George Miles had a big impact on Miles City

By: 
AMORETTE ALLISON
History Columnist

The Presbyterian Church recently celebrated 100 years of organ music with a celebration of the organ that was donated by George Miles.

Although Miles City is named after General Miles, it was his nephew, George, who had the greatest impact on the community.

George was born in 1854 in Westminster, Mass. In the spring of 1976, he graduated from Massachusetts Agricultural College. That summer, he signed up to join his uncle on an adventure out west.

George served as a member of the quartermasters corps while working for his uncle. He kept a diary describing his trip, listing all the railroads it took to get from his home to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. 

He probably didn’t realize at the time he wrote the diary it would become a historical document on file with the state historical society or he might not have mentioned important items like the prices of cucumbers or how many undershirts he brought with him.

The Tongue River Cantonment was his initial home in what was to become Miles City.

Whether he meant to remain in Miles City forever isn’t clear in that early diary but he soon a found a place for his ambitions. He became U. S. Commissioner at the Cantonment, serving as the only judge for hundreds of miles. He had his office seal made at the blacksmith shop at Fort Keogh since it would take months for him to get one from back east.

A year later, he was appointed Justice of the Peace for new Miles City, built a log cabin in “new” Miles City to live in and started into business.

His first venture was in sheep ranching. He fell into that by accident. He and some other men were watching what they thought was a herd of antelope crossing the river when they realized it was a shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd was headed for the Black Hills but General Miles made him stop at Miles City. General Miles didn’t want the local indigenous population enjoying mutton all winter.

George and Captain Frank Baldwin, another interesting character in local history, purchased the sheep. They bought 1,007 sheep for $2,000 in gold. 

In 1877, George and Capt. Baldwin sent the first ever clip of wool out of Miles City for sale back east. He also raised horses. Cattle wouldn’t come to eastern Montana until the buffalo were gone.

George shared his log cabin with his best friend, Charlie Strevell. They opened a hardware store in Miles City, Miles & Strevell, in 1880. The business, later Miles & Ulmer, would survive in Miles City for over 100 years.

On December 22, 1880, George Miles married his friend Charlie’s sister, Helen. This would turn out to be lucky for the Presbyterian Church decades later.

Prior to his marriage, George, like his Uncle Nelson, was a Baptist. When George married Helen, he switched his allegiance to her church, the Presbyterians. 

From there, George went on to become one of the founders and first vice presidents of the First National Bank. 

By 1883, the buffalo were mostly gone and cattle could now roam the open range. George went into partnership with Charlie’s father, Judge Jason Strevell, and C. C. Howes to form the Circle Bar ranch on Otter Creek.

His life wasn’t one continuous upward trajectory. He and Helen had a son named Jason Daniel, called Jay D. In July of 1887, Helen died. She was temporarily buried in Miles City but later was moved to the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Ill. in the large Strevell family plot there.

George did not remarry for ten years. In 1897, he married Laura Ritner. They had three daughters, Ruth, Helen, and Mary. George was distressed when one of his daughters was seriously ill. He prayed for her recovery and when she got well, George decided to donate the pipe organ at the Presbyterian Church in gratitude for God’s mercy.

Before that, however, George built a beautiful house for his new family, The house was located across the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks and was reached by a bridge over the south side slough.

A Queen Anne Victorian, the house is a classic representative of its style, with an irregular roof line, wide, inviting porch and ornate woodwork in the gables. Above the stairs that lead to the front porch, an unusual tree of life style word carving decorates the gable. Located at 28 South Lake Street, the house is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

George did have his little quirks. After his new home was finished, he ordered the builder to burn the plans so no one could ask for a house just like George’s.

According to “A History of Montana, Volume 2” by Helen Fitzgerald Sanders published in 1913: “At a recent brilliant affair held at the Miles home to commemorate the first settlement of the city thirty-six years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Miles entertained 300 guests.” It was a “delightful reception” held at “their pretty home.”

Unlike his uncle, who disliked the community named after him and avoided visiting it or even mentioning Miles City, George was a huge supporter of his new town. 

There is a well-known story of a run on the First National Bank. While a number of citizens were pulling money out of the bank, Mrs. Maples, another early settler and good Presbyterian, was putting money into the bank. 

When asked why, she said George Miles had told her the bank was sound and his word was good enough for her.

George mortgaged everything he owned, house, ranch, hardware business, to make good that promise. The run on the bank was stopped by Mrs. Maple’s faith. It took George years to pay back the mortgages but his bank never failed, ever. 

After he died, he and his second wife were both buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. He left no descendants in Miles City but he left his mark on this town that will never be erased.

(Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)

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