going into winter, Albert said.
Ever since Walter Spurgeon and Lena Miller arrived by covered wagon in the late 1800s, the Millers have struggled through drouths, wildfires, and a few good times to establish a ranching empire on the Chihuahuan Desert, currently operated by the fourth generation.
The Rock House wildfire in April 2011 was the worst in Jeff Davis County history, consuming more than 202,000 acres. I remember Albert telling me at the time that the Miller Ranch was in the middle of some of the most active fire. “The firefighters were overwhelmed by it. They had four fire trucks, but the limited resources were not enough at times,” he said.
Numerous fire engines, water haulers and air tankers and helicopters were assisting throughout the region, Albert said. The base camp at the Fort Davis State Park was set up for hundreds of firefighters. More than 150 head of cattle were killed and undetermined wildlife losses.
Valentine is located in the southwestern part of Jeff Davis County on U.S. Highway 90 and the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was founded and named when the Southern Pacific Railroad crew, building east, reached the site on February 14, 1882. Trains began running the next year, and a post office was established in 1886, according to the “Handbook of Texas Online”.
A shipping point for local cattle ranchers was established at Valentine, and by 1914 the town had an estimated population of 500 with five cattle breeders, a newspaper, a real estate office, a grocery store, and a restaurant. However, the 2010 Census has the population at 134.
Walter and Lena Miller had three children: Clay Espy Miller, John Keesey Miller, and Audrey Miller Kelly.
Young Clay Espy Miller worked on ranches until joining the Navy in 1918. Following his service, he returned to Fort Davis and purchased the Grierson place in 1921.
Preferring to be called by his middle name, Espy, he would come into town many evenings and spend the night with his parents, who managed the Limpia Hotel. It was on one of those visits in 1923 that he met Lucy Conoly Foster. They married two years later.
Espy and Lucy lived in one of the abandoned officers’ quarters at Camp Holland, 12 miles west of Valentine at Viejo Pass in Presidio County.
Camp Holland, named for the J.R. Holland Ranch, was constructed in 1918 after the Brite Ranch and Neville Ranch raids by Mexican bandits led by Pancho Villa. Viejo Pass was used by Indians in prehistoric times because of its good supply of water and grass.
On June 12, 1880, the pass was the scene of the last Apache attack in Presidio County. Four Pueblo Indian scouts and Lt. Frank H. Mills of the 24th United States Infantry were attacked by 20 Apaches.
Espy and Lucy Miller later moved into the headquarters at the base of the Sierra Vieja Mountains. They had three children: Clay Espy Miller Jr., Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Miller Byerley, and Lucy Mildred Miller Jacobson.
Clay Espy Miller Jr. and JoEllen “Jody” Canada were married June 7, 1949. Jody was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While in college she visited Fort Davis and met her college roommate’s brother, Espy. After a stint with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, they joined his father and uncle, Keesey Miller, on the family ranch at Valentine. They had four sons: Albert, William “Bill”, Jim, and Walter.
Clay and Jody spent their lives on the Valentine ranch. Recalling drouths of 1934 and seven years during the 1950s, Clay said they had to cut sotol to feed their cattle. The rains returned in 1935 and 1936, but the 1950s drouth was the longest of their years at the ranch.
In 2003, Clay and Jody were honored with the statewide award as the Texas Lone Star Land Stewards. The award recognizes private landowners’ ability to integrate traditional land uses that produce meat, agricultural crops and outdoor recreation opportunities with habitat management and wildlife conservation, natural resource education of youth, outreach to other groups, and partnerships with natural resource agencies.
Clay Espy Miller Jr. was 90 when he died February 23, 2017. Jody Miller died in April 2018.
Albert and wife Maralea and Bill and wife Jill and their families live and operate the Miller Ranch at Valentine these days. Jim and wife, Carolyn, live at Fort Davis, and Walter and wife Ann live in Horizon City, located in El Paso County, but also share in the ranch operation. — firstname.lastname@example.org