Gazing across the landscape from the highest point along Skillman Lane, it’s easy to imagine how distinctly different this area appeared during the heyday of the poultry industry, when chicken houses literally lined the road and covered the countryside in every direction. Back when the chicken houses proliferated, it seemed as though a person could walk across “leghorn valley” to Liberty Road, on their rooftops.
Having lived her entire life on the same property, in the vicinity of scores of chicken ranches like the one she grew up on, 90-year-old Lillie Miller has seen and experienced the evolving transformation of Petaluma from the influential poultry industry to modern day mixed-use agriculture.
Born into a family with deep ties to the community and to its Danish heritage, Lillie and her younger sister Nancy were the daughters of Iven and Asta Iversen, who moved to Skillman Lane in 1926 where they rented George Christie’s egg ranch before purchasing the 8.5 acre property in 1929.
Life was good for the Iversen’s, with Iven selling fresh eggs to the Poultry Producers of Central California, in addition to selling hatchery eggs, raising broilers, and in the 1940s, raising holiday turkeys. Cows, sheep, occasionally pigs, a large vegetable garden and a horse named Tom were in the fields where llamas now graze. Iversen also oversaw the Cinnabar Fire District’s first fire truck, which was housed on his property.
Of course, operating an egg ranch that produced thousands of eggs every day was no easy job, but with two hard working and appreciative daughters who inherited their father’s determined work ethic, the endless list of tasks was vigorously accomplished. Feeding the chickens, cleaning eggs before and after school, and sweeping out the hen houses became routine work. And when it was completed, the girls went to the Saturday movies at the California Theater.
“We worked hard, just like the boys, it was necessary,” said Lillie, adding, “My dad was the sweetest man there ever was.”
A confident student, whose work ethic never diminished, Lillie took math classes at Petaluma High School, where she graduated mid-term in 1946 and started a new job two days later earning $1.27 an hour in the payroll department of the Poultry Producers.
The only reprimand she ever received came one day after she and her high school sweetheart and future husband Walt Miller walked to Hill Plaza Park to eat lunch. Apparently forgetting she was supposed to operate the PBX switchboard during lunch hour, she returned to a lit up switchboard and a disgruntled supervisor. As a high school senior in 1947, Walt Miller helped erect the iconic lighted star atop the Poultry Producers.
Walt and Lillie Miller were married in 1949 and lived on the Iversen property while he worked as a carpenter for Hugh Codding and later at Lace House Linen. Lillie worked at the Poultry Producers until the birth of her daughter Jan, in 1952. A second daughter, Joyce, was born in 1966.
Lillie returned to work in 1970, as an accountant for orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jerome Beatie. When Dr. Beatie retired, she continued working half-a-day for Dr. Lance Barlas, before retiring last September at the age of 89.
Longevity seems to be a trademark of Lillie, who’s still very active in both the Elim Lutheran Church, which she joined in 1933, and with the Danish Sisterhood. Enjoying the financial side of things, she counted the Sunday collection plates at the church for many years and still offers her time at church events like the “Make it, or bake it, or grow it, or sew it,” auction, and the annual aebleskiver breakfast.