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The Boyhood Home of Glenn Miller

Shortly after the beginning of the 20th century, in a small rural Southwestern Iowa town, a boy was born to Elmer and Mattie Lou Miller. The date was March 1, 1904, and the town was Clarinda. The boy. born that night was named Alton Glenn Miller, (later changed to Glenn), and when he uttered his first cry, Clarinda heard Glenn Miller’s first “moonlight serenade.” Glenn’s first serenade was not particularly unique, as it had been sung by children for centuries and was barely heard across South 16th Street. However, his second "Moonlight Serenade" was a composition he wrote while studying music under Dr. Schillinger in New York City. Glenn’s second "Moonlight Serenade" was unique; becoming the theme song of his number one Big Band and heard literally all around the world

Glenn’s paternal grandparents were a part of the westward movement of people during the 1800’s and moved permanently to the Clarinda area in 1870 (Glenn’s grandfather Robert had lived in Page County prior to the Civil War, returned to Ohio after the war, then moved his family to Page County in 1870). Their son Elmer, who was three-years-old when the family settled in Clarinda, grew up in Page County and married a local girl, Mattie Lou Cavender in 1898. Mattie Lou (she also went by Lulu and Lou) was born in Page County, and grew up to become a well respected teacher in Clarinda. In 1902,  Elmer and Lou Miller purchased the home at 601 S. 16th St. from C.H. Howard. Here, on March 1, 1904, the future big band leader was born. Their first son Elmer “Deane” had been born in a different home in Clarinda in 1901.

The Millers lived in the house from 1902 – 1906, when they sold their home on 16th St for $1,275 and moved to Tryon, Nebraska to homestead 640 acres under the Kincaid Act of 1904. While homesteading in Tryon, they lived in a sod house. In the evenings, Glenn’s mother, Mattie Lou, would play a simple pump organ which helped ease the lonesome existence on the flatlands of Nebraska. Mattie Lou started a school called Happy Hollow and her children would sing songs as they rode in a wagon on their way to school. The soothing music of his mother in their sod house and the uplifting songs on the way to school, must have given Glenn a greater meaning and appreciation for music. Life in a sod house was replaced by life in town when Elmer moved the family to North Platte, Nebraska. Mattie Lou gave birth to a third son, John Herbert “Herb”, in 1913 and a daughter Emma “Irene” in 1916, while living in North Platte.

Circa 1917, Glenn’s family moved to Grant City, Missouri, where he went to grade school. A businessman in town, John Mosbarger, was also the community band director and wanted Glenn to join older brother Deane in the community band. Glenn, however, had an old trombone. Mr. Mosbarger bought Glenn a new trombone so that he could join the community band and in exchange Glenn worked for Mr. Mosbarger, to pay off the new trombone.

In 1918, the Miller family moved to Fort Morgan, Colorado where Glenn went to high school. During his senior year, Glenn decided to try the game of football, and by the end of the season, he was chosen by the Colorado High School Sports Association as “the best left end in Colorado.” Football wasn’t Glenn’s only interest, however, as he had become very interested in a new sound called dance band music. Glenn enjoyed this music so much that he and some classmates decided to start their own band. In fact, Glenn was so excited about this new music that when it came time for his graduation in 1921, he decided to skip his graduation ceremonies and instead traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to play in a band. Meanwhile, back home, Glenn’s mother had to accept his diploma and the principal commented, “Maybe you’re the one who should get it anyway; you probably worked harder on it than he did!”

On March 1, 1989, Glenn Miller’s daughter, Jonnie Dee Miller, purchased the home where her father was born 85 years earlier. The Glenn Miller Birthplace Society manages the preservation, maintenance and interpretation of the home.

At the time the house was purchased, very little was known about the home as it existed in 1904. Luckily, news of the purchase was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in newspapers around the world. As a result of this publicity, letters were sent to Clarinda from as far away as Russia and Japan. One letter from Bob Watson of Salem, Oregon, proved to be very valuable. His parents had purchased the house from in 1907 (approximately one year after the Miller’s had sold it), and he knew a great deal about the site. As a result of this letter, several photographs of the house were received from the Watson family.

In March of 1991, the major restoration project had begun. A 1912 addition to the home was removed and the original roof line was restored. The two main rooms of the house had the original floors and many of the lathe and plaster walls remained. The original kitchen had been removed and was replaced by a back porch. This had to be removed and a study conducted to determine the original footprint of the kitchen before it could be rebuilt. The front porch had been shifted to the north and was returned to its current location per the original design of the house. By careful observation of small clues, the missing details were restored so that the house is now back to its original style as in 1904. Furnishings of the era and many family photographs give visitors a feeling for the early life of the Miller family. Memorabilia displayed in the home includes a piano owned by Glenn and Helen along with a photo showing Glenn sitting at the piano working on a music score. Other things displayed include a copy of the first gold record ever awarded for "Chattanooga Choo Choo," photos from Glenn’s two movies, Orchestra Wives and Sun Valley Serenade, plus photos of the Glenn Miller Story starring James Stewart and June Allyson. Many other personal items are displayed which make the home an important place for all who love Glenn Miller and his music. Click HERE for a timeline of early ownership of the property.

It is the objective of the Glenn Miller Birthplace Society to continually strive to improve the interpretation of the birthplace and to preserve and maintain the home so that it can be enjoyed by visitors from around the world. If you would like to help in this effort, you may make tax deductible donations to the Glenn Miller Birthplace Society.

Call the Museum 712-542-2461 or CONTACT US for more information.

For a detailed biography, please visit  "A Portrait of Glenn Miller"  by Dennis Spragg, Glenn Miller Archives - Boulder, CO
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