When the Kincade Fire crested the hill behind Kip Miller’s home on Pine Flat Road, it was big and moving fast.
“It came through so fast that the forest is still there, still standing,” Miller said last weekend. “It just took my house and my cottage.”
Miller lost the home he built himself in the 1980s, plus his nearby workshop and guest cottage building. He’s happy that the blaze spared his wine cave, where he had “a couple of barrels of wine and my four prized, hand-carved antique carousel horses and some artwork.”
Miller is a well-known figure in Healdsburg. In addition to three decades as a handyman and contractor, he likes to dress up and volunteer. In 2002, as a member of the local American Legion Post, Miller knew that the Legion was always struggling to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the annual Independence Day fireworks show.
He decided to help. Lean and gangly, with big work-worn hands, bright blue eyes and a curly white beard, Miller figured that anyone who attended the fireworks show would be hard-pressed to resist giving a donation to Uncle Sam himself.
“I asked (former Legion leader) Frank Zak if I could dress up like Uncle Sam and collect money for the fireworks, and Frank said, ‘We’ll sure as hell give it a try.’”
A tradition was born. Uncle Sam worked the crowds at the fireworks shows and collected donations in a bucket. Not long after, he started attending summer concerts in the Plaza, where the combination of good vibes, good music and his engaging manner filled his bucket over and over.
It wasn’t long after Uncle Sam came into Miller’s life that the Healdsburg Certified Farmers’ Market asked him to help out at special events. With his “Farmer John” overalls, straw hat, cackling laugh and plenty of bad jokes, he seemed like the Wizard of Oz Scarecrow come to life. He had a rollicking good time announcing the Zucchini and Pumpkin Festival events.
Colorado to Orange County to Healdsburg
Miller came to Healdsburg just over 30 years ago. Born in Colorado, he was the middle of three boys.
“Colorado winters were hard in my house,” he recalled recently. “Me and my brothers shared a double bed and I always wiggled my way into the middle so I’d be warm.”
Miller grew up in a newspaper family. His father owned the Lyman Leader, and Miller remembers hand-feeding sheets into the old hand-cranked press and putting the lead type away after the paper was printed.
“I was 10 years old. That was my first job,” he said.
When he got old enough to flee snowy Colorado, Miller landed in Southern California, where he met Betty, his wife and sweetheart, and taught printing and journalism at community colleges.
The Millers came to Healdsburg on vacation in 1984 and liked it enough to relocate. In 1988, they bought 100 acres on Pine Flat Road.
“It’s mostly up and down, fit for skunk and deer,” Miller said, “but we had two acres up on a knoll, where I built our house.”
For two years, Miller camped on the land and worked on the house, while Betty stayed in town and ran the hearing aid concession at Costco. That memory sends Miller into a joke-filled digression, complete with exaggerated, “huh, I can’t hear you” gags and the recollection that he broke his last hearing aid after he dropped it on his bedroom floor and stepped on it.
“The one before that I broke when I was scuba diving off Catalina,” he said.
The Millers moved into their solar-powered dream house on Pine Flat Road on Christmas Eve, 1990.
“We had no sheetrock on the walls, but it was insulated,” Miller said.
Social creatures, the Millers had friends up to the house, and it wasn’t long before people asked Miller to build them something like what they saw.
“I started out as a handyman, then a contractor. I still work, but mostly I do consulting. I talk a lot!” he said.
Miller remodeled houses, changed light fixtures and built decks, while Betty busied herself with art, volunteering and the garden club. They entertained, tried their hand at winemaking, and enjoyed their perch on Pine Flat. When Betty died in December 2016, Miller mourned her, but focused on the good life they’d had.
Two years later, a stroke slowed him down a bit, but not for long. His niece, Sydney Spencer, moved in to the guest cottage to “watch over him” but ended up running after him at multiple events.
On the night his house burned, Miller evacuated with his niece and his cat, but a neighbor stayed home and they heard the next day that the house was lost.
“The wind was over 40 miles an hour and gusting,” Miller said. “The wind blew the double-pane windows out of the house, it caught fire inside and the roof collapsed.”
As he does with other setbacks, Miller doesn’t hide or flinch from the pain.
“It was a hell of a loss. You put 30 years of blood, sweat and tears into something and one morning it’s gone in less than an hour,” he said.
He also shakes it off and moves on. Despite being 89 years old, the spry Miller intends to rebuild his house. He’s grateful that a friend advised him to re-evaluate his homeowner’s insurance and that his insurance agent helped.
“When you build in a forest, you know that there are fires, but I think I have enough to rebuild. I can’t do it myself, but my nephew is a contractor and he’s going to help. He’s only 71,” Miller adds with a laugh.
Miller is grateful for the community rallying around him. He lost all his tools, except his trusty Makita cordless drill, but clients are giving him tools and, “I know who to borrow from,” until the insurance company helps him buy new gear.
The mortgage company where his daughter works is getting him a new Uncle Sam outfit, plus the company owner donated $2,500 and gave Miller his coveted ticket to the Big Game (Stanford vs Cal) this weekend.
The farmers market organized a donation box when Miller kept his promise to emcee the annual pumpkin festival this year and other friends are helping out.
Miller admits that age has slowed him down a bit, but he figures he has time left.
“When my great-grandmother was 104 I went to visit her and I told her I was going to outlive her, so I’ll still be around until at least 105,” he said.
Do the setbacks in his life make him despair?
“No,” Miller said after a pause. “It’s easy to be upbeat. Otherwise, you cry, and I don’t like to cry.”