Remembering Phebe Florence Miller: Writer, Nature Lover, Patron of the Arts
From the files of The Gazette January 26, 1995.
This collection in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives provides glimpses of the life of a versatile writer who created her own Bloomsbury Group in Topsail.
Phebe Florence Miller was born in Topsail on July 8, 1889, the fourth of five children born to Emma Allen and Joseph Miller. She was educated at the Methodist School, Topsail, and was a successful candidate in Council of Higher Education examinations.
Both sides of Miller's family were among the founders of the community of Topsail. Her paternal grandfather, Robert Miller, operated what is believed to be the first inn on Conception Bay. Her maternal grandfather, James Allen, was the schoolteacher for many years. Both were lay readers at the Topsail Methodist Church. Miller's father, Joseph, was a self-taught surveyor. He was employed for many years with the Anglo-American Telegraph Co. and served as their overseer of lines throughout Newfoundland.
In 1907, after completing school, Florence Miller went to work as government telegraph operator in Topsail; in 1928 she was also appointed postmistress. In 1935 she moved to the newly-established wireless station. She retired in 1942 after having worked for the government for over 34 years.
Florence Miller began writing at an early age. She was an avid letter writer, maintaining correspondence over the course of many years with friends she had known since childhood, even though they had moved to other parts of Newfoundland, Canada or the United States. She participated in contests of all sorts but particularly those involving writing: in 1920 she was awarded first prize in the Dr. Chase's Almanac Great Diary Contest sponsored by Edmanson Bates and Co. of Toronto, and in 1921 and 1924 tied for first place. She was a constant composer of verses which she submitted to American greeting card companies. Her work was published by such companies as A. M. Davis Co. of Boston, Hall Brothers of Kansas City (Hallmark Cards), Rust Craft of Boston, and the Gibson Art Co. of Cincinnati, for over 25 years. She also wrote at least one hour-long radio program entitled Songs of Seven which was broadcast over radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, on Nov. 17, 1926.
It was as a writer of poetry for which Miller was best known in Newfoundland. She published only one book of her poems but was a regular contributor to local newspapers and magazines, including The Evening Telegram and The Newfoundland Quarterly and it was through these outlets that she gained recognition. Her book, In Caribou Land, was published in 1929 (with a foreword by E. J. Pratt) by Ryerson Press, Toronto. This slim volume of poetry, abounding with Newfoundland themes and imagery, brought her much acclaim. Her home in Topsail soon became a gathering place for both aspiring and published writers, a veritable literary salon where visitors could while away long evenings in the famous Blue Castle room reading, discussing their own work and the works of others. The house was built in a beautiful, pastoral setting and there was much opportunity for communion with nature both inland and overlooking Conception Bay.
Nature was a very important part of Miller's life. She loved to walk, and Topsail in the first half of the 20th century provided her with much to see and admire. One predominant aspect of her writing, but in particular of her correspondence, is the great delight she attained from living in rural Newfoundland. She remained very active throughout her life. She was organist at Topsail United Church until she was well into her eighties and, reputedly, was never sick a day in her life. She spent much of her later years caring for her sisters, the last of whom, Alice, died in 1972. Despite her joy in hearing of and learning about other people and places, she had little desire to travel, content to make the most of her home on the bay. Florence Miller died on May 18, 1979, less than two months before her ninetieth birthday.
In 1980 Charlotte Strong, Florence Miller's grand-niece, presented her aunt's papers and other family items to the Centre for Newfoundland Studies. The collection consists mainly of manuscript writings and correspondence. There are hundreds of poems, greeting card verses and pieces of prose. There are also examples of greeting cards with Miller's published verses inside, and a lengthy correspondence with the various companies who bought these verses. There is also an extensive correspondence carried on over a 40-year period between Miller and Newfoundland-born poet Edwin Duder. There are some personal items (diaries, letters) that had belonged to her sister, Alice, and her father, Joseph, and a few photographs. Several of her poems, handwritten in white ink on black paper, and signed by the author, have been coupled with appropriate landscape scenes and encased under glass to serve as wall hangings, demonstrating one of the many ways Miller made her poetry part of her everyday life.