By Jonas Weir
Lewis Miller is proud of his family’s history. In fact, he has an entire museum dedicated to it.
Lewis is a third-generation descendant of the Mitchell and Lewis families, founders of the Mitchell-Lewis Motor Company—an early American automobile company that pioneered mass car production. With only a few steps, he can trace himself right to Henry Mitchell.
Henry Mitchell founded the Mitchell Wagon Company in 1855 in Racine, Wisconsin. For more than fifty years, the company made a diverse array of wagons. With nationwide distribution, it manufactured farm wagons that were specialized for different topographies, from Midwest-style wagons to California-style. Some wagons were made for rural areas, and others were meant to be delivery wagons in urban areas. Around the turn of the century, the wagon company also began making bicycles and then motorcycles.
Although Henry Mitchell died in 1893, his son-in-law and grandson continued operating the company, keeping the product line diverse. In 1902, the company produced its first car. It had a single-cylinder, air-cooled engine that could reach a top speed of fifteen miles per hour. Over the next decade, the car company became known for making large, fashionable touring cars. However, when it was sold to a group of New York investors, the Mitchell Motor Company began its decline, declaring bankruptcy in 1923 and fading into obscurity.
Decades later, Lewis Miller followed a similar path as his ancestors. When he graduated from Hickman High School in Columbia, he decided to start working on cars and motorcycles rather than go to college. He loved cars and found it thrilling that he could make a living working on them.
“It’s in my genes, I guess,” he says. “I’m just good with a wrench.”
Lewis went on to found his own successful automotive shop, and when he retired and moved back to Boonville, where he spent his early childhood, he began researching his family history and collecting Mitchell cars. Now, he has one of the world’s most extensive collections of Mitchell automobiles and artifacts.
In an industrial building-turned-museum on Spring Street in Boonville, he showcases his collection. There, you can find everything from a Mitchell farm wagon to an 1898 bicycle to a 1920 touring car, and Lewis has an extensive knowledge of each. There’s also a story behind every item in his collection, and he knows the history of each car model. He’ll explain how the engines work, tell you why the 1906 Mitchell Runabout has a basket on the back, and give you an extended version of his family’s history, too. Aside from cars and car parts, Lewis has collected historical documents and photos, including one photo that shows Mitchell cars being loaded onto a train that took the MKT rails to Texas.
“Here’s proof that one hundred years ago these passed right by Boonville,” Lewis says.
The museum is open by appointment only. To arrange a visit, contact the Boonville Tourism Office at 660-882-3967 or goboonville.com. To learn more about the museum, visit the car collection website at mitchellcarcollection.com.