Updated: Apr 2
By: Jason Todhunter
This Timber Roots article starts in North Dakota in 1896 when John Lewis Miller was born. Work on the railroad brought him farther west as a young man and he ended up in the Judith Gap area. As were the times he worked in different jobs including a coal mine in the Big Snowy Mountains near Crystal Lake. This now wilderness study area that folks would like to have you think is untouched was at one time mined and logged both….aw how short our memories are sometimes! John would meet his wife Daisy Lilly when she was going to the Rock Creek school in the Big Snowy mountains. They were married in the Shawmut courthouse and began their life together.
John started logging and in 1940 built a steam powered sawmill in the Big Snowy Mountains north east of Judith Gap. He logged and worked this sawmill for 10 plus years and eventually ended up in Judith Gap when he bought the gas station there and started Judith Gap Oil. Remnants of Miller’s sawmill are still resting near where they used to produce a renewable product that built this country. Judith Gap Oil is still thriving and in the family; being ran by Dave Miller and his son Jeff. After a period of time, Judith Gap oil didn’t have enough sawdust for John so he started a post and pole operation a block east of the station. It was here that his youngest son Tony would cut his teeth in the wood products industry. Tony’s earliest memories included working at the post and pole plant. He doesn’t ever remember getting a check though! Ahh for the good old days when parents could get away with that…I am envious!
Tony started working for the local sawmill when he was still in high school. The mill ran two shifts and after basketball practice Tony would go work the night shift green chain. He recalls that the 7x9 green pine ties were especially fun. After graduating Tony stayed on with the sawmill and in a short time was running the Wagner unloading log trucks; the date was 1978. While Tony was unloading trucks, he was wishing the he was running one of them instead of the Wagner and by 1979 he made up his mind to give it a try.
He found his first truck in the Bozeman area from a name many of you will recognize; Pat Wilhelm. The truck was a 1973 A Model Kenworth. It had a 335 Cummins with a 5 and 4 transmission. This was the start of Miller’s Trucking Inc. Unfortunately, six months into his new business venture, the motor went out in his truck. He went to multiple banks and no one would loan him the money. He then turned to friends and ranchers he had worked for in the past and the local ranchers came through lending him $6000 to get his truck back
on the road. Tony would pay all these debts back in a year. This is a testament to small town rural America where folks will band together to help someone who is down on their luck. When you look at the big shop and fleet of shiny trucks now it was obviously a good bet!
The local sawmill closed down in the early 80’s and by 1981 Tony had found his way west and was hauling for Stoken Brothers out of Eureka. He hauled into many now closed mills like Owens and Hurst, American Timber and Kasanka. Tony saw an opportunity in the fairly new idea of self-loading log trucks and Holly Morris sold him his first one; a 4300 International with a Grizzly loader. He had also started utilizing a pup with his truck and the business model was working. By 1985 he had found his way back home and was hauling into Berg Lumber in Lewistown and soon into JD Lumber in Judith Gap. Tony had also started buying his own timber and hiring loggers to harvest it. He enjoyed the forestry portions of the job as much as hauling logs so he kept on buying timber and hauling into the local mills as well as the Livingston and Belgrade mills. By 1992 Tony needed a newer truck and bought a 1988 Kenworth with an Olympic loader. The truck was a beauty so he figured he better get a really good insurance agent….and he had heard of one named Susan! Susan had made quite a name for herself selling insurance to loggers in Montana.
Tony was interested in Susan so he kept referring everyone he could think of to her for their truck insurance. This way they had a reason to keep talking! Finally, Susan agreed to go on a date; their first time alone without kids. Sticking to the ever Gypo spirit Tony didn’t show up in a Limo, or Corvette; it was his W900. Even better he had some work lined up for the date! Down to Roundup they went to get a load then a romantic dinner between the job and the mill; that was the plan. Alas, as luck would have it the grapple hose broke when the truck was half loaded. Susan’s new job was now hooking the choker on the logs so Tony could finish loading the truck. Doesn’t sound like too bad of duty however the hose kept leaking so soon Susan was covered in hydraulic oil. Rumor has it some were staring at Susan who was covered in hydraulic oil in the restaurant, but both agree it was a great time and a fond memory! Sometimes things are meant to be as this first date turned into a great friendship and marriage.
When they combined their families there were six kids in the house; Chris, Shawn, Brandi, Tia, Alex and John. Susan quickly started running the books for Miller’s Trucking Inc. She told Tony after a short time “I am sick of trying to keep track of all these trucks! We need to buy more of our own!” Tony listened and by 1998 they had 10 of their own trucks running. As this family business started to grow more family joined the ranks.
Tony’s brother Bernard started in 1989, Tony’s son Chris Miller and Susan’s brother Steve Butorovich joined the operation in the mid 90’s. Both were young enough that Susan had to get a special insurance policy for them. As is the case with a family business everyone gets involved and all the kids worked in one form or another for the business. Tia made a name for herself and good money by washing log trucks; regardless of the weather! As the kids got older, Shawn would be driving a log truck as well and Alex worked in the shop all through high-school and college, took a break teaching junior high for a bit, and is now the head mechanic at the Miller’s shop in Judith gap. If its been broken on a log truck, Alex has fixed it!
Things really ramped up with Millers in the early 2004 when Smurfit Stone started trying to source the mill with logs. Miller’s logger’s payroll jumped to 40 different contracts and up over 20 rail cars a day of logs going out of the Laurel yard. Pulp continued to be a big part of business until the pulp mill shut down. Things definitely slowed down in eastern Montana, but Millers continued on hauling into most of the mills left in Montana. Business would change again when the log market dropped in relation the financial/housing crisis.
Things were getting slow when Tony was asked to go unload some power poles near Belt MT; not long later the reaches were being lengthened in the Miller’s Log truck fleet to be able to haul 100+ foot power poles. The Bakken boom would make this a great business opportunity for moving poles and this part of the business stayed very busy. End of the Bakken boom would change the pole business a bit and now the Laurel rail siding is full of power poles and Miller Trucks are still delivering poles around the states. Even though they have been in 40 different states delivering power poles, Tony and Susan have continued to be involved in the forestry end of things keeping at least one logging contractor going and hauling logs into Montana mills.
Chris Miller got his own truck in the early 2000s and hauled logs with Miller’s until the markets got soft. Around this time, he traded his logging rigging for a cow pod and has remained in the trucking world. He hauls cows and road oil and occasionally grain. His oldest son Destin Miller is employed as a log truck driver by Park logging out of Drummond….it was definitely was in his blood!!
Shawn Nichols started running equipment and working around Miller’s shop in Judith Gap when Susan and Tony got married and they moved there. After graduation he went to college and graduated with HVAC certifications. After a period of time working the heating and air conditioning world he moved back to central Montana and started hauling logs in the early 2000s. After a year of following another driver getting loaded, Shawn got a new self-loader and started loading himself and other trucks as well. Shawn continued on working and during this time had two sons born, Landon and Laine. When Laine was born in 2009 Shawn had been itching to stay more in the woods and less on the highway and started Prairie Logging. He bought a Timbco 425b feller-buncher and started custom cutting for Ed Moore Logging. Shortly after making his second payment, his Timbco burned to the ground. He went though several other feller-bunchers since that time and more recently added a skidder and processer and has two employees. His buncher is now a newer Timber Pro….a bit fancier than the first 425! Shawn and his wife Stacie also have a new son, Kelan. Prairie Logging is known for doing a great job on the ground and Shawn has always taken extra care in picking leave trees and making sure he chooses the best one. Shawn’s middle son Laine is already trying to figure out how to get to the woods full time so I am sure these timber roots aren’t going to end anytime soon!
Unfortunately, with these articles, there is never enough room to tell all the stories as we are constrained by a newsletter format. This story that started in North Dakota has now covered 40 states and 4 generations and starting the 5th. In this span of time this family business has seen some good times and some tough times. They have survived the closure of multiple sawmills and with a can-do attitude have adapted their business accordingly. Through good times and bad times, happy times and sad times the red trucks have continued rolling. John Miller would be proud if he could look now and see how his legacy has unfolded since that saw hit the first log in 1940 in the Big Snowy Mountains and the timber roots started to grow.