By Mark Gutglueck
Azariel Blanchard Miller, was born on September 5, 1878. to Joseph Kempster Miller and Eliza (Blanchard) Miller in Richlands, North Carolina. On his maternal side he was related to Commodore Matthew C. Perry and Gurdon Saltenstall, who was the governor of the Colony of Connecticut from 1708 to 1724.
While A.B. Miller is well known locally as the founder/major developer of Fontana and celebrated for that distinction, at the national and international levels, his accomplishments have been overshadowed by some of his other family members. His older brother, Kempster Blanchard Miller, was an electrical engineer and device designer, and his niece, Ruth Miller, also known as Ruth Kempster and Ruth Blanchard Miller, was a distinguished artist.
Azariel spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., where he attended public schools before finishing his schooling in Riverside, California. He also attended one year at Pomona College.
In 1897, he resolved to go into farming, planting 500 acres of grain in Perris Valley. In 1901, he had enlarged that operation to 5,000 acres. He had many head of livestock as well. When the region experienced a drought in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Miller leased a portion of his stock to a firm of contractors who were building a span of the Salt Lake Railway.
Miller then went to the Imperial Valley, and engaged himself in developing the area into the agricultural powerhouse it was to soon become. He constructed a large part of the canal system that waters what became known as the No. 8 Section and laid out and graded much of the land upon which the city of Brawley now stands.
In San Bernardino County he was associated with E.D. Roberts, H.D. Harris and E.J. Eisenmayer in real estate and farming. The San Francisco Savings Union owned 19,000 acres of land in San Bernardino County and 75 percent of the the water flow of Lytle Creek. Miller and his associates leased from the San Francisco-based outfit eight thousand acres of land near Rialto, with an option to purchase. Shortly thereafter, Roberts, Harris Eisenmayer and Miller formed the Fontana Land and Water Company.
Simultaneously, Miller was under contract with the United States Government to construct the first levee on the Yuma project on the Colorado River . Owing to his commitment to the Fontana project, Miller handed off the Yuma Project, which was well toward the completion of its first phase, to J.G. White and Company of New York.
Miller relocated the grading apparatus he had been using in Imperial County to Fontana – consisting of some 200 head of horses and mules together with plows, scrapers and mess and sleeping tents, to a clearing in the brush just south of the heart of modern day Fontana, what was then called Rosena on the Santa Fe Line.
In 1906, Miller planted 3,000 acres of barley, which grew well. However, a fire started by a tractor ended up burning half of that crop.
In 1907, at the age of 29, Miller purchased six thousand acres of the Lakeview Ranch in Riverside County, where he had earlier farmed. He thereupon formed the Nuevo Land Company and sold the Lakeview property.
An obvious problem in Fontana was the high wind. In response, Miller set about planting what would eventually become what translated into 500 miles of Eucalyptius trees planted in rows east and west 3,330 feet apart in the grove district and 660 feet apart over the rest of the 18,000-acre tract.
In 1909, Miller bought out Roberts, Harris, and Eisenmayer, and redoubled his efforts in the Fontana Land and Water Company, this time in partnership with F.H. Adams, E.J. Marshall and J. T. Torrance. Their first major undertaking was to construct an extensive irrigation system in the Fontana area. Thereafter, Miller devoted himself to the Fontana development effort, intensifying the irrigation system, marketing some of the property, and establishing literal plantations of citrus. At this point, Miller held the titles of president and manager of the Fontana Development Company; president and manager of the Fontana Land and Water Company; vice president and manager of the Fontana Water company; manager of the Rialto Domestic Water Company; and president of the Lytle Creek Water Company.
At noon on June 7, 1913, Miller’s mother, Eliza, was on hand at a free barbecue that was being served at the corner of what is now Sierra Avenue and Arrow. She was given the honor of breaking a bottle of Fontana grape juice to open, in inimitable Southern California tradition, the townsite of Fontana. A crowd of 4,000 were on hand, including many who had come in by train aboard a Santa Fe Special that had departed from Los Angeles that morning. Once the lunch was concluded, another ceremony was held to break ground for the future Pacific Electric Fontana Depot. In between the dedication, barbecue and ground breaking, members of the crowd surveyed the lots Miller had for sale. Before the sun went down, he had sold many of them, bringing in $59,125.
This opening day was such a success that in subsequent years it became a local holiday and “Fontana Days” is still observed in the city, which has now grown to a population of 204,000.
In 1918 Miller organized the Fontana Farms Company, over which he served as president. The next year, Fontana Farms established a $100,000 twenty-acre poultry farm, which was capable of hatching 400,000 chicks per year. One chicken at this farm – Lady Fontana – set a world’s record by laying 564 eggs in a single 24-month period.
By 1920, the company had planted 5,000 acres of citrus.
Miller hired engineers F.C. Finkle and William Starks, and they designed and he had built an underground water storage and distribution system, which was in part designed by Major Philip Hasbrouck in the 1920s. All told, this system would entail more than 500 miles of concrete water lines.
In 1923, the Fontana Farms Company had planted 5,500 acres of grapes, making it the largest irrigated vineyard in the world.
On June 7, 1923, Miller, working with Cornelius De Bakcsy, Miller established the Fontana Herald News, publishing the first edition on the ten year anniversary of the city’s founding.
In that inaugural edition, Miller described the town thusly:
“We have planted the largest citrus grove in the world, over 5,500 acres, and of other fruits, 1,000 acres. We have planted 5,000 acres of vineyard. We have, during two successive years, had the largest planting of peanuts in the country, over 2,000 acres.
“We have undoubtedly the largest pork producing farm in the world, about 35,000 head.
“The Professor Rice of Cornell University, a recognized poultry authority, says we have the best poultry plant in the country.
“We have planted enough eucalyptus and other windbreaks, which if stretched end to end would reach from here considerably beyond San Francisco.
“We have graded and in a great many cases have oiled over 75 miles of streets. We have tunneled the mountain and put down number-less wells for the development of water, built a power house that develops over 2,000 horsepower of electric energy, and built several hundred miles of cement pipeline and conduits to convey our water to every corner of our lands.
“We have built of enduring concrete the principal building for our public business, packing house, school, and railroad depots, and this has meant the enlisting of over $6 million in capital.
“Let’s make Fontana the best place to live, and the reward to all of us will surely come from the work and heartaches that always come to the pioneer. Let’s make Fontana the real land of our heart’s desire – ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’”
Miller operated three farms, including two in or around Fontana and one in Diamond Bar. The farm in Diamond Bar boasted 44,244 pigs in 1925, qualifying it as the largest pig farm in the world. Miller arranged for a train from Los Angeles to bring garbage to Diamond Bar to serve as slop for the hogs. Legend has it that twice those who rummaged through this garbage carried out to the pig farm from the metropolis to ensure that nothing harmful was fed to the swine found human fetuses.
Miller promoted a business enhancement plan, known as the “Triangle of Trade,” which was aimed at putting Fontana within Los Angeles’s marketing area and vice versa.
He was the founder and first director of the First National Bank of Fontana.
In 1926, Miller saw to it that the land and $10,000 was donated for the building of the Community Church.
In 1928 Miller donated five acres for the Fontana Plunge along with the land for the city park.
In 1930, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was built on land given by A.B. Miller.
Miller was president of the State Agricultural Society from 1931 to 1938; an ex officio regent for the University of California from 1931 to 1938, then appointed to fill unexpired term of Regent Gallwey, 1938–41; and a member of the chambers of commerce for both Los Angeles and San Bernardino.
Miller died on April 13, 1941 in Fontana, at the age of 62.
By Mark Gutglueck