Monday, May 18, 2015

Akron History: Lewis Miller

The following essay first appeared in the May 12th/issue #5 of The Devil Strip--our new, twice monthly, arts & culture newspaper in Akron.  The theme of that issue was Big Ideas in Akron--and Lewis Miller was certainly a man with big ideas.  Issue #5 is still available--go out and pick up a copy or read it on-line.  As many of you know, I love researching and writing about Akron history.  I'll be writing a regular column about Akron history for The Devil Strip in upcoming issues.  If you have any suggestions or requests for particular topics, let me know. 

from Lewis Miller: A Biographical Essay.

Lewis Miller: Akron’s connection to Elvis and Edison
by Joanna Wilson

In Akron’s rich history, inventor and industrialist Lewis Miller (1829-1899) was certainly a man with big ideas.  Miller made his fortune from designing more efficient, safer mowing and harvesting machinery which he then maximized by supervising the manufacture of his farm equipment.  Moving from Stark County to Akron during the Civil War, Miller expanded his manufacturing empire here and continued to grow richer from his Buckeye Harvesting Machines.

Once he became wealthy, the farm equipment magnate didn’t get lazy. Instead, Miller took the opportunity to nurture something very dear to his heart: education.  He is still highly regarded for his contributions to spiritual edification; he designed the “Akron Plan”--a church building layout that incorporates Sunday School classrooms to facilitate learning and studying--optimizing the acoustics, air flow, and light.

In the 1870s, Miller co-founded The Chautauqua movement--a sort of adult education, summer schooling which included music, exercise, spiritual discussions and scientific lectures. The Chautauqua Institute (located near idyllic Chautauqua Lake in western New York) became a popular concept, and the movement eventually expanded throughout the country.

If it weren’t for Miller, we’d have one less Elvis movie in American film history.  Almost 100 years after Miller founded the Chautauqua movement, in 1969, the King of Rock 'n' Roll would star in “The Trouble With Girls,” a movie about a traveling Chautauqua tent show.

Education was so important to the indefatigable Miller that he also served as Akron's school board president, as well as the president of the board for what is now known as the University of Mount Union, in nearby Alliance. 

Lewis Miller's home, Oak Place, still stands in West Akron at 142 King Drive.  The mansion has since been converted into apartments.
Miller also had a connection to Thomas Edison, arguably the man with the biggest ideas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Lewis’ daughter Mina studied music in New Jersey where she met the brilliant Thomas Edison, and the lovers wed in the Miller family home in Akron in 1886.  If you'd like to see where the magic happened, the Miller family home is still standing in an isolated West Akron neighborhood across from Glendale Cemetery. Miller’s red brick mansion, called Oak Place, still retains its dignity and stands high above the Innerbelt. 

If you’d like to learn more about Lewis Miller and the Chautauqua Movement, archivist Jonathan Schmitz is giving a special presentation, June 28th at 3p.m., at First United Methodist Church in Akron, 262 E. Mill Street.

And, June 23-28th at Hardesty Park and Akron Main Library, there will be a week's worth of Ohio Chautauqua events.  For more info, click HERE.

For more information about Lewis Miller, see the book Lewis Miller: A Biographical Essay by Ellwood Hendrick (published 1925) which is available at our own Akron-Summit County Public Library.


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