William “Bill” Miller loves Brown County and the wilderness that surrounds it.

He loves it so much, he went to battle for it.

Miller returned from serving overseas in the Philippines with the Peace Corps in 1973.

In 1971, environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service initiated a bill in U.S. Congress to establish a wilderness area encompassing 32,000 acres in southern Brown County, eastern Monroe County and northern Jackson County.

“Nearly half the county was (already) off the tax rolls,” he said.

Miller’s farm was in the middle of the area. This meant he would have to give it up.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. This is not what’s going to happen and you guys can leave. You’re not going to take my property,’” he said.

“Everybody told me, ‘You can’t fight the government.’ … And I said, ‘Oh yes you can.’”

Miller received support from the county commissioners, county council and chamber of commerce. Then he helped to establish and served as co-chairman of CCNRA, Citizens Concerned About the Nebo Ridge Area.

The group went to Washington, D.C., to argue against the establishment. Miller started doing TV and radio interviews and debating publicly against it.

“By the end of the first or second year, we got it slowed down. By the end of the first five years, we had it in a hold pattern,” he said.

He received support from former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who was then mayor of Indianapolis, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

After five years, the wilderness area was not going to be established and Miller began compromising with the pro-wilderness groups in 1978.

For the next five years, they worked together to establish the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area, which spans about 12,000 acres on the south edge of Lake Monroe.

“Once they took out the private property, I was OK with it,” he said.

Miller’s farm still stands today in Elkinsville. The house and barn are more than 120 years old. He remodeled the farmhouse in the early ’90s and lives there full-time.

He tries to raise hardwood trees for harvest: oak, black cherry and walnut.

The farm is also home to Browning Mountain.

Browning Mountain was private property until 1993, when Miller decided to work with Nature Conservancy to make it public land.

The trail going up the hill was a Native American trail. The top was the site of what some believe was the first cabin in present-day Brown County, Miller wrote in a 2014 column for the Brown County Democrat.

A lot of fun, work

In 1940, when Miller was 3, his family bought a 345-acre farm on Spearsville Road for about $7,200.

It was toward the end of the Great Depression and residents were still suffering. Three families who had previously lived there lost it after they couldn’t afford the taxes, Miller said.

He remembers attending the first county fair in 1947 in downtown Nashville. At 9 years old, he was one of the first 4-H exhibitors.

That summer, a young neighbor boy was helping Miller and his family on their farm. A wild horse he was riding ran off and the boy landed on his head. Another boy ran to get an ambulance and told 9-year-old Miller to stay with the injured neighbor.

While he watched and waited for help, the boy stopped breathing.

“For a 9-year-old boy, that was frightening,” Miller said.

His father worked in Indianapolis, leaving his mother in charge of their home and farm. Miller did the farm work.

“It really made a big impression on your whole life. It taught you that work is a good thing and too much work is not a good thing. There can be such a thing as too much work,” he said.

During World War II, the family moved to Indianapolis while his father went into the service for a 18 months, then returned to Brown County.

After graduating from Helmsburg High School, he attended Franklin College, then graduated from Eastern Illinois University with degrees in botany, biology, kinesiology and sports. He played basketball, threw the javelin and ran track.

He was invited to a national javelin competition three times, and in 1960, was invited to the Olympic Trials.

In his book “Son of a Coal Miner’s Daughter” Miller said going to the Olympic Trials required fundraising and “I didn’t see myself going down that path.”

Bringing peace

Miller was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in 1963. He was recommended by a coach and mentor in college to sign up.

“I had a dream to go overseas as a young boy to learn a foreign language and learn other cultures,” he said.

He stayed active as a volunteer, then as a staff member and a Peace Corps director. In a 10-year period he went to Thailand, Micronesia, Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific and the Philippines, learning each language and culture.

“Depending on where you live, you grow up with one view of what things are about race and religion and culture. Then when you go overseas and live with people and work with them, learn their language and eat their food, you begin to think and see the world the way they see it and not the way we see it. You find out that people are the same everywhere in the world.”

To have a true experience overseas, Miller said it’s important learn the language first and live with the people. “People who go overseas and live in an American community, they come away still thinking the people are less than they are, and they’re not,” he said.

‘Lucky life’

In 1978, Miller began working with Farm Service Agency as a county executive director with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was eventually assigned as the Morgan County director, from which he retired in 2000.

After retirement, he volunteered with Head Start, the Brown County Rotary and Brown County Lions Club and worked on his farm.At age 60, Miller ran his first full marathon with his daughter.

A year after he retired, he competed in his first triathlon, then 26 triathlons in a 10-year period. “I loved it because it’s a total workout. You learn to swim, you bicycle, it works on your balance, it works on your aerobic and it just keeps you super fit,” he said.

When he was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, he had to quit competing.

The disease causes the brain to not send certain signals to muscles. A signal is sent for a muscle to move, but not to relax, causing Miller to have tight muscles in his legs.

“It paralyzed me,” he said. “I went from perfect health to (I) couldn’t move my legs or anything from the waist down within one hour.”

Now, Miller is back to walking and driving.

Overall, he’s had a “very lucky life.”

“By the end of this year next year I’ll be 80, and that’s lucky, too. Once you pass about 75, people begin to disappear from your life. You have to realize how lucky you are to keep going,” he said.

“The key to all of enjoying life is to stay active.”

Age: 78

Place of birth: Indianapolis

Children: Eric Miller and KellySue Miller

Parents: Rupert and Birdie Miller

Siblings: Sue, Frank “Bud,” Jim, George, Michael, David and Andy

Occupations: Retired from U.S. Department of Agriculture

Hobby: Outdoor activities, athletics and environmental affairs

Author photo
Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.