Fiery Ending and a Revealing Testimony

    In the night of January 13, 1919, fires ravaged buildings and equipment at both the Prairie Creek site and the Ozark property.  Howard Millar, summoned by telegram, rushed home on leave and found only a redwood water tank and a few small structures intact, along with a scorched, but restorable African washer in the Prairie Creek plant.  As for insurance, Millar later said policies in the area had been suspended after a rash of other fires.[1]  Although the culprit or culprits were never exposed, the Millars almost immediately blamed the Mauneys, alleging in court that the destruction occurred by their “instigation and procurement.”[2]


     That impassioned argument in the Pike County Chancery court, in 1919, included not only an array of allegations, but also some surprising acknowledgments.  In an eleven-page brief, the Millars and their lawyers tried to explain why they were not rebuilding the destroyed plant and resuming work at the Mauney Mine.  The intent of the lease and the plant, they said, was to test the property for commercial potential and to determine “if there was sufficient washable material to justify the erection of the necessary machinery for the purpose of commercially operating and mining said land.”  Although their effort had been “retarded and hindered” by constant lawsuits, the defendants did their best “to test the overburden and surface of said Mauney mine.”[3]

    The defendants said they had “sufficiently tested this surface and overburden” until they knew “approximately the diamond content per cubic yard,” which consisted “largely of very small diamonds and splinters or fractures.”  Before they could accumulate enough diamonds for proper evaluation, the war in Europe blocked their access to experts in Belgium, Holland, and adjacent trade centers, and there were “no facilities in America for cutting or marketing mine run diamonds of the character which are known to exist upon the Mauney mine.”  Thus, without the evaluation, “it was impossible to ascertain whether or not the land could be profitably mined.”[4]

    Moreover, with the diamond content of the surface known, “it then became necessary to resort to deep mining for the purpose of testing the depth of said diamond bearing dirt and [the] interrupting hard non diamond bearing rock [hardebank].”  Only deep mining could determine the relative volume of productive and unproductive material, but the war helped prevent that by imposing restrictions on dynamite and other items needed.[5]


    Facing all those obstacles, the defendants “continued to wash and did wash ten thousand loads of dirt per annum which necessarily consisted largely of overburden of which they had determined was of variable content as to diamonds, and not indicative of true conditions.”  Left free to test, defendants “would have long since determined whether or not diamonds exist upon said land in paying quantities.”  Because of the harassment and the war, they had been “unable to determine the value of the diamond content of the mine.”[6]


    Those enlightening comments, however, were buried within a long, obscure document submitted for non-jury determination.  With only a few lawyers and a judge involved, the revelation escaped publicity; the Millars soon began telling a different story outside the courts.  In public statements and promotional appeals, they insisted they had “proved” the potential of the properties and were intending to spend a large amount of money to go into commercial production when their enemies dealt them a devastating blow.  For the remainder of his life, Howard Millar would insist the burning of a modest test plant and other facilities was the crucial turning point for his family—a tragedy that kept them from becoming millionaires.[7]

    Back in that early era, however, general engineering data indicated test facilities such as those at Prairie Creek could be installed for less than $25,000. The costly part of mining was the day-to-day operation, an expense the Kimberlite Company would have incurred in any case.[8]  Although a $25,000 loss was significant, the properties still could have attracted offsetting investments if they had shown commercial potential.[9]    


    Instead, the fires terminated work at the Ozark Mine permanently.  The Millars salvaged whatever they could at Prairie Creek and stored it on the Ozark property.  In effect, the company had already abandoned the Mauney Mine, and final relinquishment occurred in 1921, after the Mauneys won court decrees voiding the lease.[10]



[1] Howard Millar, Finders Keepers, 55ff., is his final account.  Also see the report of Arnold J. Hecker of St. Louis, the mechanical engineer who helped plan and erect the Prairie Creek plant in 1912-1913:  Hecker, report to Austin Q. Millar, and Howard Millar’s reply, February 17, 1919, I.M, Crater archive.  Sent to inspect the damage, Hecker found the plant “completely destroyed,” with the building, equipment, and other items “now a conglomerated mess, and all of no value with a few exceptions.”  He said the African-type washing pan was full of material during the fire and survived in fair shape, but other equipment could only be sold for scrap.


[2] Supra, “Mauneys–Battling in the Courts.”  After that blunt assertion, the Millars modified the story.  In 1921 they reported the destruction was “inspired by the insidious propaganda” of “those interested in the . . . litigation over the Mauney lease” and by “other lawless acts of the native element” (Report on Chicago conference of 1921, p. 1).  In a letter in 1925, Howard Millar said the State Fire Marshall conducted an extensive investigation, and after almost three years got the evidence and presented it to “the District Judge,” who set a pretrial date but told Millar’s attorneys “that it was best not to attempt a prosecution-that we would ‘probably unearth a barrel of snakes’” (Millar to Tompkins, McRae & Tompkins, attorneys at law, Prescott, Ar., November 16, 1925, I.N).

    Much later, a published interview of Howard Millar summarized his comment on the fires and said:  “To this day, Howard Millar believes the [diamond] syndicate was behind the law suits” (Gross, “Diamond Mine Mystery,” [1959], 99).  A few years earlier, without directly mentioning the suits, Howard Millar told a reporter that “British-owned mining interests in South Africa” were responsible for the fires ([Memphis] Commercial Appeal, Sunday, February 26, 1956, Sec. 5, p. 1).  Also see the sweeping allegation in Robert S. McCord, “In Murfreesboro, More Frustrations Than Gems So Far,” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine, August 5, 1956, p. 9 (Millar blamed the syndicate for the fires and almost every other problem experienced since the early years). 

    The final version in Finders Keepers added more detail.  There were one or two suspects, Millar said, and “eventually we did obtain a signed confession from one of our former workmen that implicated a certain Murfreesboro man.  We never made any use of the confession, however, for a number of reasons.  One was that a trusted friend warned us there might be a killing if we did, and we wanted no bloodshed.  I believed the warning, for I had been shot at several times in the woods around the mining property, and once when I was in an outhouse at the mine.  Whoever it was shooting at me apparently did not intend to kill me, for I was an easy target, but had merely wished to frighten me away.  The arson had put an entirely different aspect of danger on the situation” (56).

    After skipping to another topic, Millar’s memoir completed the account.  “Many” years later, evidently after the Depression, “a man” made a deathbed confession about the culprits who set the fires.  “One of the men he named was paid $50 and given a new pistol.  He also told who paid the man for the job, who was behind it all, and as many details as he knew.  I knew this man was one I could believe, one who just the knowledge of what happened bothered him.  I thanked him for the information, and he died the next day” (64).


[3] “Amended and Substituted Answer and Cross Bill,” Bettie L. Mauney, et al., vs. Austin Q. Millar and Howard A. Millar as Trustees,” 1919, Chancery No. 931, pp. 1-3 (later, Supreme Court 219 Sw. 1028).


[4] Ibid., 4.  As the Millars knew, New York City had its own trade center, with cutters and appraisers, and reputable appraisers were available in several other cities.  Howard Millar had mentioned “experts” in New York and Chicago as early as 1913 (Millar to M. M. Mauney, March 14, 1914, I.H, Crater).  Reyburn’s company had been sending diamonds to Schenck and Van Haelen, New York, for a decade.  Evidently, the Millars avoided an evaluation of the diamonds because of the overall quality and the small average size:  an objective appraisal would have cast serious doubt on the prospects at the Mauney Mine; better to simply underscore the total number, an impressive 1,000 or more.


[5] Ibid., 5; supra, “Battle in the Courts.”


[6] Ibid., 6.


[7] In the documents examined for this study, the author found one other instance where Howard Millar clearly acknowledged his group had not determined if diamonds “existed in payable or commercially payable quantities”—the four-acre Ozark Mine remained merely “a prospect.”  This was in a private letter to the law firm in nearby Prescott that had helped the Millars acquire the bankrupt Ozark property (Millar to W. V. Tompkins, McRae & Tompkins, Prescott, November 16, 1925, I.N).  Millar was contesting a sharp increase in the county tax assessment, based on the tax board’s belief the diamond properties had great potential that simply was not being pursued.  Of course, the Millars’ public stance had encouraged the belief.  In the end the Millars did not have to confess to the board; the Arkansas Diamond Company’s victory in the court of appeals resulted in tax reductions (supra, “Frustration and Taxes”).

    Regardless of such obscure statements made under pressure, the assertion that the fires killed a commercial operation became a constant theme after 1920—it could hardly be avoided as the Kimberlite group began declaring their tests of the Ozark proved commercial viability (infra, “Roaring ‘20s“).


[8] For instance, Woodford’s report to the Ozark Corporation, October 28, 1908, estimated “a complete washing plant, with pumps, portable railway, steel trucks and sheds, men’s quarters, tools and supplies” would cost $17,000 (5).  In October 1923, O. L. Brace, a geologist familiar with the area, estimated a total of $16,000 for an adequate test plant, 5,000' of 6" pipeline, a water tower, pumps and accessories, and misc. expenditures (O. L. Brace, Petroleum and Mining Geologist, Camden, Arkansas, Report to Gordon Ingalls, El Dorado, Ar., October 17, 1923, p. 4, “Misc.” box, Crater archive.).  Ingalls was interested in the Mauney Mine.

    The estimate Austin Millar obtained from Arnold J. Hecker, St. Louis, immediately after the fires can be dismissed (correspondence, I.M).  Hecker’s $350,000-$400,000 estimate for commencing “commercial” operations was designed for stock promotion, as the letters between Hecker and the two Millars made clear.  It also buttressed the Millars’ argument in court in 1919 (Chancery No. 931, supra).


[9] Woodford estimated that if the softer, decomposed area of the Ozark were mined only to a depth of 20’, it would yield 150,000 loads of peridotite (Woodford, Report to Ozark Corporation, 4).  The Ozark Mine held little hardebank, compared with the Mauney lease.


[10] In addition to the court decisions, supra, “Mauneys—Battle,” see the untitled report on the Chicago conference of Kimberlite Company trustees and major shareholders on July 30, 1921, with updated reports covering the period to July 30, 1922, pp. 4, 6 (V.B.9, Crater).

    Compare the above with the brief statement in Howard Millar’s memoir:  “We were under an agreement that, should mining be halted for three months, the Mauney lease would go back to the Mauney estate.  Obviously we could not get back into production in so short a time, so we turned the ten-acre Mauney tract back to the Mauney estate” (Finders-Keepers, 57).


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