Monday, November 25, 2013

A Puritan Adventure

Gary, Julie, Renee and Todd Mills 1960s

Vernon Bailey, Brother of Anna Mills
Anna Mills With Percy, Laura  and  Grace in Elk River, MN
John Mills Family in Fallon, NV 1918
80-Year Old Stata and Edward Mills on Horseback in Nevada
Claude Mills on Horseback in Nevada 1950s
Wild Minnesota Territory in 1854 (St. Anthony Falls)
Dr. A Mills of UM Chem Dept 1949 (seated, 2nd from l)
Staring back at me on my desk, are the smiling young faces of the Mills children: Gary, Julie, Renee and Todd. It is my favorite photo of my husband and his siblings; black and white, teeming with puppy-dog tails, sugar and spice. Todd looks like pure puppy-dog tails waiting to wiggle into mischief. Not much has changed in that regard.

They are all grown now, of course, all with grown children of their own. We even have the next crop harvesting with two toddling grand-nephews and two grand-nieces on the way. When I think of the Mills in general, I think of the words of Todd's great-grand uncle, Vernon Bailey, who wrote to his sister Anna Bailey Mills in 1916, "Everyday you are living the grand adventure."

Uncle Vernon was a naturalist for the US Biological Survey, and he convinced John and Anna Mills to move their young family from Elk River, Minnesota to Fallon, Nevada. Not many would look at this valley in the desert as a grand adventure, especially in 1907. Blows of sand, sagebrush as tall as horses and a new water irrigation system that promised fruitful farming for those who dared.

But the Mills family dared. They did see the adventure  in the natural beauty of mountains that rise up from valley floors to bake in summer suns and catch snow in winter. It was like a science field camp, and the Mills took to it with farming hay, writing poetry, tending monumental gardens, photographing and keying the wonders of nature. PhDs and dairy herds come from this family as each Mills generation has produced both scientists and farmers, as if representing the mind and body that is the Mills spirit.

When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of the pilgrims because we got to draw their funny hats and shoe buckles in first-grade. Some people think puritans are the same as pilgrims, but that is not so. Both co-existed in the early colonial era of America and both probably wore the same style of funny hats and shoe buckles. But fundamentally they differed in religious perspectives in that pilgrims wanted a new system of worship, whereas puritans sought to purify the existing system. Both upheld education.

The Mills are a puritan family, the direct descendants of those first colonists who dared embark on the grand adventure to the New World, giving thanks over a bountiful autumn harvest and turkey. They settled up the Connecticut River that divided Vermont from New Hampshire in the 1700s. Even back then they adventured into wilderness. The grandparents of John Mills helped to found Beloit, Wisconsin including its college where John's father Edward was one of the first graduates. They moved on to Minnesota Territory in 1852, founding a church and schools in Faribault, Minnesota before taking over a flour mill in Elk River.

Nevada must have been a last frontier for the Mills, a remote basin and range country that even today remains sparsely populated compared to the previous settlements they left behind. They broke sand like sod, rounded up wild horses and preserved nature's bounty in an appreciation that I'd like to think all our puritan ancestors had. Imagine coming to a new place and all that you'd get to learn, exploring river banks and forests.

When giving thanks for the food and the stuff of today, remember to also give thanks for those adventurous hearts that led our ancestors to new places. And give thanks for the places. We all have our own Elmira Ponds; our own daily adventures.

Your ancestors started the story. This is your chapter to write.

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