Joseph Miller was long numbered among the substantial and valued citizens that Germany furnished to Racine. The consensus of public opinion established his position as one of the foremost citizens here. He early became imbued with the spirit of American enterprise and progress and a laudable ambition prompted his steady progress in business circles. His activities became an important force in Racine’s upbuilding and his record constituted an example well worthy of emulation, showing what could be accomplished through determined and persistent effort intelligently directed.
Mr. Miller was born on the 8th of August, 1832, in Niederzer, Rhenish Prussia, his parents being Reiner and Elizabeth (Gramlich) Miller. He enjoyed the educational opportunities offered by the schools in his native country until he reached the age of fifteen, when he came with his parents to the new world, his father having determined to try his fortune on this side of the Atlantic. Accordingly on the 27th of September, 1847, they bade adieu to home and friends and in the latter part of October landed from the sailing vessel Shakespeare at New York. On the 3d of November they left Buffalo on the steamer Saratoga and on the 11th of the same month reached Milwaukee. They went to Racine, attracted by the fact that some of their friends had previously located here, and throughout their remaining days Mr. and Mrs. Reiner Miller continued their residence in Racine.
Joseph Miller, then a youth of fifteen years, entered upon an apprenticeship with the firm of McDonald & Roby, shoemakers, in the spring of 1848, mastered the trade, was employed for a time as a journeyman and afterward became foreman of the establishment, so continuing until the fall of 1857, when he purchased the business of his former employers. In the purchase of the original stock he not only used all his savings but was obliged to draw upon his credit, which even at that early day was considerable. From the beginning the new enterprise prospered under his management and with the growth of the trade he won a position as the foremost representative of the boot and shoe business in Racine. His business continued to develop along substantial lines until January 5, 1866, when he suffered heavy losses through a disastrous fire that wiped out his possessions within a few hours. He was left with nothing but his knowledge of the business which he had gained from considerable experience both in the manufacturing and distributing lines. He resumed operations on a small scale and in 1870 was joined in a partnership by one of his former clerks, A. G. Peil, that association being maintained until 1872, when Mr. Miller sold his interest in the store to his partner with the purpose of devoting his entire attention to the manufacturing business. He resolved never to sacrifice the quality of his goods and the output of the establishment has ever been kept up to standard. In 1875 he admitted his former foreman, Charles T. Schweitzer, and Rush S. Adams, formerly his bookkeeper, to a partnership under the firm name of J. Miller & Company. The new firm entered upon a period of slow but substantial growth, building up their business upon a well established reputation for superior quality and finish of their goods. By 1875 the annual output of the house was sold for five hundred thousand dollars.
In 1875, hoping to secure better conditions, Mr. Miller and his associates removed the business to Dubuque, Iowa, but Racine capitalists on learning of this agreed that he was too valuable a man to permit another city to enjoy the benefits his business would bring. Accordingly they offered him a building and grounds for his factory at the corner of Fourth Street and Lake Avenue if he would return. He agreed on provision that he should later be permitted to purchase the property. This provision was accepted and several years later Mr. Miller made the purchase. The growth of the business continued and at length it was necessary to secure larger quarters, which were obtained at the corner of Third Street and Lake Avenue. Mr. Miller again suffered heavy losses by fire when in 1882 his plant was again destroyed in the conflagration which swept out much of the business section of Racine. Again his undismayed spirit rose to meet the occasion and from the ruins there rose phoenix like front the ashes a new establishment, erecting a larger and more commodious manufacturing plant, which was conducted under the name of the J. Miller Company. It was in 1882 that the business was incorporated under that name with Joseph Miller as president; C. T. Schweitzer as vice president; Frank J. Miller, treasurer; Henry C. Miller, superintendent; George W. Miller, secretary, and Joseph F. Miller, bookkeeper. The business constantly developed until three hundred and seventy-five operatives were employed in the plant. Mr. Miller was ever the guiding spirit in the undertaking up to the time of his last illness, but he always generously gave to his associates much credit for the prosperity of the undertaking.
A recognition of his ability and resourcefulness on the part of his fellow townsmen led to his co-operation being solicited on behalf of various other important business concerns and, extending his activities to other fields, he became president of the Racine Knitting Company, the Turner Stove Company, the Belle City Railway Company and the Racine Nail & Tack Company. He was also a representative of the directorate of the Chicago Rubber Clothing Company, the Racine Hotel Company and the Cappon Bertsch Leather Company of Holland, Michigan. He was likewise a stockholder in the First Nation Bank, a director of the Manufacturers’ National Bank and also was at one time president of the Racine Business Men’s Association.
On the 26th of October, 1854, in Racine, Mr. Miller was united in marriage to Miss Theresa Bauer, who was born in Germany, December 15, 1831. They became parents of six children, five sons and a daughter, of whom William and Elizabeth are now deceased. The others are Frank J., Henry C., George W. and Joseph F., all connected with the J. Miller Company.
Mr. Miller was always deeply interested in the welfare and progress of Racine and co-operated with many plans and measures for its upbuilding. For a number of terms he was a member of the board of education, also represented the third ward in the city council and in 1888 was the successful mayoralty candidate, giving to the city a businesslike and progressive administration characterized by needed reforms and improvements, and it was during this period that the waterworks system was projected. He was very active as a member of the Business Men’s Association, which was formed for the purpose of advancing the welfare of Racine in every particular. During the last year of his life his health was so impaired that he did not take active part in public affairs or in business but lived in comparative retirement at his home at No. 1100 Main street, Racine. He passed away December 29, 1905, and his demise was the occasion of deep and widespread regret. His efforts had in large measure pushed forward the wheels of progress; his labors were a distinct contribution to the world’s work. He did not seek to figure prominently in any public connection but his ability and his character were such as brought him prominently to the front in the community in which he lived. His example should serve as an inspiration to the young, showing what may be accomplished when laudable ambition and indefatigable effort go hand in hand. The integrity of his business methods was one of the crowning features of his career, for no man uttered a word against his commercial honesty.