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Elmer Miller

Feb. 25, 1914

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Elmer Miller began making bits and spurs on his parents' cattle ranch in Nevada's Paradise Valley. For more than  thirty years, Miller operated his own shop in Nampa, Idaho, and was renowned among cowboys as a silversmith and blacksmith. Photograph by Ray Pickthorn, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Work rack in Elmer Miller's shop, Nampa, Idaho, Cc
Elmer Miller at work, Nampa, Idaho, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Pistol with inlaid plate by Elmer Miller, courtesy  National Endowment for the Arts
Inlaid pistol plate (detail) by Elmer Miller, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Elmer Miller at work, Nampa, Idaho, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Work rack in Elmer Miller's shop, Nampa, Idaho, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Elmer Miller at work, Nampa, Idaho, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bit (top view) by Elmer Miller, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Set of spurs by Elmer Miller, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Set of spurs by Elmer Miller, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Set of spurs by Elmer Miller, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Elmer Miller was reared on a cattle ranch in Nevada's Paradise Valley. He first learned about horses and those who rode them through direct observation. After learning basic blacksmithing skills, he began making bits and spurs, essential cowboy equipment. While learning the trade, he moved to San Francisco and associated himself with an older and highly skilled Mexican bit maker, Filo Gutiérrez. By 1950, Miller was back in Paradise Valley, ranching and silversmithing.

In 1963, Miller set up shop in Nampa, Idaho. His shop became a famous source of the highest-quality spurs and bits, belt buckle sets, bolo ties and other functional and decorative items associated with cowboying. He became known worldwide. In the mid-1980s, his concern for tradition led Miller to establish a school to teach his arts. It attracted students from as far away as Australia. He died before the 1993 National Heritage Fellowship could be awarded.

Miller's spurs were featured in at least two major catalogs and exhibitions, "We Came to Where We Were Supposed To Be: Folk Art of Idaho" and "Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada," at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. He was an invited artist at the Coconino Center for the Arts festival and exhibit "Trappings of the American West," in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 1985, a pair of his spurs was featured in the Idaho Commission on the Arts exhibit that toured Idaho and Morocco. In 1989, he was inducted into the Buckaroo Hall of Fame in Winnemucca, Nevada.

Miller said of his work: "The selection of the metals that go into the bit — iron for the mouthpiece, steel for the cheeks and pure copper and brass for the rollers and braces — needs to be properly understood to provide a bit that will keep the mouth moist and tender. From the formation of the mouthpiece iron to the engraving of the silver, inlaid in the blued-steel cheeks, my designs go back to the early California bit makers — designs that have been tested by 150 years of use on the finest bridle horses in the world."

Bibliography
Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada. Exhibition catalogue. (Washington, D.C.: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1980.) Oki, Dr. Steve. "Local Western Craftsman." Idaho Press Tribune, February 1987. Siporin, Steve. "Elmer Miller: Buckaroo Bit & Spurmaker." Western Horseman, July 1987, Page 20. "We Came to Where We Were Supposed to Be": Folk Art of Idaho. Exhibition catalogue. (Boise: Idaho Commission on the Arts and the United States Information Agency.) Weiser, Jim. "Elmer Miller's Bits and Tasty Pieces." Horsetimes, April 1983.

Watch

Interview with Elmer Miller's widow, Mildred Miller, at the 1993 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts