Recently discovered correspondence of folk artist Lewis Miller shines light on his later life
Call it providence, serendipity, fate, karma or whatever you want, but in the study of history, as with many things, it is remarkable how undiscovered resources appear at exactly the right time. Just as York County Heritage Trust came out with a new book of mostly previously unpublished drawings by well know York folk artist, Lewis Miller, the Trust was offered a series of touching letters between Miller and his great-nephew, describing how the creation of many of the newly published drawings came to be.
See below for the transcriptions of the letters as recorded in my recent York Sunday News column:
More of Lewis Miller’s life discovered
Just as York County Heritage Trust’s new book, Lewis Miller’s People, edited by Lila Fourhman-Shaull and myself, came out, several previously unknown letters and drawings by folk artist Lewis Miller (1796-1882) were discovered. Miller moved to Montgomery County, Virginia in the 1860s to make his home with relatives, but he kept in touch with family here. These letters seem to confirm that the drawings in the second half of the new book were created by Miller in his last few months, probably for his great-nephew George S. Billmeyer.
Even with health failing at 86, Miller’s drawings and letters show a steady hand and sharp mind. Through the letters, we see the purpose of the depictions he was sending to Billmeyer was twofold: to thank Billmeyer for sending needed funds, and to leave a legacy for future generations of York countians by accurately portraying the citizens of “old York” as he remembered them.
Miller swallows his pride in the first letter to ask for assistance:
“Christiansburg, Montgomery County, Virginia
February 27, 1882
My Dear Friend,
Pardon my boldness to intrude in writing to you this few lines. And in hopes that you are in good health. I am not well, it is old age make[s] me so confine myself in the house, but it is God’s blessing that I am alife. I remain with impatience for an answer which will console me—who feels the most sincere affection. My relations that wer[e] good to me are dead, now I am with Strangers and the[y] look for pay, and I am in need of a little help. Please and send an answer soon and I thank you for so a kindness. Please remember me to all inquiring friends… .
I have no more to add but remain your well wisher.
“York, Pa. March 20, 1882
Lewis Miller Esq.
My Dear Sir,
I am in receipt of yours of the 27th ult. and in answer it gives me great pleasure to send you a draft for $50. I hope it may be of great service to you. If I may make of you one request it is this, you give to me your curiosities such as carvings, pictures and especially those pertaining to our town. I make this request only because it would be of interest to a number of our old friends. If you so decide to give them to me please send them by express to me and I will pay the charges.
I am Very Truly Yours,
Geo. S. Billmeyer”
Miller’s gratitude is very clear, as well as his willingness to send drawings in thanks for the money received:
“Christiansburg, Montgomery Co., Va.
March 24, 1882
O God—what a pleasure to me when the lovely letter came to hand. I received it March 23. I hope this letter [is] meeting you with a good reception from your friend. So I can see that the Lord in time of need is helping his feeble—beings, when the[y] pray he will lent a listening ear. O lord be near me when I speak to thee, and lift my voice to thee. Blessed Saviour good and mild listen to a feeble—being. I see in your letter of some carving figures in wood—I have none no more, all I make is on paper. If you want some let me know and I make you what you wish for in my time, I knowing all the familys in York by names and all the streets w[h]ere the[y] live in, and Fry’s town, Botts town, and two miles round of York the farmers from town.—-
I conclude this few lines by wishing you all kinds of happiness.
n.b.–The town of York at this time is four times larger then in 1800.”
Only six weeks later Miller had hundreds of drawings ready to send to Billmeyer:
“Christiansburg, Montgomery County, Virginia.
May the 8th, 1882.
I write these few lines to you hopeing to find you in good health.
I let you know that I have made for you two hundred of old York citizen that are dead and no more. I made them to pass my time. I remember how the[y] dress themselves and speak. I often dream of them and see them. Now if you want that I send them to you let me know if you write a letter to me, and I will send them. Give my best respect to Samuel Small, and to D.E. Small and John H. Small and Chas. M. Billmeyer. George S. Billmeyer please send an answer soon.
I have no more to communicate. I remain your well wisher in life.
By the end of June, Miller had sent at least one packet of drawings to his great-nephew:
“Christiansburg, Montgomery County, Va.
June 27th, 1882.
My dear friend,
Please and send an answer as soon [as] you receive the[se] few lines, and the pack of the old Yorkers so I know that you received them. I conclude these few lines—my dear friend, by wishing yourself and all the rest that know me more happy days.
Yours until death,
To Mr. George Billmeyer, machinist.
(Billmeyer was one of the owners of the large Billmeyer and Small railroad car works.)
This final poignant letter could have been sent to Billmeyer, or to Lewis’s old friend Samuel Small, who also sent money from time to time and was rewarded with drawings. Declining rapidly, Miller is grateful to be able to still physically take care of himself:
“Christiansburg, Montgomery County, Virginia
August 11, 1882
I write these few lines to you, perhaps it will be the last few lines I am writing to you. My health is failing every day, weakly and want of strength. But the Lord has kept me so I can help myself in doing to dress and keep clean from dirt. Hoping that you are in good health. Give my respects to all friends that know me. Please send to me an answer soon.
I remain yours truly,
I am in need of help.
Lewis Miller died September 15, 1882. He is buried in the Craig family cemetery (also relatives), Christiansburg, Virginia. His legacy lives on in the thousands of drawings he left, an unparalleled visual record of 19th century America.
Several “new” drawings were acquired with the letters. Some of them, such as the one above, are similar to drawings in the recently published Lewis Miller’s People.