Greatest Barn Find Story Ever?

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Let’s start by saying up front – this is not a new story and some of you will likely already know about it. In fact, this took place almost 20 years ago. But, at least in my opinion, it’s the greatest barn find story ever told and I imagine it will be new to quite a few Barn Find readers.

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Alexander Kennedy Miller was the son of a well to do stock broker who went to Rutgers University in New Jersey to become a mechanical engineer. He was probably eccentric from an early age, but he was clearly mechanically gifted. He loved cars and flying machines, and began buying Stutz cars and building autogyros (early helicopters) when he was quite young.

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During World War II, when the US Army turned him down for being too old, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and rose to the rank of Captain, retiring from active duty in 1946. That’s when things began to get interesting. He got married and moved to a farm in the tiny hamlet of East Orange, in central Vermont.

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Over the five decades that followed, the Millers lived a strange, compulsively frugal, and reclusive life. They evidently did not have many friends, if any. But AK Miller amassed an incredible collection of Stutz cars, as well as other classics of the twenties and thirties, all of which he stored in homemade barns and sheds scattered across his property. At one point, he even bought an old schoolhouse for storage. When Stutz went out of business in 1935, he bought a stash of new parts from the factory. In his later years, he drove economical VW beetles for transportation, acquiring additional used examples whenever his current vehicle ceased working.

Many in the old car community knew about Miller and his Stutz obsession, and he did sell parts to dedicated seekers from time to time. However he gained a reputation for surliness and even dishonesty. Quite often instead of selling the actual Stutz part he had agreed to sell, he made replacements using his originals as patterns.

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Meanwhile, the local community assumed the Millers were paupers, their farm was dilapidated and in disrepair, but it turns out they had simply hidden their significant wealth in gold, silver, bank and promissory notes throughout the property. AK Miller died in 1993 when he fell off a ladder and his wife died three years later.

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Miller’s incredible Lancefield Couple now in restored condition.

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Since Miller had never paid federal income taxes, the IRS took an interest in the estate, and what eventually came to light was one of the most incredible collections of previously hidden classic cars and parts ever discovered.

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The photographer Nicholas Whitman was hired by Christie’s at the behest of well known appraiser Dave Brownell to document what had been uncovered in the farm buildings.

The Christie’s auction was held on the East Orange property September 7th & 8th, 1996 and thousands of interested onlookers and bidders attended. Dave Brownell wrote the story and Whitman provided photographs for the featured story in Automobile Quarterly, Vol.36, No.3. A major museum show is in the works for 2016 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Miller collection sale and Whitman has a published a book of his photographs that is available for sale on his site here.

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I love this story – and of course the cars are just incredible. There are so many elements of this tale that really make you wonder. What was it that drove Miller into such eccentric behavior? Who got all these cars and are any of them still in their original-as-found condition? Are there any other comparable collections out there? I sure hope so….

A number of the photos I have reproduced here are copyrighted by Nicholas Whitman. More about Miller can be found here and there’s an article about the auction here.

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Comments

  1. Gary

    Fascinating! Never heard this one before.

  2. Dave Wright

    This one isn’t bad but the French find of dozens of Ferraries, Mercedes, Bugatties et all in a large barn complex is more interesting to me. I think there was even a Cobera AC in the group. I think that was last year?

  3. MG'zer

    This is new for me also. Thanks for bringing it back!

  4. derek

    The Roger Baillon collection that was found in 2014 is going to be hard to beat. I know of a collection far more valuable than this Miller collection but the eccentric owner will never sell any of the cars. He wouldn’t even let me help move his 1920’s Rolls Royce with silver-plated trim into the barn to spare it the worst of the weather. Every year the 100+ cars get a little dustier and more rat-infested and their owner gets a little more eccentric.

  5. Alan (Michigan )

    That Lancefield Coupe is an achingly beautiful car.
    This story illustrates the complexity of the human psyche. Thanks for posting it!

  6. Barzini

    Aside from the barn find aspects of the story, I am in awe that someone would join the Royal Canadian Air Force after being rejected by our military for being too old. Now that’s commitment to the allied cause.

    • David Frank David Member

      Sorry, way off topic except about “Now that’s commitment to the allied cause.” Here’s another committed guy.
      Michael J. Novosel flew in World War II and the Korean war and was in his 40’s and flying airliners for a living. He quit, joined the army as an enlisted guy and flew Dustoff in the NAM saving many lives. I don’t have many heros, but this guy is one of them. His book, Dustoff: The Memoir of an Army Aviator is a good read. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

  7. Mark 'cuda man

    I remember this story like yesterday. This guy had brand new Stutz engine blocks. He built his home made sheds with used nails. His neighbors said that they heard him pounding a hammer all hours of the night. This was him removing nails from used lumber. I’ll never forget seeing the pictures when they removed the cars. Yes, this is an “ultimate find”.

  8. Brakeservo

    Mr AK Miller aka Nutzy Stutzy.

  9. Brakeservo

    Interesting that the two great barnfinds mentioned here both involve fraud, for Miller it was tax fraud and Baillon it was bankruptcy fraud.

  10. grenade

    Seems like a normal chap to me…

  11. Andy Frobig

    I guess the Schlumpf collection doesn’t really count as a barn find, but it’s pretty impressive.

    • Dave Wright

      That would be a bit like calling the Harrah collection a “barn Find”………. He stored them in an old rail road barn………..

      • brakeservo

        I never said his was a barn find . . . but he did buy an old Catholic girls school campus in Spanaway to house cars – and still ran out of space!

    • Brakeservo

      And the Schlumpf collection also was the subject of legal wrangling when their unhappy workers seized it and some factories.

  12. PackardMike

    Amazing story! Interesting, strange couple. Wow what a collection. I know of a shrinking collection 5 miles away that is the remains of a transportation museum dream of two brothers. They would scout out “old” cars during their travels, buy them & drive them home. I first met the family in 1962. At that time their cars were stored in a large steel barn & several garages around town. I recall a Cord convertible, Packard Dietrich 4 door convertible. 12cylinder? A 1906 Thomas, 1930? Front wheel drive Packard sedan, 1931 Reo Royale convertible (1of 50?) Stanley Steamer, an electric car, more Packard’ s, Lincoln Zepher convertible…..
    Even a car made by a family in Indiana (1of 3?) with carriage type wheels with rubber tires dated 1898! I think they donated it to the R E Olds Museum in Lansing Mi. I’m not sure how many cars, bicycles,etc they had but unfortunately their dreamed transportation museum never happened & when one brother died 3 years ago the collection was down to 11 or 12 cars. They were an interesting family. It’s not just about the cars. It’s about the people.

  13. A.J.

    The A.K. Miller estate was definitely not a barn find as everyone in the hobby knew A.K. A better candidate would be this:

    http://www.vanderbiltcupraces.com/blog/article/the_1962_auction_of_the_century_at_the_farnesworth_estate

    • MikeH

      AJ you’re right!! What a story that was!! Not just the cars, the whole story. That has to be the best and most tragic car story I’ve ever read. I researched further: http://www.25amagazine.com/index.php/feature/gold-coast/item/375-farnsworth-and-the-bizarre-saga-of-winifred-bird

      • A.J.

        I was well versed in the Byrd auction as a child since my dad and Uncle attended with a wad of cash trying to buy the 2 Duesenbergs and the SS Mercedes. Dad ran out of cash at 5k on the SS and my uncle tapped out on the Walker LaGrande. The guys that bought those cars would not have stopped. The Walker Lagrande won best in class at Pebble this year. I still have one of the house phones from Farnsworth.

  14. Dave Wright

    Who was the guy in the Midwest that collected all the Dusenburgs? I think he owned an over the road truck company and gave his drivers a bonus when they could find him a car. I think he was in Illinois or somewhere like that. He bought cars from all over the country.

    • brakeservo

      There was Harold LeMay in the Tacoma, Washington area who owned the garbage company – he paid his drivers a ‘spiff’ for any interesting old cars they found on their routes that he bought. He wound up with the what was regarded as the world’s largest car collection at one time, but it was more of a case of quantity over quality. His family has worked to refine his collection after his death and has built a world-class museum today.

  15. Julles

    Guys, this man is sad. What was he saving the cars for? It’s the people we love and touch that are the real treasure not cars no matter how valuable. We can take their love with us when we die not the cars. Beautiful cars are for driving and sharing and enjoying with others. Just think he had a huge collection with no one to share it with.

    • A.J.

      Julles, I disagree. He had them and enjoyed the cars in his own way. Everyday walkingin the barn might have made him smile. Each of us might do something different but I never second guess how someone gets enjoyment out of his hobby.

      • Van

        Surliness and dishonest.
        I’d say OCD
        We watch hoarders on TV and laugh at the piles of stuff everywhere.
        The difference is we like what this guy hoarded.
        These people are usually not that happy.
        Ebenezer Scrooge was not happy until he shared his hoard of money.

      • Julles

        You’re right, in his own Ebeneezer Scrooge kind of way he probably was happy thinking he was smarter than everyone else and counted his cars every night. It was everyone else like his wife and the people he cheated or charged too high of prices that he made unhappy. But wasn’t the first 5 cars enough, 10 cars, 20 cars enough for him? How many cars would be enough for you to have before the joy that they brought only lasted hours?
        Van and I have a “win the lottery” deal about cars, we try to hold the number to 10 and every car we get must be driven and we share our cars with the public whether entering parades, car shows or NPO fundraising. Van wants to take our burned Repro Jag D on a trailer to cars and coffee. Lol. Oh and we got used tires on the 15 inch rims on the Jag and it is so low and looks so beautiful. Van found out that the Jag used to race.

      • Matt C

        “I never second guess how someone gets enjoyment out of his hobby.”

        A.J. : I do, when it involves destroying cars that others could and would restore, drive, and enjoy. In this case most of the vehicles were at least moderately preserved, but in many cases the cars sit outside and eventually become so far gone they can’t be restored. I personally know of dozens of collector cars that I have seen sitting in the same outdoor location for 10 – 20+ years and the owners consistently refuse to sell. In most cases the cars are now beyond help, which I consider a loss for the hobby. I do recognize an individual’s right to enjoy his/her property as each individual wants, but I wish that enjoyment wasn’t at the expense of the future of the hobby.

  16. Mike

    Neat story, I have always wondered how many more people are out there doing the same thing as Mr. Miller did.
    I knew of just one man and wife, Dad and I got to know him after Dad repaired the truck he drove around town until he passed away, the truck was a 37 Ford. After he died they estimated his estate at 100 Million Dollars, he had 120+ cars in different garages on his property and even inside the house next door that he bought, and some people never knew it because him and his wife never spend a lot of money on anything. The walls inside the house that they lived in had bed sheets stapled to them no sheet rock just sheets. any outer wall was insulated but had either old paper grocery bags or newspaper stapled to it, you would think these 2 people had nothing, but they chose to live like that, and they were both very sweet people.

    • Julles

      No offense but you need to ask his wife if she was fine with having sheets for sheetrock so her husband could have another car. That was the generation where wives were indoctrinated to do everything for their husbands happiness and to never complain. If Van did that to me so he could have another car for his collection, he would be sleeping in the shack alone!

  17. Nessy

    A little personal story about the Millers. AK Miller, was a Stutz man by far, however, his second pick of cars were very early Rolls Royces as he had a few. His everyday driver was always a VW Bug. He was also an Airplane buff. If you look up his name, you will learn alot about this man. My friend used to sell airplane parts and one day, Miller rode out to my friend’s place to try and buy some plane parts. My friend opened the front door and let Miller in. Within seconds, his white carpet had a trail of oil printed shoes. The man was covered in oil. Keep in mind, he just drove several states south in all that filth. His VW Bug was filled with garbage but had a small trailer for the plane parts. Needless to say, after oil fingerprints on the walls and oil shoe prints on the carpets, he left without the parts when he offered pennys on the dollar. That was just the way he was. The Millers were very much involved in their Church. If you made it to their front door, he would put you to work chopping wood or repairing the shed roof while his wife would preach your head off. If, after all that hard work, he was still in a fair mood, he might open one of the shed doors and give you just a peek. That is how he was. A few months before his wife passed, she told a neighbor to look under the house floorboards after she was gone. Under the floorboards was over a million in cash and gold. Very few folks, if anyone, really knew how many cars he had hiding. Even the Stutz club thought he only had several. Once in a while, he would contact the Stutz club looking for parts. They never paid taxes, never had kids and bought dented cans of cheap food so they could spend what they had on more old cars. The house did not have a bathroom or proper heating. There was an outhouse out back and small space heaters in the house. This was the biggest old car find of the 1990’s. Christies auctioned everything off in 1996. Now, if you want to talk about one of the greatest barn finds of the century, look up Barney Pollard. He had so many rare early brass cars that he stacked them on their noses and hung them like they were in a meat locker. He collected cars from the 1920s up until he passed away in 1981 at age 85.

  18. Gary Merly

    I believe one of the Miller stories I read claimed that they ate stew for every meal. It never stopped cooking. They would just add things to the simmering pot.

  19. MatB Member

    Thanks for sharing this story that I never heard of before.
    We had a similar story in my area few years ago. The guy’s collection was mostly a Olds things. He drove some car time by time but he never restored one. He had to sell most of the cars before going into bankrupt.
    He was a sad and wierd guy, his house is about to collapse…

  20. Brakeservo

    The never ending stewpot, maybe a rabbit today, squirrel or other road kill tomorrow along with a chunk of tire tread, worn brake shoe…….

  21. Nicholas Whitman

    Thank you for the review. Museum show mentioned has been postponed until 2017.
    I’ll update when I know more.

  22. Robert

    I knew AK and his wife and visited a few times getting to see the whole collection! Was even in the old school house but never knew I was standing on a gold mine !! Fantastic people.

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