Ezra “Buffalo” Miller, a wealthy inventor and politician, earned his nickname the easy way.
Miller, an Edgewater native, spent decades in New York and Wisconsin before returning to Bergen County in the ’60s, being called “the Colonel.” This changed somewhat after the aging militia bought its first slice of Mahwah in late 1872 and was sent with a pair of American bison.
His plan, like the brave Midwest farmers of the time, was to breed heartier cattle for mass domestication. Only he wanted to do it where no one else had tried: Northeast New Jersey.
The Monmouth Democrat reported in March 1879: “The colonel has taken great pains and expense to tame the buffalo, and has raised and crossed them on his place with common cattle.” our cattle will be fattened by what they are starving.”
According to an 1899 Popular Science Magazine report by John Dafoe, curious experimenters crossed bison with cattle for at least 30 years before Miller appeared in Mahwah. Dafoe writes that Miller was nevertheless one of the first enterprising ranchers to actively try to develop cattalo as the American bison neared extinction in the 1870s and 1880s.
Larry Barsness wrote in 1985 in Heads, Hides and Horns: The Complete Book of Buffalo that this trend would occur in the 1890s. During that decade, New York City socialite Rutherfurd Stuyvesant threw some of his money into efforts to develop bison-cattle hybrids on his property off Route 517 in Warren County’s Allamuchy and Green townships.
All cattalo breeding programs of the 19th century failed. According to Barsness, trying to crossbreed the species was too difficult for pregnant cows. Stuyvesant ended its program after 19 of its Galloway cows died as calving hybrids.
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Build bison base Oweno
Miller’s program ended in the mid-1880s, but not because of the drain on his resources. Although the farm was at its peak in the early 1880s with a reservoir, conservatories, gardens and miles of roads, Miller was ill.
Miller’s great-granddaughter, Gwen Babcock, said he was elected to the New Jersey State Senate in 1883, at age 71, but barely attended state meetings. By the time he was sworn in in 1884, he was already visibly ill, the Passaic Daily News reported. The newspaper reported that he died the following July after locking himself in his home due to exhaustion.
Before it burned in 1899, the three-story house was considered one of the most beautiful country houses in the United States, Babcock says. An 1884 report in the Bergen Democrat claimed the gabled house had 45 rooms, including its own reception room, sewing room and library with conservatory. It was all solid walnut cabinetry and made under Miller’s supervision. Total cost of the three-year construction project: $137,000.
Babcock said there were a total of 30 rooms designed by Miller, with suites for each of the five children and their families. Gardens and fishponds adjoined pasture where cattle, bison, and cattle grazed. A stable, carriage house, conservatory and other outbuildings filled the property.
“By 1877 they were reported to have spent over $100,000 and to spend another $100,000,” Babcock said.
Miller earned his own money, although his upbringing was far from penniless. Born on a large farm near the Hudson River, he was the son of Ezra Miller of Westchester County, New York, and Hannah Ryerson, the only daughter of George Ryerson of Pompton Township.
Miller grew up in various towns in downstate New York and attended prep school in Flushing, New York, Babcock said. At the age of 21, he was known as a brilliant mechanical, mathematical, hydraulic and topographical engineer.
Around this age, he enlisted as an artilleryman in the 2nd New York Militia. He reached the rank of colonel at the age of 30. When he turned 36, he left New York for Wisconsin to work as a state surveyor on railroad construction. Babcock was commissioned a colonel in the Wisconsin militia there, elected a justice of the peace, and won a seat in the Wisconsin State Senate.
Finding wealth in Wisconsin
Babcock says Wisconsin also prospered after Miller began researching ways to connect railcars more safely.
At that time, most railroad cars were connected using a link and pin connector. Jim LuBrant of the New Jersey Transportation Museum said the system required workers to position themselves between cars to guide the switch into a pair of pockets and manually insert the pin. Some workers have lost fingers or hands. Others were crushed.
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“One of the problems with the link and pin was that the switch usually had to be manually supported while the cars were moving together,” LuBrant said.
The system was also hopeless at preventing cars from bumping into each other during sudden decelerations in a process called telescoping.
Miller worked with the problem for nearly ten years before introducing the hook-based connector that was associated with the tab. Patented in 1866, the coupler was combined with the car bumper and platform the following year, helping to add structural strength to the entire train.
He wrote in 1869: “My friends kindly predict that I will make a fortune.” All I know is that I am working hard and providing valuable service to the world.
Although not interested in finance, Miller’s patents inevitably made him rich. After returning to New York in the late 1860s, he set his sights on land in his native Bergen County.
Miller started with 50 acres east of the train station, Babcock said. In time he amassed about 356 acres in a community called Cragmere, which he named Oweno. Roads in the area still bear the name. In 1884, the Mahwah Post Office was briefly given that name to avoid confusion with Rahway, the Montclair Times reported.
Oweno was sold in 1908 to George Dunlop, a developer from Spring Valley, New York. Before that, according to records held at the Mahwah Museum, it was among several properties owned by a wealthy gentleman farmer from New York in the late 19th century. Among them was Theodore Havemeyer, who developed sugar refining techniques at a Brooklyn factory and built a red brick Georgian mansion on the property that is now part of Ramapo College.
There was also Clarence Chapman, who built what would become the Carmelite Retreat Center of Ramapo Valley Road. Alfred B. Darling, owner of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York and the property that is now the Rio Vista Mahwah, is still remembered locally as the namesake of all things Darlington.
David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. Subscribe or activate your digital account today to get unlimited access to the most important news from your local community.
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