This Was Then: Professor Miller’s mill

Dr. Miller’s ca. 1740s home and farm, Eastville. —Chris Baer

Professor Leslie Miller loved the tranquility of Martha’s Vineyard, but as a lifelong city dweller he really missed one thing: running water.

Miller began his career as a portrait painter. Among the very first to attend a new public art school in Boston known today as MassArt, Miller became a highly respected lecturer and author on art education. He came to the Island in the 1870s to teach at the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute at Cottage City, and returned every summer with his family for vacation.

Miller’s career boomed. He became the first principal of a new art school in Philadelphia known today as the University of the Arts, a position he held for 40 years. He supervised the layout of the Philadelphia park system, and helped design the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Boston Globe called him “one of the most distinguished educators on the field of art in America.” He is said to have earned the first degree of doctor of fine arts ever given in this country.

In 1889, Professor Miller bought their summer rental, a colonial farmhouse in Eastville which had belonged to Captain Peter and Almira West. One of the oldest surviving houses in Oak Bluffs, its construction has been dated to the 1740s. The Millers fixed it up and named it Tannon by the Sea. But while waterworks had been built in both Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs by this time, water pipes did not yet extend anywhere near this Eastville neighborhood off County Road.

Enlisting the help of his son Arthur, a young chemical engineer, Professor Miller designed a windmill to draw water up from their well to a standpipe, and a hydraulic system to pipe the water to faucets in their home. They hired the local construction firm of Manter & Johnson to build a mill in the summer of 1897, but it blew down in a storm three months later. The following year, a second mill was erected — pictured here — and painted red. Young Arthur was the photographer of these images as well as the mill’s engineer. He became a photographic emulsion chemist.

Dr. Miller retired year-round to his Oak Bluffs home in 1920. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he told the Boston Globe in 1927. “I haven’t been been off the Island in four years.”

While the 270-year-old home still stands at its original location off County Road, the windmill does not. When Oak Bluffs town water came to County Road in 1914, the windmill was dismantled. For years its base was used as a toolshed, but it was eventually demolished. A modern road called James Place covers the site today.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.