Making Missouri Green

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

the most important things are still to plant, water and care for the trees," Miller says.

A Nurseryman's Career

Robert Miller knows almost everything about the history of the George O. White State Nursery. He did not read it in a book or study about it in school - he lived it.

In 1935, Robert L. Miller moved from his country home near Warsaw to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Licking. President Roosevelt established the CCC camps to provide jobs for people who were suffering financially because of the Great Depression. Miller came from a family of six children and when he was capable of earning a living, he was on his own to make ends meet.

Miller lived on the nursery grounds in barracks with approximately 200 men. The United States Forest Service paid the men one dollar a day to aid in its reforestation efforts. "We did everything from plant seeds, to pull weeds, to construction," Miller says.

In 1942, the United States was fighting WWII. Funds for the CCC camps diminished and the Conservation Department closed the Licking Nursery. The CCC transferred Miller to Sullivan to work at the Meramec Nursery. He served as the assistant nurseryman, earning $90 a month. He and his wife, Nellie, moved into their first home with running water, paying $11 a month for rent.

Not long after, Robert was called to serve in the military. Nellie moved back to Licking with the couple's 2-year-old daughter. While in Germany, Miller was held as a prisoner of war.

When the war ended and Miller was released, he returned to Sullivan and continued to work for the nursery until 1947. The state took over the Licking Nursery that year, and the Millers moved back to Licking. Robert went to work for the state and Nellie worked at a local insurance agency.

Miller made $140 a month as the nursery foreman in Licking. "It was quite a raise. I thought we were rich. Of course, back then, you could buy three dollars worth of groceries and it would last you a week."

Miller can remember quitting early only one day in his 44 years at the nursery. "One day in 1954, the temperature was 114 degrees, which still is a record high at the nursery. We were taking occasional water breaks, but some men were still getting sick. I knew it was time to call it quits when, in that heat, I started to feel cold."

The Millers and their two children lived on the nursery grounds from 1961 to 1970 in a home that the Conservation Department tore down a few years later. They built their current home, located a few miles up the road from the nursery, in 1971. Robert and Nellie had just settled in when an automobile accident killed their daughter and her husband, leaving behind three children, ages seven, nine and 11. The Millers raised the three children, and they now have six great-grandsons.

Miller retired from the nursery in 1979. To honor his dedication to the nursery, the Conservation Department gave Miller the "Golden Spade Award." The Conservation Department bronzed and inscribed the spade Miller had with him every day on the job. In addition, the agency mounted Miller's seed brush, in recognition of his having planted close to 350 million seeds.

"In all my years at the nursery, I never let anyone else sow the seeds," Miller said. "I was afraid it wouldn't get done right. The year after I retired, someone else planted the seeds and the trees came up just the same. Some things never change."

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