Newell Mills Oral History
Oral History Item Type Metadata
CHURCHILL COUNTY MUSEUM & ARCHIVES
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
an interview with
July 2, 1993
This interview was conducted by Nancy Tracey; transcribed by Glenda Price; edited by Norma Morgan; proofed by Norine Arciniega; final by Glenda Price; index by Gracie Viera; supervised by Myrl Nygren, Director of Oral History Project/Assistant Curator Churchill County Museum.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewer and interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Churchill County Museum or any of its employees.
The Mills family arrived in Fallon in 1908, where they came to get away from the cold winters of Minnesota. They heard of the Lahontan Dam and the irrigation project. They came to farm the land where Mr. Mills now resides. This interview took place in Mr. Mills' living room on Sheckler Road. The home is part of the Mills Farm on eighty acres in Fallon. Mr. Mills is a proud, gregarious man, very easy to talk with. His knowledge of the dairy business and early farming in the area was very impressive.
Interview with Newell Mills
TRACEY: This is Nancy Tracey, interviewer for the Churchill County Museum Oral History Project interviewing Newell Mills at his home at 4675 Sheckler Road in Fallon, Nevada, on July 2, 1993. Would you please tell us your full name, where you were born, and the date you were born.
MILLS: I'm Newell James Mills. I was born in the house that's on the farm I live on, and I was born March 30, 1929.
TRACEY: And where is the farm you live on, Mr. Mills?
MILLS: My address is 4675 Sheckler Road. This is on Sheckler Road four miles west of Highway 95 south of Fallon, Nevada.
TRACEY: How did your family come to Fallon?
MILLS: My grandfather homesteaded in Fallon in 1908. At that time my father was thirteen years old, and when he reached the age of twenty one so he legally could, he, also, homesteaded. The farm I now own is the farm that my father homesteaded in 1916.
TRACEY: And what was your grandfather's name?
MILLS: John Sandborn Mills.
TRACEY: And your father's name?
MILLS: Percy E. Mills.
TRACEY: So, they moved to this area, I read, in 1908 when they read about the Lahontan Irrigation Project starting. What area of farming brought them to Fallon?
MILLS: Well, my great uncle, my grandmother's brother, was Vernon Bailey who was the chief field naturalist of the U.S Biological Survey, and he traveled all over the United States, and my grandfather and his wife and children were living in Minnesota at the time. They had been running a saw mill and the saw mill had burned down, and Vernon had visited Fallon in his duties with the government and had written his sister telling her that this he thought was an opportunity to move to a climate that wouldn't have such long, cold winters, and it would be an opportunity for them to homestead. By the way, when they came here, they loaded all their belongings on a railroad car on the railroad in Minnesota, including whatever livestock they had--at least one cow and several horses--and all of their furniture and brought food to eat on the way. The only thing they acquired on the way as they came out on the railroad car was water.
TRACEY: Oh, my goodness!
MILLS: They even brought hay for the cattle and horses, and everything was loaded in the one railroad car.
TRACEY: What area of Minnesota did they move from?
MILLS: My father was born in Elk River, Minnesota, which is around forty miles north of Minneapolis or Twin Cities.
TRACEY: And what was your grandmother's name?
MILLS: Anna Bailey Mills.
TRACEY: Then, when they were coming to homestead in Fallon, what was the line of farming that they had in mind to start?
MILLS: I'm not sure I know except that in contrast today farming is a specialized business with nearly every farm focusing on one income-producing project. Farming ninety years ago was far more a, I'd guess I'd say, a way of life, a largely subsistence thing where nearly every farm had a few cows and chickens and pigs and grew a little bit of hay and so forth and had a minimal amount of marketing that they did in order to have enough money to be able to purchase whatever they had to purchase.
TRACEY: When did the Mills family zero in on the dairy farming?
MILLS: That was my project, primarily. My father had a few cows, mostly because he felt that young people should have chores to do, and Dad really was not all that interested in the cows. He primarily worked with heavy machinery doing land leveling as his career.
TRACEY: Ah-h-h-h. So, he leveled the land all around Fallon?
MILLS: Yes, he did custom land leveling anywhere in this area.
TRACEY: And that was before machine land leveling. How did that operate?
MILLS: Well, prior to around the time I was born he and my uncle, Claude, each ran eight-horse and sixteen-horse teams doing land leveling, but in the 1930's when I was young boy, Dad purchased a John Deere D tractor that he did land leveling with, and then later on he had a D-7 Cat that he operated doing land leveling.
TRACEY: And people coming in to want to farm would hire him to level their land?
MILLS: Of course, he did whatever job somebody contracted with him to do. Essentially, it was people that had existing farms. The time this project was first started almost all the land leveling had to be done with horses and sometimes either a tailboard scraper or a Fresno scraper, neither of which are very efficient for moving dirt any big distance and so the land was leveled close to the level it was at in rather small checks compared to today's standards.
TRACEY: I see.
MILLS: Today this large machinery and laser scrapers that people, well, for instance this eighty-acre farm that I'm living on has ten checks or borders for sixty acres. That means an average check size of six acres. Probably most of the farms seventy or eighty years ago the average check size was half an acre to an acre.
TRACEY: Oh, my. Oh! is that right?
MILLS: Because they just literally took the level of ground the way it was and put a border around the edge of it. If there was a high spot and they had to try to cut it a little bit, they moved it a very short distance.
TRACEY: I see. So, do you remember as a young boy and remembering your father talking about the irrigating of the land when he was first starting?
MILLS: Well, I don't know that I remember so much his talking about it, but I did the irrigation myself from the time I was about eight years old on, probably.
TRACEY: On his property?
MILLS: On his property. Sometimes I just worked for other people around doing some irrigating on their property.
TRACEY: And how do you remember that working as a young boy?
MILLS: Well, even when I was relatively young, I liked to work on jobs, and when you work on a job, you work whatever job somebody assigns you to do whether that's irrigating or building fence or whatever. The main secret of irrigating is work with the water. Don't fight it, and water doesn't run uphill very well, and sure does like to go downhill.
TRACEY: (laughing) Today we've got nice metal gates at the end of some irrigation ditches, and it's easy to channel the water in the direction they'd like it to go. Was it always this organized?
MILLS: No, we had smaller checks and we had smaller wooden boxes that we used, although they were under the same principal as the yellow jacket gates available today. They leaked a lot more. There was far less efficient use of water. There's a lot more water leakage, but the recording of the volumes of water delivered to farms was way more lenient and we probably used twice as much water to farm as we do today.
TRACEY: Really! And now it's just that stringent restrictions…
MILLS: It's ironical the laser leveling has let us all be more efficient use of the water, so the government's trying to steal it back from us with the improvements that we paid for.
TRACEY: That's right. It's got to be difficult for you to have lived to this life in this same acreage and to see it improve and yet to see your gem, the water, be so restricted.
MILLS: Well, of course, all the innovations in agriculture, not just water usage, the real beneficiary of these is the consumer. The United States government policy always has been one of trying to assure an adequate supply of food for all the population in the United States. I don't think hardly any of us can ever recall a food shortage, per se, in the United States. Possibly a time when there was a shortage of oranges because of a freeze or coffee because of a freeze in Brazil or something like this, but those are only one or two items at a time. We have never seen a food shortage and I don't know what it would be like to go hungry. I've never been without food in my lifetime.
TRACEY: Um hum. Right. Thank God. Explain to me how the family is situated on this acreage at this point in time.
MILLS: Well, my wife and I own eighty acres, and our house is at one corner of this eighty-acre parcel with the milk corrals and milk barn adjacent to the house.
TRACEY: And who else lives on your eighty acres'?
MILLS: Well, we have two rental houses on the eighty acres, and we have a trailer that a man that feeds calves lives on and the mobile that my wife's parents set up and moved to, three years ago.
TRACEY: How many cows are on your dairy?
MILLS: I have approximately three hundred cows, plus around 250 heifers growing up so that makes 550 head of cattle mostly.
TRACEY: And they produce how much milk?
MILLS: Approximately, seventeen thousand pounds milk per cow.
TRACEY: And the difference between a cow and a heifer is?
MILLS: When a heifer has her first calf, she's a cow, and that's when she starts producing milk. That's at approximately two years old.
TRACEY: I see. Then, after, the dairy process goes on, who do you sell your milk to?
MILLS: All of the milk produced in western Nevada is marketed through California Cooperative Creamery which is a very large co-op headquartered in California. Cal Co-op supplies all the milk plants in western Nevada with whatever their fluid needs are. There's no milk manufactured into cheese or powder or butter in western Nevada, but whatever milk is not needed for fluid uses in Nevada is taken to California and Cal Co-op markets whatever way they can most advantageously market it. They do produce butter and powder and cheese in California.
TRACEY: I see. So, they come out with a big truck and take it off.
MILLS: Every two days a milk tanker pulls up in front of my barn and right now it's loading approximately 3400 gallons which is. just over a half a tanker load, and the milk is taken, as I said, every other night. Somewhere around ten o'clock at night.
TRACEY: I have read that there used to be many dairies in the Fallon area, and now it has been reduced.
MILLS: Well, again, when I was very young, nearly every farm had a full-time farmer and had a few milk cows. A large herd at that time would have been one that was seventy or eighty cows and they would have had two or three people trying to milk them by hand which is the way we milked when I was a child. All of agriculture in the United States has migrated towards specialization where an individual farm produces essentially one commodity a market, and because of innovative machinery and systems and management and so forth it's more profitable, if you're in the dairy business, to not worry about having any other source of income. Just do an excellent job of that, and so all of agriculture's moved this way. If you went to where there's a pig farm they probably just produced pigs, and when I was growing up nearly every farm had some chickens and every farm had some turkeys. Today any place you saw that grows chickens may grow thousands of them and all the rest of the farms have none or almost none. A few of them have a few hens that produce eggs for their own use, but almost nobody markets eggs unless they have thousands of chickens, and this is the reason why this is a change that's come over agriculture and whether you like it or don't like it, it's immaterial. It's what has become necessary to making that income.
TRACEY: So, you just find your area of expertise and just really make it your focus.
MILLS: Well, I decided when I was about ten years old that I was going to breed the best herd of Jersey cows in the world, and people today think that's so strange that anybody would decide what they wanted to do with their life when they were that young, but I did. Today it seems to be the norm for people to be going to college and still not know what they want to do. And I've never regretted it. I think there's too many square pegs and round holes in the world and I don't think we need more of them. I think we need to have more people that both do what they like to do and learn to like to do what they do so that they're not quarreling with the world.
TRACEY: And you started out with one cow, or your dad had three cows for you to . . .
MILLS: Well, when I started with Jerseys, first I started milking cows when I was about seven years old where I was assigned milk, probably, at first, one cow and later on as many as three or four cows, as were my brothers, because I grew up in a family with five boys, and all of us milked, and my two oldest brothers left the farm and became college professors, but the three younger ones of us have all become farmers.
TRACEY: And are you all working here together on this farm?
MILLS: Well, no. No, we all have individual farms within the valley here of the three of us that are farming. The two older brothers moved away. My oldest brother was a college professor for forty-five years in Florida until he died, and my next oldest brother was a college professor in Galveston, Texas, for approximately forty years until he retired. He still lives there.
TRACEY: So those left and the others of you stayed.
TRACEY: You mentioned that your son lives on the property, also, and has a business. What is his business?
MILLS: Well, he lives a mile away, but his business is related to this farm, and his business is Mills Farm and Industrial Business. I, also, have two other sons that live in the community.
TRACEY: How many children do you have?
MILLS: We have three sons.
TRACEY: And their names are?
MILLS: Well, Grant is the oldest, and he's the one that heads Mills Farm and Industrial. Ralph is a member of Widmer and Associates CPA firm, and he and David Widmer are joint owners of the Depot Restaurant Casino. Our youngest son, Bruce, is a metallurgical engineer at Kennametal here in Fallon.
TRACEY: Oh! So they're all close.
MILLS: They're all close. They're all very successful in what they're doing and I hope are happy in life.
TRACEY: Did you put them to work on the farm early as you were put to work early?
MILLS: Well, we didn't do hand milking. By the time they came along everything was milked by machines. I think Ralph was the only one that ever really learned to milk of the three of them, and he did for a while because he chose to, but, primarily, early when the herd was small I did the milking but for the last twenty or twenty-five years the herd has been large enough that I haven't done very much milking. I primarily managed and done bookkeeping and buying and selling and so forth. I'm very active in the operation but I don't physically do the milking myself anymore.
TRACEY: How old were you when it changed from hand milking to machine milking?
MILLS: When I started out with my own cows which was approximately 1947, we had some milking machines but nowhere near as well designed or as labor efficient or anything as some of the equipment we have today. Today we have equipment, for instance, that the milker puts the machines on each cow as they come through the barn. The machine comes off automatically. The milk is automatically recorded in volume and enters the computing system. If I chose I could sit in the house and tell two minutes after a cow's milked exactly what she produces in that milk, and the computer actually tabulates all the totals on what each cow does. We run samples once a month that are sent to a laboratory in California that record butterfat tests, protein tests, sematic cell tests on every cow's milk and all of this is stored in permanent records on each cow.
TRACEY: When it's time for you to acquire new head, where do you get them?
MILLS: We raise our own replacement. We breed to the best bulls we can locate or get semen on. You can semen on anything in the world, literally, and keep the heifers that are replacements for the future herd. The 250 heifers we have on hand are our future herd replacements. I sell an average of around sixty cows a year to other herds for dairy purposes because the production of my cows is far above that of most all other herds.
TRACEY: So, do people come to you directly and say they need to buy it, or do you sell them at the auction?
MILLS: Well, when I'm selling for dairy purposes I'm selling directly to the consumer, to the other herd that's buying cattle. One of the thrills when we visited New Zealand a year and a half ago was to see daughters of one of the bulls I had bred in New Zealand and have people recognize my name from the fact that they were using a bull that was bred in my herd.
TRACEY: That's amazing. That's wonderful. Must give you a real feeling of accomplishment to have started young with a goal and to see that through and to go that far to see it through.
MILLS: I don't know if I've seen it through. I plan to keep doing this for a number of years yet.
TRACEY: But to see your goal through. You're doing what you wanted to do and what your love is.
MILLS: Well, I'm a believer of realistic goals, and as you go through life you keep establishing new goals out in front of you.
TRACEY: Yes, I am also a believer in realistic goals, and I also am a believer in do what you love to do and you'll do it well. If we ever taught our kids anything, that would be the thing, I think. Going back to your dad and when you were young and remembering what went on on the farm, what is your favorite memory?
MILLS: I grew up during the Depression, and this sounds funny, but today hardly anyone realizes how close a family can be who survived when there was a very severe shortage of money and we canned fruits. When tomatoes were ready everybody in the whole family pitched in to cook the tomatoes and can them in jars to preserve foods for winter food consumption. There was both a lack of money to buy them in the off season and maybe there was a lack of things to be able to buy even if you had money, I don't know. But we canned all kinds of fruits and vegetables and stored them to have winter food, and we grew vegetables for food in the summer in addition to having milk and meat that we grew the animals for and farmed ourselves.
TRACEY: Where did you go to school as a youngster in Fallon?
MILLS: Well, I started first grade at the Cottage Schools on Stillwater Avenue which at that time were two-story brick buildings and had earlier been the first high school in Churchill County.
TRACEY: Oh, Near Maine Street?
MILLS: Well, this was right opposite where the Methodist Church is today on Stillwater Avenue and at that time they were used for the elementary grades. That's where I started school. Then about the third grade, I believe, I attended West End Schools which were right where the West End is now, except, again, at that time, those were two-story brick buildings that were at West End. They were later torn down. From the fifth through the eighth grade I attended Oats Park School which is still there, of course, but is not currently used as a school. It's ironic to me that it was condemned because it supposedly wasn't safe for an earthquake and that must have been twenty or thirty years ago and the buildings are still there and the earthquakes haven't done much to them yet.
TRACEY: (laughing) Those earthquakes sure made a lot of people scared.
MILLS: However, with the changes that have been made to acquire accessibility to handicapped people, Oats Park would be terribly difficult to ever make it accessible to handicapped people.
TRACEY: Sure. Being that old.
MILLS: Well, it has steps everywhere.
TRACEY: Sure. How did you get to and from school?
MILLS: Fallon has a school bus system that, when I was growing up, had all student drivers, and they had marvelous safety records in spite of having student drivers. The man that was in charge of the bus system was very particular on who he hired as a driver. My oldest brother had the job when he was still going to high school of being the assistant bus driver, and he drove some of the time when the regular drivers weren't available to earn money to help put himself through college. By the time I was that age, I think, they had gone to entirely adult drivers. But, ironically, the student drivers they had early on had a wonderful safety record here, but it was partially because of the man that was in charge of the system being very particular exactly who he hired as drivers and being very hard nosed about any of them doing anything out of what was considered safe.
TRACEY: Your parents were also educated in Fallon?
MILLS: Well, my father was one of the first graduates of Churchill County High School. He would have graduated somewhere around 1912 or 1913 which would have made him one of the first graduates of Churchill County High School. Again, the school that was in existence then that he attended high school at was on Stillwater Avenue about three or four blocks east of Maine Street. Now, when I was telling about schools I'd attended, I attended at what is now the junior high school on South Maine Street.
TRACEY: Okay. So that was then the high school.
MILLS: That was then the high school.
TRACEY: Hum. It's a beautiful old building. [End of side A] Did your mother go to high school?
MILLS: My mother moved to Fallon approximately 1918. She had grown up as the daughter of a Baptist minister that primarily served churches in the Midwest. She was born in Iowa, and she had gone to college at Grand Island, Nebraska and then had become a school teacher in Colorado. Her older brother had asthma all the time he was growing, and finally her parents had moved to the Nevada area, actually between Susanville [California] and Reno where he served a church and Harry's asthma finally improved. By the time my mother came out here her parents lived in Fallon on a small farm and he was no longer a minister, and she came out to visit the rest of the family and met my father and stayed and married although she still took a job teaching in Fallon the first year before she married, but at that time they thought that any married women should stay home and take care of their husbands, so if a woman got married she could no longer teach.
TRACEY: Is that right!
MILLS: A lot of people don't realize that. That was in existence for many years after that. Probably 'til almost World War II.
TRACEY: My goodness!
MILLS: That women were only allowed to be school teachers if they were single.
TRACEY: I had no idea.
MILLS: Of course, can you imagine how well this helped settle the West because far more men came West than women and so ladies took jobs as school teachers. Many of them come West to take the jobs as school teachers, and many of them within a year or two would be married off and they'd have to hire some more women for school teachers, and that's what helped bring the women West.
MILLS: West would never have been settled as fast if it hadn't been for that.
TRACEY: Getting back to your mother. You said they were from Iowa. Where was she born?
MILLS: She was born in Independence, Iowa. They were only in Iowa, I think he served churches. Her father was originally from Connecticut and he had served churches and various places including Iowa which is where she and her younger brother were born, but I think her older sister and older brother were born elsewhere, but I don't know where.
TRACEY: Do you remember the year she was born?
TRACEY: And then she was her husband's helpmate and probably worked right side by side with your dad on the farm with all the different cows and chickens.
MILLS: Well, she took care of the chickens. That was one of her projects. Dad was the one that did all the work with the horses, and before there was any children old enough to milk cows, I don't know whether they both milked or whether he did or she did or what. Maybe they didn't have many cows then. I don't know.
MILLS: She did a lot of canning and, of course, she did all the washing and cooking and so forth in keeping the house. Had six children, so . . .
TRACEY: Is there anything you feel we need to cover that we might not have covered about your early days in Fallon and your early recollections of the Mills' family farm in the early days?
MILLS: Well, I think I'll touch a little bit on haying system. Alfalfa was the primary crop grown along with some grains, and when hay was harvested with only horses as the source of power, it would take too long for an individual farmer to just do all the harvesting on all of his own hay between irrigations, and so the farmers in this area worked jointly. They would set up a haying crew and they'd all focus on one farm's haying and cut it and shock the hay and then work as a crew and put up all the hay on one farm in maybe one day and then they'd go on and do the next farm, and, essentially, none of them had enough money, I guess, to pay any help even if they could have gotten much help, so primarily they all worked on doing everybody's own haying.
TRACEY: That's wonderful. Do you recall how many cuttings they got out of a crop of hay in those days?
MILLS: Well, nearly always, while I was growing up the farms focused on cutting hay three times a year. The concept of getting high-quality hay that we try to do today wasn't even known or considered, I guess, at that time.
TRACEY: And so, on some of these old farms around Fallon are there still some of the old hay cutting equipment and some of the old leveling equipment that you've talked about?
MILLS: Well, up to maybe two years ago I know there was a haystack that was stacked with a derrick out on Old River Road, but I don't think it's there. There is still a couple of the old hay derricks that were rather unique to Fallon. There was derricks elsewhere but the exact way these were constructed was, I believe, a man named [George S.] Spreyer constructed them. I've been told he was the first one to construct them here in exactly the way they were done here. I've never seen derricks built exactly this way elsewhere.
TRACEY: And when you say a derrick, what do you mean by a derrick?
MILLS: Well, a derrick had a mast straight up in the air, maybe thirty-five or forty feet with cables from it and a boom, and it was used as a means to lift hay straight up in the air so that it could be put on the top of a stack of long hay, and these stacks were sometimes as high as thirty feet high.
TRACEY: My goodness! And how is it stacked today?
MILLS: Well, most of the hay harvested today is harvested as dry hay in bales. I do not harvest any that way, however. Ours is all chopped and put up as silage and stored either in plastic bags or in a bunker silo.
TRACEY: And so there is a machine that you attach the plastic bag to and the hay is picked up as you go down the rows and that goes into the plastic bag?
MILLS: No, the hay is chopped in the dump boxes in the field which are dumped then into dump truck and the dump truck comes in and the hay is bagged. One of those plastic bags we have holds about five hundred tons of hay.
TRACEY: My goodness!
MILLS: So you're not going to move those anywhere.
TRACEY: And then that goes into the silo?
MILLS: No, if they're put in plastic bags, they're just stored in plastic bags. I'll show you afterwards what they look like.
TRACEY: Okay. My goodness! So, you have just seen so many changes in this business of dairying and farming in your years here in Fallon.
MILLS: Oh, yes. You asked earlier if there was as many dairies. There's less total numbers of dairies all the time but far more milk production here today than there ever was in the history of the area.
TRACEY: Is that right!
MILLS: There's fewer dairies doing it, but the individual dairies are so much larger than the dairies once were, and, of course, when I was growing up we didn't sell whole milk. We had a separator on the farm and separated the cream and the skim milk, and the skim milk was all fed to either calves or pigs, and the cream we marketed in cans that were picked up twice a week and went to a creamery located on North Maine Street in Fallon and were made into butter. But, since probably 1950, virtually all the milk produced in the area is marketed as whole milk.
TRACEY: So, as well as the dairy production that you have here, you do do your own hay also?
MILLS: Well, Grant and his Mills Farm Industrial Business does all of the machinery work, and he does a lot of custom hay harvesting, both for me and for other people, and most of the hay I feed I actually buy from neighbors that grow alfalfa, and I buy it standing, Grant harvests it and stores it. Then it's stored here for the feeding of our own cattle. Eighty acres doesn't anywhere near produce the amount of feed that we feed our cows.
TRACEY: About how many cows can you feed per acre?
MILLS: Well, I'll answer that in a different way. The feed cost of my operation here exceeds a thousand dollars a day.
TRACEY: My goodness!
MILLS: Wouldn't you like to pay my bills?
TRACEY: No, you can have your bills. Because you love what you're doing, you can have your bills. (laughing) In thinking about the way farming has changed and being a dairyman has changed through the years what do you feel is the best change that's come along to help you be able to produce that much milk and be able to pay the bills?
MILLS: Well, I'm not sure what's meant by "best." As innovations become available to agriculture, people must either adopt those innovations to become more efficient or after awhile they're left out in the cold and they find what you call a negative profit which is a loss, and, as any business, you must have profits to stay in business, and so you have no choice. In fact, you try to take advantage of new innovations faster than other people so that you can make greater profit than them and so you have no choice but to try to do things as well as you can with the technology that's available as you do it.
TRACEY: Do you dairy farmers here in the Valley have a group that you all attend? Do you all communicate and keep up with each other?
MILLS: Well, we all market through the same marketing organization. We all, or, most all the farmers are members of Churchill Dairy Improvement Association which hires the milk test supervisors that enable us to have the kind of record keeping system we have on the cows, and so we have two different cooperatives that most all the dairymen belong to and participate in.
MILLS: And these, of course, are run by the dairymen themselves.
TRACEY: Sure. Well, I'd like to thank you on behalf of the Churchill County Museum Oral History Project for allowing me to interview you today. This is the end of our interview. Thank you very much.