Saturday, 2:15 PM
Obituary: Dwight Miller, Vt. farmer who cultivated family's legacy
By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff
Stepping out of his red pickup truck, Dwight Miller gestured toward a Macintosh apple tree that over the past century had grown into an exuberant tangle of branches just south of his white farmhouse in Dummerston, Vt.
"You want to get a picture of this tree right here," he instructed the person shooting a video that is posted on YouTube. "Well, that's the oldest living Macintosh tree. My grandfather grafted that. A sapling came up, just a wild apple sapling, and my grandfather grafted it to a Macintosh tree."
Agriculture and tradition were Mr. Miller's touchstones, as was the passing of orchards and land from father to son. He was the fifth generation of his family to live on his spread in Dummerston, and part of the seventh generation of Millers to farm in Southeastern Vermont.
Bountiful harvests earned him the moniker "peach king," and his enthusiasm helped launch the annual Strolling of the Heifers parade in nearby Brattleboro. At 84, Mr. Miller was still doing chores on his farm when his empty pickup truck started rolling from where it was parked on Saturday, striking and killing him as he cleared weeds.
"He was very much involved in history and having a sense of, 'I am responsible for the caretaking of this heritage,' " Read Miller, who runs Dwight Miller and Son Orchards, said of his father. "Even though his grandchildren are on the farm now, he felt a very strong sense of carrying on the Miller family farm."
More than simply cultivating the orchards to keep his family's legacy alive long after he was gone, Mr. Miller was an evangelist for Vermont's farming tradition and was inducted into the state's Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2004. If a group had something to do with farming, he signed up, serving on dozens of local, state, and national organizations through the years.
"He didn't just farm here, he was also known as a meeting man," Sue Miller of Brattleboro said of her father. "And he wasn't just a member of these organizations. He was a vice president or a president or a member of the board of directors."
Among his most recent forays was the organizing committee for the Strolling of the Heifers Parade & Festival, held annually a few miles east of his farm. At the beginning of June, more than 100 heifers saunter down Main Street in Brattleboro, a spectacle that draws tens of thousands of spectators who then visit exhibits designed to raise awareness about family farms.
The Strolling of the Heifers, which founder Orly Munzing of Dummerston called "the female version, the respectful version of the running of the bulls" in Pamplona, Spain, grew out of conversations she had with her neighbor several years ago, when she ran into Mr. Miller while walking on trails through his land.
"It was one of those beautiful fall days and I was thanking him for providing such wonderful vistas and for his orchards, which give us some of the most beautiful walks on this earth," she recalled. "He said, 'Well, you see this beautiful vista? Take a good look because each day we're losing one of these farms.' "
In a subsequent conversation, she stopped him as he was drove by in his pickup and said, "I've got a great idea. We'll march a bunch of heifers down Main Street and we'll let everyone know the reason for this is to teach people about farms." Mr. Miller pitched the idea to a Brattleboro civic group the next day and by the following June, cows were ambling past shops in downtown Brattleboro.
The youngest of four children and the only boy, Dwight Reed Miller Jr. was already a farmer when he headed off to Massachusetts Agricultural College, now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Because his father needed assistance, he was sent back home to help produce food during World War II. Soon after, he began running the family orchards, and that probably was for the best.
"He has said that he had an awfully hard time sitting still in school," his son said. "He needed to be out on the farm and able to all those things -- he was a busy person and had keep moving. His life basically fit perfectly with his personality, because he always had to be on the go, and he was. He would leave the sheep barn to go to 4-H, or he would leave the orchard to go to meetings."
In 1953, Mr. Miller married Gladys Braley of Putney, Vt., and she became accustomed -- as much as possible, anyway -- to one of her husband's peculiarities.
"He had a lovely singing voice and he wasn't afraid to use it in public places that embarrassed his wife tremendously," his daughter said with a chuckle. "He startled more little kids with that booming voice than you can shake a stick at. He sang in the orchards, he sang in the berry fields, he sang in his truck."
Drawing material from church hymns to classical music to opera to the Beatles, Mr. Miller would serenade many people he encountered.
"He literally did sing to waitresses and bank tellers," his son said. "People I've met once would say to me, 'Oh yeah, I know your father. He used to sing to me.' "
The 400 acres Mr. Miller farmed now produces about 70 varieties of apples, 20 kinds of peaches, and a dozen strains of pears. Though he never hesitated to leave the farm, from the routes he drove as a boy selling produce with his father to the endless meetings he attended as an adult, "he wasn't selling himself," his son said.
"He was supporting the heritage of the Miller family and Vermont agriculture," Read Miller said. "And he did it from apples to peaches to maple syrup. He felt love for all of those and a very important sense of history."
In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. Miller leaves two other daughters, Catherine of Dummerston and Jennifer Palmer of Kapolei, Hawaii; three sisters, Eleanor Sherberg of Brattleboro, Shirley Mackiewicz of Albany, N.Y., and Ruth Story of Ithaca, N.Y.; four granddaughters; and a grandson.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in Dummerston Center Congregational Church. Burial will be in Dummerston Center Cemetery.
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