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Miller Farris: Dairyman, firefighter, father-in-law

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

Miller Farris knows all about being a volunteer firefighter. He first began going on emergency calls with his dad, Miller Farris Sr., at the tender age of 10.

Of course, he wasn’t a full-fledged fireman at that point in his life. That happened when the guys at the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department voted him in as a full-fledged member at age 16.

Miller Farris’ involvement with the fire department at an early age wasn’t unusual as much as it was logical. His father had formed the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department along with his uncles Embert and Henry Farris in 1959.

“We dug the footers with garden tillers because we didn’t have enough money to rent a backhoe and of course they were few and far between in the late 50s,” Farris recounted. “So we dug it out with a garden tiller and shoveled in out by hand to pour the concrete.”

Burlington Industries donated a 1946 model truck to the Farris brothers, which served as the first fire engine in Newbern.

“We had 20, 25, local people that were in the department,” said Farris. “We didn’t have no pagers, everything was by siren only. It was mounted up here on top of the dairy.”

The Farris Brothers Dairy had always played a big part in Miller Tyree Farris’ life. His grandfather, Harry Arthur Farris. came to Newbern back in 1912 and bought the land that remains in the Farris Family to this day. Harry and Mary Mable Miller Farris went on to have seven boys and one girl and by the 20s the Farris family was immersed in the dairy business.

“My grandmother was a Miller from over in Shiloh, so that’s where I got a last name first name,” said Miller Farris.

Harry, the family patriarch, died in 1939 and shortly thereafter, all but one of the Farris brothers was enlisted in the military to fight in World War II. All but one came back to Newbern, Everett Farris died in the war at the age of 27.

“The dairy really started expanding in the forties,” said Miller Farris Jr.

When they returned from the war, the brothers decided to split duties with Embert, George and Henry Farris handling the bottling and distribution part of the dairy, while younger brothers Roscoe, Kent and Miller Farris Sr. raised and milked the cows.

In the early years there were 18 cows to milk, but then the brothers expanded their barn and accrued 42 cows.

With the increase in demand, the Farris brothers built a big white building to deal with the bottling and shipping of the milk. At one end of the building they sold dairy products directly to the public.

“They made their own ice cream and they had a little store and they sold cones of ice cream,” said Miller Farris. “So everybody would come to get their Sunday evening ice cream at Farris Brothers Dairy.”

That was fine for everybody else, but somebody had to milk a lot of cows to bring that ice cream, cream and milk to market.

“We had to milk cows and go feed the calves before we went to school,” said Miller Farris. “Every morning I got up at 4:30 and went to the barn to help feed the cows. Some mornings you went to school smelling like cow. I used to do pretty good until I got to fourth period phys ed and have to take a shower and then it was hard the rest of the day sitting in school because you wanted to go to sleep! You had your warm shower and you’ve been up since 4:30. My two older sisters were required to get up and bottle feed the calves before they went to school. Of course we walked to Newbern School when we was in grade school.”

In 1969, the same year that Miller officially joined the fire department, he became more mobile.

“My daddy bought me an old Comet car and when I got my driver’s license, so I could drive to school and get back home to milk again,” said Miller.

In 1980, Miller married a fourth-grade school teacher named Marie and three years later, their daughter Courtney was born.

Courtney was the primary reason a big quiet guy by the name of Brandon Hamblin was following Miller and I around that morning.

“I went to school with Courtney,” said Hamblin. “We’ve known each other all the way through school.”

Brandon married Miller’s daughter Courtney and also happens to be the current Chief of the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department.

This is what’s known as keeping it in the family. Miller himself was appointed chief of the Newbern firehouse in 1989 and served in that capacity for 25 years before his son-in-law Brandon took over the position after working his way through the ranks.

These days the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department answers about 225 emergency calls per year and has nine vehicles in the fleet. Many of the calls they respond to involve highway emergencies as the Newbern Fire house is responsible for dealing with accidents that occur on Interstate-81 between exits 94 and 105.

“Usually your first response truck is your cleanup truck for whatever you need and the others are there to help protect that truck and the personnel working the wreck,” said Miller Farris. “They’re going 75 and 80 miles per hour and red lights don’t mean a thing to them. They’re set on where they’re supposed to be in five hours and that’s all they got on their mind to get there as fast as they can.”

Working these types of accidents can get ugly.

“There’s a famous saying that I like to use,” said Brandon. “I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen. You always have those couple of calls you never forget. You remember more of them than you want but if you help somebody, by the end of the day, it’s worth it.”

By 2005 the Farris Brothers Dairy had over 100 cows and all the brothers except Miller Farris Senior had passed away.

“It kept getting bigger,” said Miller Farris Jr. “Me and Courtney milked them ourselves seven days a week, twice a day and it got pretty old. When you’re milking 110 cows you got up at 3:30 instead of 4:30.”

In 2005 Farris Brothers Dairy sold all their cows.

Miller was renting the old Farris Brothers building out to contractors the day an electrical fire broke out in 2010.

Miller and Marie Farris were at a funeral in Richmond the day the Dairy burnt down but Brandon, who was a volunteer member of the Newbern Fire Department witnessed the inferno.

“Initially we thought we were going to save the building but then there came a point where we knew it wasn’t going to happen and once you accepted that, it was a little easier,” said Brandon of the dairy fire.

The most memorable fire Miller Farris witnessed in his half-century history of firefighting was seeing the clock tower fall on the Old Stone Courthouse in 1989.

These days, Miller and Brandon raise over 112 beef cattle on the old farm. Having had much experience, Miller assists Brandon in his duties as Newbern’s Fire Chief.

“The firefighting end never changes, it’s surround it and drown it,” said Miller. “But the paperwork is just unbelievable anymore, so I still help Brandon fill out a lot of grants and stuff like that. I’m familiar with the figures and where they go but I was milking cows, so I never did learn computers.”

The fire department also purchased a plot of land across the street from the current station because they believe they’ve grown out of the old facility. Volvo Trucks recently donated a new tanker to the fire department and just as it was when the original fire house was built, the steel building housing the new fire truck was done by members of Newbern’s volunteer firefighting force.

Chief Brandon Hamblin of the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department also works as a paid firefighter for the Pulaski Fire Department.

“I guess you kind of roll with the punches as far as the responsibility part,” said Hamblin. “When you enjoy doing it, it’s not that bad. I enjoy the camaraderie, you know, 95% of my friend base are in the fire department. So, it’s good group to work with and I just like it. It’s all I’ve done since working age that’s all I’ve been interested in. I’ve pursued it and enjoyed the ride this far.”

Father-in-law Miller Farris displays much the same attitude.

“It’s just a part of my life,” Miller said of being a firefighter. “It’s the same as getting up out of bed in the morning putting your clothes on and going to milk cows. I grew up with it and if the alarm goes off it’s part of my life and I don’t find it tough. It’s aggravating a lot of times but I enjoy it. And I keep saying I’m gonna slow down but when that alarm goes off I’m ready to go like always.”

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