Valley Street Man's Hobby Benefits Area Residents, 1982
Loafing around the firehouse at 14 may or may not have been considered a savory pasttime some years ago, but for one teen-aged idler it led to the pursuit of a hobby from which many generations of Cumberland and Allegany County citizens will benefit greatly in the future.
Herman J. Miller, of 217 Valley Street, who will be 80 next April 12, has accumulated what is undoubtedly the most extensive collection of photographs, newspapers, and other historic memorabilia pertaining to Cumberland and Allegany County.
Residents who have enjoyed the Herman and Stacia Miller collection at different locales throughout the county over the years will be delighted to learn that the more than 3,000 photos and 24 scrapbooks are going to be preserved and made permanently available to the public.
Cumberland's Department of Urban Programs, through a block grant, is in the process of purchasing the Miller collection and it will be housed beginning this fall in the Maryland Room of the Allegany County Library's main branch on Washington Street.
The scrapbooks contain a wealth of information on various aspects of Cumberland's past, including Fire Department and fires, three; Police Department and crime, two; C&O Canal, two; entertainment, three; streetcars and railroads, one; sports, one, and general history, 12.
During the recent "Queen City Days" promotion on the Downtown Cumberland Mall, area citizens got an excellent sampling of the Miller photographic extravanganza when some 225 pictures were on display at the former Rosenbaum Building and another 30 were set up in the rotunda of City Hall.
Among the photos displayed were several of the great fire which destroyed the original Cumberland City Hall on the site of the present building.
The fire occurred March 14, 1910, long before the advent of color photography, but someone had added a touch of realism to the pictures by tinting in the flames shooting from the burning building.
Miller recalls watching the fire from a nearby doorway as he was on his way to elementary school.
Little time was wasted in rebuilding City Hall after the fire and Miller has photos of piles being driven for the new structure one year later.
Miller, who admits he "played hookey" to watch fires, dropped out of school in the seventh grade but is proud of what he has accomplished without much formal education. "If I'd only had to study history in school, I'd be there yet," he says with a wink.
When he started hanging out at the old Central fire station, young Herman was befriended by the crew who gave him photographs of themselves in action and a lifetime labor of love was born.
His early association with the fire department led not only to a rewarding hobby, but a career as well. Miller joined the department as a firefighter in Jan., 1934, and served for 29 years before retiring in April, 1963.
Having started his collection with pictures of the firemen, Miller was soon smitten with the desire to acquire all kinds of photos of local interest and began haunting second hand stores and local sales and letting the popular photographers of the day know of his interest.
Two notable photographers of local events during the era around World War I were named Gerkins and Thrasher and theirs and other photographers' works could be purchased in a half dozen local stores for 10 cents each.
"Postcards sold in many places for a penny apiece," he remembers nostalgically, and are now collector's items worth three dollars or more.
The proliferation of flea markets in the 1950's and 60's added to the Miller treasure and by this time his reputation as a collector had grown to the point where he was often offered photos by local residents. "I've never turned anything down," he is quick to point out.
Parts of Miller's collection have been displayed in downtown stores for special events, old pictures have been used by businesses for ideas when renovating, and the design for the gaslamp replicas on the Downtown Mall was made from pictures Miller had of Baltimore Street dated 1895 through 1905.
Ask him what his favorite subjects are and he'll reply, "Anything downtown. Baltimore was some historic street, with the Revere House (later the Kenneweg Co.) and Bamum Building (Windsor Hotel), where Union Commanding generals Crook and Kelly were captured during the Civil War."
Miller recalls that Baltimore Street in its heyday had many hotels, restaurants, drugstores, and candy stores and was so brightly illuminated that it looked almost like daylight at 10 or 11p.m.
Events that stand out in Miller's memory are the 1924 and 1936 floods and the influenza epidemic of the winter of 1917-18.
Recalling that tragic siege, he said obituaries would fill an entire page of the newspapers, gatherings were limited to no more than three persons, theatres were closed, and J.K. Ford's Drug Store (where the WasIh-McCagh Pharmacy is now located at N. Centre and Bedford streets) was open all night to fill prescriptions.
The city was laid off in zones where doctors were assigned, field hospitals were set up in the Mertens home (where Central YMCA now stands) and in a home at the corner of Washington and Smallwood streets.
The U.S. Government dispatched a field hospital which was installed at the B&O Railroad millyard along Queen City Pavement.
His most memorable experiences as a member of the fire department were the gas explosion which leveled three buildings on North Centre Street in October 1942, and fires at the old Capitol Theatre and Peskin's Store, both in the same building at different times.
Many of the local landmarks have been demolished, but live on in the Herman and Stacia Miller collection.
The former Stacia Bucy is Herman's wife of 52 years and together for the past 20 years they have given illustrated talks on local history before more than 100 local clubs, schools, churches, and other groups, including the Washington County Historical Society in Hagerstown.
The Miller photos have even been used by local families to help trace their genealogies.
The Millers are happily turning over the bulk of their cherished collection for future generations to enjoy, but Herman makes it clear he is still going to be available as a reference source on local historical material and is always looking for pictures to add to the collection.
Is he a photographer himself?
"I take pictures, but I'm not a professional photographer," he replies modestly, and notes that one of his most recent sessions was photographing his son, Emerson, playing drums with the Mason-Dixon Seven dixieland orchestra on the Downtown Mall.
Emerson is a resource instrumental music teacher at four elementary schools in Allegany County and the Millers' other son, Gregory, has been employed with the State Highway Administration's engineering department in Glen Burnie for the past 20 years.
There are eight grandchildren who assuredly have not escaped as subjects of their granddad's photographic passion.
Like his son, Herman was also a drummer, having played with the Ali Ghan Shrine band and the original Cumberland Municipal Band which performed concerts on Sunday nights at old Riverside Park and Wednesday evenings in the park area between Race and Seymour streets in South Cumberland.
Herman is the son of the late Benjamin and Bertha Miller. His father operated Miller's Dye Works which was located on North Mechanic Street in the block between Baltimore and Frederick streets.
He has a brother, Abe, who is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and two sisters, Zelda Miller, secretary to the president of Associated Jewish Charities, in Baltimore, and Helen Rae Lyon, of Sarasota, Fla.
Miller is a member and past officer (curator and trustee) of the Allegany County Historical Society and a member of the Preservation Society of Allegany County, Inc.
He is a member of Beth Jacob Synagogue, where he has served on the board of trustees; Potomac Lodge 100, AF&AM; Cumberland Consistory, Scottish Rite Bodies; Ali Ghan Shrine Temple; Aerie 245, Fraternal Order of Eagles; American Association of Retired Persons; Western Maryland Coin Club, although he's not a collector, and a life member of Has-Beens, Inc.
Ted Troxell, Cumberland Sunday Times
CUMBERLAND'S HISTORIANS — Herman and Stacia Miller, who have acquired a voluminous collection of photographs and other historic memorabilia over more than a half century, are shown outside the main branch of the Allegany County Library on Washington Street where the collection will be permanently preserved and made available to the public in the Maryland Room.
Cumberland (Md.), history
Cumberland (Md.), 1700-1976