Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Curious of Life of Phil Miller and his Friend Mark Twain

1865 map showing the site off Miller's home
Of the names associated with the history of Conneaut Lake, none carries the intrigue of Phil Miller. Philip W. Miller was a boat builder and expert outdoorsman with contradictory love for public oratory and quiet eccentricity. The facts surrounding Miller are as hazy as the morning mist rising above the waters of the lake he would become synonymous with. Even his arrival in the newly incorporated town of Evansburg in the 1850’s is clouded with vagaries and rumors. Some claimed he showed up with his wife Annie, along with a Negro man, and another woman. Wilder tales have Miller appearing in prison garb, on the run from the law for killing a man.

Whatever the case, Miller, we do know, took up residence along the west side of the lake on Hotchkiss Island, a piece of high ground cut off from the mainland by the dammed up waters feeding the Beaver and Erie Canal system. Once here, he soon ingratiated himself into the community becoming a member of the congregation at the Methodist church which he and Annie attended regularly.

Miller’s prowess as a hunter and fisherman only added to his appeal as did his knowledge of the lake itself. Clubhouse Sand Bar, Cottonwood Bar, Midway Bar and Finn Ditch, so named for the Finnish immigrants hired to dig it—Miller knew their locations well, and tales of his exploits were told by the townsfolk and newspapers alike. “Phil Miller the well-known sportsman who resides in Conneaut Lake killed nine ducks in one shot!” read one news brief in the Titusville Morning Herald some 40 miles to the east. Such skill and notoriety earned him popularity as a guide to the increasing number of out-of-town sportsmen arriving at the lake eager to hunt along its shores and fish from its waters.

Hotchkiss Island

T.W. Kennard (in top hat)
It is during one of these encounters that Miller likely came into contact with a man who had an early vision for Conneaut Lake. T.W. Kennard was a notable English engineer sent by investors to supervise the construction of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad as it lay tracks south of Evansburg from Meadville to Greenville. Kennard, it was said, possessed a taste for the extravagant and had an ear for flattery, that and he was a dreamer which may have fueled his idea to build a resort hotel and racetrack that would draw massive crowds to the lake.

Being an avid fisherman, Kennard was probably introduced to Miller shortly after arriving in 1858, and the two must have developed a mutual respect of sorts in the time that followed. In 1863 Kennard took the first step in making his dreams reality, purchasing the 54-acre parcel of Hotchkiss Island that also included the Miller homestead. It’s believed, however, that Kennard asked Miller to remain on the property so that the traveling engineer would always have functional accommodations during his sporting visits to the lake.

This, it appears, was the extent of Kennard’s plans as he was recalled to England shortly thereafter never to return to the area again. Miller remained and with the property still tied to his name. The 1874 Crawford County business directory lists Miller as owning 93 acres, the increase possibly coming as a result of the confusion created by the additional land that materialized in the wake of the receding waters after the canal dam was cut a year earlier. Some form of consensus must have been reached concerning this, however, for in 1876 a land atlas shows Miller with the original 54 acres although it’s not much of an island anymore.

The Boat Races

The same 1874 business directory also indicates Miller’s profession as boat builder. This would correspond to his skills at handling a boat as well. Races on the lake were epic events, and Miller who had a hulking, muscular frame was regularly challenged. In August 1859, it was reported that Miller along with a Mr. Fisher were to compete against John Huidekoper and Joseph Shippen in a four-mile course beginning near the Lake House. John Huidekoper and Shippen, who it was noted both trained at Cambridge University, used a 30 foot lap-streak boat named the Upidee which weighed a slight 150 pounds. By contrast, Miller’s boat was over 550, but this difference proved to his advantage on the choppy, wind-swept waters that day as the two older men powered to a win with a half-mile lead over the contenders.

Seeking to reverse the outcome, the builders of the Upidee, brothers Henry and Fredrick Huidekoper, launched a new, larger vessel to contend against Miller the following summer. This time Miller paired up with Samuel Clark to compete against Herman and Edgar Huidekoper who were joined by cousin A.C. Huidekoper acting as their coxswain. Early on it looked as if Miller would repeat gaining a lead by the first turn, but the Huidekoper trio quickly made up the distance and then some eventually finishing a full five minutes ahead of the reigning champion. Despite the loss, the exuberant crowd still gave Miller and his mate three rousing cheers for their gallant effort. This would not be the last interaction Miller would have with the Huidekoper family.

Dark Rumors, Mysterious Friend

Yet for all his celebrity Miller remained a figure of dark speculation. In his book, The Lake as It Was, Bronson Luty mentions that Miller was seen as a “shady” character, and that there were allegation of abuse of a crippled girl in Annie and Phil’s care. Questions also surrounded the disappearance and drowning of a young girl brought by Annie from Canada whose body was buried on the island after it was discovered floating among the reeds in the lake. It is known too that a guest of Miller’s died during a visit and that Miller rowed the body into town.

Mark Twain ("Mr. Turner") in 1879
Chilling as these tales may be, they did not seem to discourage people from staying at the Miller home. In 1879, in fact, a particularly noteworthy figure happened to sit at the kitchen table amid the hens and roosters Annie permitted to run amok in the house. Mark Twain, the celebrated author and humorist, had been a friend of Miller’s reportedly from distant days together on the Mississippi.

Twain, it appeared, had no desire to be recognized by the general public during his stay and, therefore went by the alias of “Mr. Turner.” Miller respected his friend’s wishes for anonymity. This, however, did not stop him from having a bit of fun at Twain’s expense in the meantime.

During an evening of debate in nearby Harmonsburg, Miller referenced Twain’s book, Innocence Abroad in a point he was making when the challenger, a school teacher, quickly countered the reference claiming it held no heft because it was from one of those “alleged funny books of Mark Twain’s” At this Miller grabbed the podium with his thick, calloused hands and leaned expectantly toward “Mr. Turner” who, in turn, only smiled grimly back from where he stood at the edge of the room near the flickering oil lamps.

On another occasion, Miller brought “Mr. Turner” with him to Stratton’s Grocery in Evansburg where he started a spontaneous conversation with the locals as to the merits of Mark Twain’s books. As the story goes, the author received an earful of “unbiased criticism” during that afternoon trip.

Towards the end of Twain’s two-week stay, the town of Harmonsburg issued a challenge to people of Evansburg to produce their best representative for a debate on the topic of, “Resolved that water is more important to human existence than is air.” Miller was hardily selected. He didn’t disappoint either, blustering on for many minutes in opposition to the debate’s topical assertion. Pausing briefly, Miller then reached for a pitcher of water to pour himself a drink before continuing on. Recognizing the opportunity, “Mr. Turner” rose to his feet. “Mr. Chairman,” he called out in a slow drawl. “I rise to a point of order. The gentleman seems to be running his windmill with water.”

The witty observation so delighted the chairman and the disheartened Harmonsburg contingent that they forced this stranger to continue speaking which he did for the next ten minutes. “All the keen satire, all the wonderful critical perception, all the analytical power, all the fund of knowledge that have combined in these latter days to make Mark Twain a terror… were turned loose on the question before the house,” according to the Record Argus. Miller, knowing he was beaten, attempted no reply in front of the rapt audience nor did he give up “Mr. Turner” even though his reputation as a debater had been forever damaged.

Later Years

Phil Miller’s final days passed quietly into history. The land where he lived was purchased by a familiar name—A.C. Huidekoper who turned the Miller home into a farmhouse and then later built a summer cottage with gingerbread scroll-work a further north at the water’s edge. Miller moved into Evansburg with Annie who in the coming years would pass on. During the funeral service Miller attempted to give his wife a powerful eulogy, but got no further than “Farewell, Annie,” before breaking down in front of the packed Methodist congregation.

A.C. Huidekoper's Stock Farm. The house (left) may have been the home of Phil and Annie Miller.

In 1885 Miller joined his wife in death, and he was buried in the Lakeview Cemetery. Just before he died, though, Miller revealed one of his secrets--the true identity of Mr. Turner. All else he took with him to the grave.


Child, Hamilton. The Gazetteer and Business Directory of Crawford County for 1874, Syracuse: The Journal Office, 1874.

Luty, Bronson B.The Lake as is Was: An Informal History and Memoir of Conneaut Lake. Meadville: Crawford County Historical Society, 1994.

Reynolds, William. Gifford, Peter K. (editor). Ilisevich, Robert D. (editor). European Capital, British Iron, and an American Dream: The Story of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. Akron: The University of Akron Press, 2002

Smith, Jane. Images of America: Conneaut Lake. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2012.

Combination Atlas of Crawford County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Everts, Ensign & Everts, 1876.

Crawford Journal, August 23, 1859.

Crawford Journal, August 14, 1860.

“Hotchkiss Island Purchase,” Western Reserve Chronicle, October 14, 1863.

“Around the Circle,” Titusville Morning Herald, May 12, 1883.

“Mark Twain [in] Evansburg” Record Argus, January 22, 1904.

“Mark Twain at Conneaut Lake” Forest and Stream, October 9, 1909.

This post was originally published by the Conneaut Lake Area Historical Society

Ron Mattocks was born and raised in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania. Following high school he joined the Army to see the world (which he did) before a career as an executive with a national home builder in Texas. Eventually Ron switched to Internet marketing, consulting for companies such as GMC, ConAgra, Mattel, and others. During this time he also published the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can't Afford Vodka and began writing regularly for the Huffington Post, Disney's Babble, and the TODAY Show. On a summer visit to Conneaut Lake Park, Ron became suddenly fascinated with the park's origins, a fascination that lead to his current book project, and later would evolve into a passion for the county's extensive history. Today Ron is the Director of Digital Marketing Services with a tech firm in Indiana where he lives with his three sons. He graduated from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with a degree in English Literature, and is a member of both the Crawford County and Conneaut Lake Area Historical Societies.

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