Curley Miller and his Ploughboys

Curley Miller and his Ploughboys

Curley Miller and his Ploughboys in The Economy Rodeo on Diamond Street

If the title sounds like a country music band, well..

It’s probably because it is a country music band.

This image is likely from a program or promotional poster/flyer for the band and was found in a scrapbook of my grandmother’s who was kind enough to note “Coalport, 1936, In Person” up in the top left corner.  Coalport refers to Coalport, PA in Clearfield County, and it’s easy enough to assume she saw the band in 1936.  Economy Rodeo seems to have been a popular radio station program during the time period, featuring country music acts.  The reference to Diamond Street appears to reference the radio station WWSU that operated out of the Hotel Schenley in Pittsburgh – an article from 1931 mentions the station opening on the 10th floor of the hotel which is located on Forbes Ave, formerly known as Diamond Street.  The hotel is now the student union building for the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh.  I couldn’t find an advertisement in any newspaper for that specific concert in the photo note, but I did find quite a few other ads for similar shows around that region of PA.

So, I went on a little dig to see what I could find about Curley Miller since genealogy is my focus and I know precious little about the early days of country music.  Grandma was a huge fan her whole life, and we’d routinely show up for visits to find her watching the Grand Ole Opry reruns on TV, so this type of bluegrass/country music would’ve been right up her alley.

Curley Miller was born Calvin Ellis Miller to parents Calvin McCormick Miller and Elda Blanche Miller on 2 December 1914 in Versailles, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (found via the PA birth records index, the actual document should be online in the next year or two).  He shows up on census records in 1920-1930 as “George Miller” instead of Calvin, but the birth record clearly shows his name as Calvin.  It’s possible they may have called him George around home to differentiate between Calvin the child and Calvin the father.

He lived for the majority of his early life in McKeesport, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania with his mother and father, and later his stepfather (verified by census records).  A half-sister, Mildred Evangeline Espy, would later join him in the music scene as Millie Wayne.  Our Curley Miller is not to be confused with a different Curley Miller from the Milton, PA area though which is what made my initial searches lead in the wrong direction.  The first newspaper reference I could find was in 1935 when Curley was about 21 years old and playing on a local Pittsburgh radio station, KDKA.

Just two years later, Calvin Ellis Miller married Sybil Clarice Lowell in Greensburg, PA on 25 April 1937 (verified by Westmoreland county record search).

Sybil seems to have gone by the name “Sally Dare” or “Molly Dare” as part of the group and likely is the woman seated in the middle of the photo.  Advertisements in old newspapers have photos of her that look awfully similar.  There are also ads referring to their daughter “Patsy Belle” having been part of the act as a “Child Singing Star.”  I did find the three of them living in Wheeling, West Virginia as of the 1940 census but was unable to find anything about Patricia “Patsy Belle” after that point.  Patsy was also born in Tennessee (according to the census) two years before Curley married Sybil, so this may have been a daughter from her first marriage.  Sybil was granted a divorce on 28 April 1941 while living in Wyoming.  The divorce decree mentions zero children affected by the divorce, so I’m not entirely sure if Patsy Belle was their child or just part of their travelling act?  Not enough paper evidence to support that, and I couldn’t find a birth record for Patsy at all.

Part of the fun of sorting out fact from fiction were articles like these, telling fantastic stories about Curley that were part of his stage persona and printed in newspapers, but weren’t at all true according to paper records.  That article states Curley was born in Oklahoma, and while this birth location also appears on the 1940 census, he was very clearly born in Pennsylvania.  I started to wonder if the stage/radio persona bled into his real life.  That hunch was confirmed in a later article from 1974 in Florida.

The article, which has a problem with column formatting, states,

“Miller comes by his interest in “songs of the soil” naturally.  Two of his ancestors were killed at the Alamo and a great-uncle (The Rev. William Snider) was the Indian agent to whom Sitting Bull surrendered when he came down from Canada.

While Many parents were reluctant for their offspring to enter show business, it was different with Curley.  His parents were both horse enthusiasts and expert at trick riding.  They were also amateur entertainers.”

As far as I have been able to research, absolutely ZERO of that is true.  He didn’t have a great-uncle named William Snider (I found the names of his grandparents and none of them were Snider/Synder).  As far as ancestors being killed at the Alamo, none of that tracks at all since all I can find is that his ancestors lived in Pennsylvania.  For the bit about his parents, on their marriage license, it lists his father as a machinist and later in the 1910 census as working in an electrical shop, and his mother was a music teacher.  Granted, his mom may have helped foster Curley’s love of music, but there’s no paper evidence to prove any of the claims he made in the article.

He did participate for years in the West Virginia country music scene and participated in the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia (link to tour program in 1941, alternate link to the program page about him).  He had been drafted into the Navy during WWII which meant he left radio.  When he returned home after the war, he returned to civilian life and went into horse training, still as a showman, taking the title of “Colonel Curley Miller” with his dancing horses in various rodeos and circuses.

He later moved to Florida in about 1962.  While in Florida, he continued working with radio as a talent director, according to the article above.

He died on 14 Feb 1994 in Orlando, Florida (obituary link). His obituary states, “Mr. Miller was a retired project director for an employment service,” which I guess could mean he was a talent scout which would fall in line with his history in the entertainment business.  Every genealogist loves long obituaries with tons of detail, but this one had very little.  There’s a granddaughter mentioned, but no daughter, though this could possibly be the aforementioned “Patsy Belle.”  The 1950 census is due out this year (2022), so it’s possible I’ll be able to find out more once that’s released!

Random stuff in scrapbooks seldom leads me down a deep dive into the history of the subjects in photographs, but once I started digging, the information about Calvin “Curley” Miller ended up being so fascinating, and a great example of the difficulty in separating actual factual documents from self-reported information in newspapers and sometimes even censuses.

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