"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Love on wheels

By on January 27, 2020 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Leo and Polly Miller in their 1968 Chevy pickup stop to talk to a friend a few years ago.

A long life of admiring and collecting cars and their memorabilia is displayed at Leo Miller’s Lake Chelan Auto Museum

by Vicki Olson Carr

Like many Chelan County pioneers, Merlen and Grace Miller piled their family and a few belongings into a car and fled Kansas during the Dust Bowl days and the Great Depression. 

Driving west, they settled down in Deming near Bellingham in 1935. However, their youngest son, Leo Stanley Miller, developed painful arthritis and rheumatic fever. In and out of the hospital, Leo missed most of the third grade.

Hearing that eastern Washington had a dry, sunny and maybe healthier climate, the Miller family loaded up one more time, drove east to Carlton. Chelan, however, became their final destination and Leo quickly returned to full health.

Leo Miller was proud to locate and purchase a red and white Pontiac just like the one he owned when he and Polly were married 61 years ago.

Leo Miller loved his FFA activities in high school and was unit president. He also played basketball. The Chelan high school team made it all the way to the state tournament in 1954 with Leo as team captain. He was also named most inspirational player twice. 

In high school, he drove a 1940 Mercury coupe. “It was gray, had spinners and skirts, and was lowered,” he recalled with a grin. But his most important high school memory was receiving a $50 bill one Christmas from the apple grower he worked for during harvest and summer vacations. His work ethic had value.

Included in this shot are a red 1951 Mercury and a black 1967 Pontiac GTO, just a few of the 60-plus classic and antique cars on display at Miller’s auto museum.

After graduation, Leo Miller drove his 1950 Ford up the Alcan Highway to work that summer in a gold mining operation near Fox, just outside Fairbanks. “Back in Chelan, I went to work at one of the apple warehouses for $1.25 an hour,” Leo said, chuckling and shaking his head as he recalled the minimal wages. 

Later he worked for the Lake Chelan Boat Company for five years helping to haul passengers, mail and freight up and down Lake Chelan. Then Leo worked for Chelan Box & Manufacturing towing log booms down lake to the saw mill.

In the meantime, Leo Miller and Polly Austin of Omak were married and daughter Jana and son Wade soon joined the family. Putting their heads together with a shared sense of business savvy, the Chelan couple bought an apple orchard and eventually launched their own businesses in Chelan. 

This neon green 1946 Chevy van was restored by Juan Patino of Chelan and was used to promote another Miller family enterprise, Zippy Disposal.

Leo’s fascination with cars and the auto industry followed him wherever he went. “I had a red and white 1955 Pontiac Phoenix when I married Polly. I bought it new for $2,900. The one I have now here at the museum cost me $25,000,” Leo said, gazing around at his collection of memorabilia.

 “In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s I collected Corvettes. I had about 15 to 18, which I later sold. Some of them ran. Some didn’t. Some I bought for parts.” Leo said.

About this time Leo and Polly began spending winter months in Yuma, Arizona going to the annual January car auctions in Phoenix. “I bought three or four cars every year. That’s when I put up a Quonset-hut type warehouse to keep ’em in,” Leo explained. “And things just grew from there. . .”

Leo’s interest in the auto industry includes auto memorabilia — gas pumps, neon signs, toy cars for toddlers and recently a rash of heavy, detailed Franklin mint cars. 

CocaCola memorabilia and promotional items are a feature of the Miller’s Auto Museum and Event Center.

He bought many items at various car shows in the Arizona and other Southwest states, as well as locally. Some memorabilia has been donated to the Miller’s Lake Chelan Auto Museum and Event Center, which the Miller’s opened in 2017, located on Blue Water Lane off State Route 150, 1.5 miles southwest of Chelan.

“We have the museum open three hours a day, three days a week, and open up around June 1. The first year we had 700 visitors. Last year we had 1,300 visitors. We hope to have 1,500 to 2,000 visitors this year,” Leo said during a recent conversation. “Several car clubs have been to see our 65 classic and antique cars, plus motorcycles and boats. It’s really kind of exciting!

“And the Chelan Cruze car show people have decided to let me organize the June car show downtown. I have two other guys helping me. . . We’re going to add antique tractors this year. I think it’ll be interesting.”

Since the museum also has an event center, Leo is thinking of adding a wine-tasting venue to go along with a food vendor. “That might bring more people in too,” Leo explained.

And where does Polly fit in with all of this? 

“Well, she’s the one who has let me do it all,” Leo answers. “She managed our motel for 20 years. When we sold it, some of that money was used for this museum. I’m still trying to organize all the memorabilia I just bought from a collector up on Wenatchee Heights,” Leo adds.

“You know, I’m 84 now. You’ve got to stay active. You’ve got to stay involved. And that’s just what I’m doing.” Leo thumps the table to emphasize the importance of his last two remarks. “If you don’t, you’ll just fade away.”

Well, Leo Miller might be a senior citizen now. He might be required to spend some time and energy to care for and comfort Polly, his wife of 61 years. 

But he’s not going to spend his time dozing in a comfy recliner or gazing out the windows of their lakefront home near downtown Chelan — or their shabby chic cabin nestled in the trees near the Methow River. 

Or you might find Leo cruising around town in one of his favorites from the extensive collection of beautiful classic and antique cars from the Miller’s auto museum.

Vicki Carr is a Chelan writer who  has enjoyed several visits to the Miller’s auto museum where she saw two examples of the first automobiles that her family owned on display as classic cars.

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