'A Proprietary Love'

High-strung, hot-tempered Tom Miller made self-interest -- and his feuds with LBJ -- into Austin history

Tom Miller
Tom Miller

After its perfumed beginnings as "Guy Town," Austin's original red-light zone, today's Warehouse District was suffused in later years by a more down-to-earth scent -- the "smell of money" emanating from the tannery in the Miller Produce warehouse, better known as the Hidehouse, at Fourth and Lavaca, where the Hobby Building now stands. (If you've never smelled a tannery, you don't know from foul odors.) The skins came from stock slaughtered in the city-owned abattoir on Waller Creek; the tanned hides went back East and into the shoes of Jazz Age swells.

This is but one of several ways that Tom Miller made money; in addition to its eponymous stock-in-trade, Miller Produce brokered cotton, supplied fat Texas turkeys to the nation's holiday tables, and marketed a large share of the Texas pecan crop. Despite having other demands on his attention -- like serving as Austin's mayor for 22 years -- Tom Miller kept the family business alive and thriving. (He had a telephone hotline in the mayor's office that linked directly to brother James at the Hidehouse.)

Then again, being mayor wasn't exactly an obstacle to business success, and Tom Miller was not shy about using his political power for his private ends. That's why Miller Produce was allowed to operate a tannery in the heart of Downtown Austin well into midcentury -- long after zoning laws had banished such noxious land uses (including the abattoir) to the fringes of town. But people attached less of a stigma to such self-dealing back then, especially since Tom Miller never earned a dime in salary in more than two decades of office. (It was while he was mayor that Miller became a leader of the Chamber of Commerce -- and a salaried director of Austin's largest bank.) The smell of the Hidehouse was the price Austinites paid for Miller's service.


A Small, Perfect World

In his spare time, Tom Miller changed the world. At least his world, which never stretched far beyond the city limits. Born on Congress Avenue (in 1893), Miller grew up on the corner of First and San Jacinto Boulevard -- another piece of Austin's heritage later to make way for a skyscraper. He dropped out of UT after one year, after his father died in 1916, to take over and, in time, greatly expand Miller Produce. The same year, he married Nellie May Miller, belle of another clan of Millers. The usual means for getting out of town and seeing the world -- military service, on the brink of World War I -- were closed to Miller due to "circumstances beyond his control." Later historians and political foes have assumed this to mean a nervous breakdown -- not out of character for a man described even by friends as "a benevolent dictator" prone to anger, depression, and melodrama.
'A Proprietary Love'

So instead Tom Miller piled up money at Fourth and Lavaca and was already a wealthy and dedicated civic booster when Col. Andrew Jackson Zilker urged him to jump into the 1933 City Council race after three incumbents announced their retirements. (This was back when voters -- who numbered fewer than 10,000 and who had to pay a poll tax -- picked their favorite five candidates off the ballot.) Miller got 52% and came in third but was immediately elected mayor by his colleagues. His council's first act was to fire unpopular City Manager Adam Johnson, who -- like the city charter intended, then and now -- presumed the authority to actually make the day-to-day decisions at City Hall. Miller would change that.

Two years later, he and the whole council ran unopposed. Despite a strong challenge to the Miller council in 1939, not until 1947 -- the last term in his first City Council run -- would Miller ever again get less than 60% of the vote. After six years of "retirement," he ran again, this time in Place 3, and won handily, was once again anointed mayor by his comrades, and then ran twice more unopposed. Only failing health -- from diabetes and his own considerable girth -- brought an end to a mayoral career more than twice as long as anyone else's.


Tom vs. Lyndon

Part of the Tom Miller mystique is that he dedicated himself purely to Austin's betterment and never entertained visions of greater glory for himself. It's not true. Another part of the mystique is how he worked hand in hand with his personal friend and ally U.S. Rep. Lyndon Johnson to transform Austin and Central Texas during the New Deal era. That's not true, either. Or at least it's a simplification of the more complex reality; while Miller and LBJ managed to get a lot done, they also managed to piss each other off on numerous occasions, and since both were prone to temper tantrums and bitterly held grudges, it's somewhat of a miracle that the two managed to avoid open warfare.

Which really could have changed the world, and not just Tom Miller's world. On more than one occasion, Tom Miller made loud noises about running for Congress himself -- which, even as late as Johnson's last congressional campaign in 1946, would have presented LBJ with a formidable foe. Had Miller run and won, LBJ's career would likely have been over, and neither he nor John Kennedy -- who owed his 1960 nomination to Johnson's intervention -- would ever have been president. No matter how much stroke LBJ aimed to accumulate in D.C. in his congressional years -- which was a lot, given how eagerly he sucked up to President Roosevelt and House Speaker Sam Rayburn -- his reputation back home was never so indomitable as to make his defeat out of the question.

In 1937, when U.S. Rep. James "Buck" Buchanan died in office, Tom Miller was the most powerful and popular politician then holding elective office in the 10th District. Historians disagree on why Miller, a staunch New Deal Democrat like Buchanan, decided not to run himself, but they agree that Miller clearly felt LBJ, a political nobody, had no chance and refused to support him. After Johnson's upset win -- with only 27% of the vote -- in the special election, Miller likewise refused to rule out running in 1938; while in future years the mayor expressed such desires less frequently, he was quick to call -- at least privately -- for Johnson's head whenever he was displeased.

'A Proprietary Love'

So, many of Austin's tangible fruits of the New Deal were brought to town by a congressman responding not just to his own needs and those of his political patrons (and, occasionally, of the citizens), but also to the demands and threats of a powerful hometown political boss. Of course, this is how civic life always works -- deals get made, tempers soothed, and the sharp edges are rounded off by posterity. We are left with the physical traces, all over town. The first item on Miller's wish list of demands from Johnson was federal funding from the Public Works Administration to rebuild the Austin Dam, which had collapsed in 1900 in a devastating flood that Miller had no desire to see repeated in his Austin. Johnson did what Buchanan had failed to do -- get both the feds and the Lower Colorado River Authority, under the control of Johnson's political mentor Alvin Wirtz, to agree to pay for the dam and let Austin own it. He also got the rules bent so that the dam could be named ("unofficially") for Tom Miller when it opened, while the mayor was still alive and in office.


Traces of Tom's Love

Johnson in turn got Miller's support for completing what are now Mansfield Dam and the rest of the Highland Lakes chain, even though the mayor was largely opposed to the LCRA and Johnson's stated goal of providing cheap electricity to Central Texas. Then as now, Austin depended on profits from the city-owned power company to pad the budget, and Miller feared the pressure that cheap LCRA power would put on Austin's rates. This prompted another impasse between the two men that they managed to bridge before it got out of hand. (While readers of Robert Caro's multivolume life of LBJ are treated to an endless display of Johnson's ruthlessness, other commentators -- including ACC history professor L. Patrick Hughes, a thorough documentarian of New Deal-era Austin -- note that Johnson's early deference to older, more powerful men extended to Miller as well.)

So thanks to Tom Miller threatening Lyndon Johnson, at least obliquely, with political hardship if not extinction, you have Lake Austin and thus a water supply. (Also thanks to Tom Miller's threats and temper tantrums, the later bedroom burbs of Rollingwood and West Lake Hills didn't get water or wastewater service -- a situation only fully rectified within the last decade.) You also can thank Miller and Johnson for the three original Eastside housing projects -- Santa Rita, Chalmers, and Rosewood, the first federally funded public housing in the country and an oft-cited example of Johnson's success in getting the attention of the Roosevelt administration. It was the crisis precipitated by the projects, though -- which were, as you can imagine, unpopular with slumlords, including Miller's friends in the Chamber of Commerce set -- that brought Miller as close as he ever came, in 1939, to being ousted. This inverted Miller and Johnson's usual relationship, with the congressman working behind the scenes to help Miller and his council return to City Hall against the political odds.

The projects were racially segregated, against Johnson's wishes, as a compromise to local conservatives. While Miller's record on race was somewhat positive -- he was the first mayor to appoint a black citizen to a city board -- he was also a tycoon of industries notorious for exploiting poor people of color, including children, which did not escape notice from either labor leaders or the FDR feds. (That this did not preclude him from being a New Deal Democrat shows you how lost Tom Miller's Austin really is.)

Of course, there is much more: Johnson and Miller also brought you the Del Valle Army Air Field, today's Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a balance to the wartime price controls and other measures that led Miller, again, to go on the warpath against Johnson behind the scenes. Some of these measures affected Miller's business interests, leading to cries that Johnson was a communist for failing to stop them. It was at this same time that the Johnsons bought KTBC, leading Miller to ask dark questions about LBJ's financial shenanigans -- not like Miller had any claim to purity on that subject, but politics are what they are.

On his own, Miller left his own imprint on today's city; he led the way to acquiring thousands of acres of parkland, including what is now Emma Long Park on his new lake, Deep Eddy Pool, three municipal golf courses, Doris Miller Auditorium and Rosewood Park, and the old Butler tract, now Auditorium Shores. He also lobbied heavily to get both I-35 and MoPac built and helped create both the Austin Symphony Orchestra and Austin's short-lived minor-league baseball team.

That Tom Miller loved Austin there is no doubt -- but as Lady Bird Johnson put it, "It was also a proprietary love. He just felt like it was his town. He wanted to do everything for it. It was his life." No mayor today could ever get away with the high-strung and highly personal style Tom Miller brought to City Hall for decades. But no mayor today could ever accomplish as much, either. Future historians -- or future all-powerful mayors like Tom Miller, if ever we have another -- can decide whether the trade-off was worth it. end story

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