Navigation Menu+

“Miller Boy”

Game involving an odd number of players, in which couples march in a circle and the unattached player “steals” a partner.

The old fashioned country house party is still a delightful reality. To the youth it is a love of today; to the aged it is a tender reminiscence. The mentioning of such an occasion carries one back to a day long since past when the furniture of the front room of the old farm house was cleared away and the twilight brought the young people in flocks and the evening tripped gaily into night and the night into the new-born day. -The Knoxville (Tennessee) Journal, May 25, 1996.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl briefly mentions games that are played at a country party she attends with a neighbor boy, Ernest Perry. In the manuscript for Little Town on the Prairie, a whole chapter is written about a particular party, humorously-titled, “A Quiet Evening at Home.” The chapter gives such a nice glimpse into active and fun evenings spent by the Ingalls family that it’s a shame it didn’t make it into the published book.

After the church revival is over, the Ingalls family is glad to be able to have quiet time to themselves after supper, just reading and talking. Pa draws his chair into the circle of his family and plays songs on his fiddle: “Boonie Doon,” “Highland Mary” and “Annie Laurie.” There are subtle hints that Pa knows what is about to happen, and Pa stops playing to listen to laughing voices and sleigh bells approaching. Neighbors have arrived, bringing “a surprise party from the country!”

Laura learns the names of the strange faces as the young people play games: Drop-the-handkerchief, Miller Boy, and Spat-em-Out.

The following is from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s hand-written manuscript that became Little Town on the Prairie. The boy and girl mentioned by name – Gaylord and Jennie – were siblings Gaylord and Jennie Ross, children of Russel and Viola Ross, who had a claim near the Ingallses, as did other members of the Ross family. Jennie was about seven years older than Laura; Gaylord was six years older than Laura.

At first they played Drop-the-handkerchief and, when they were all breathless from laughing and chasing each other around the ring, they played Spat-’em-out, while they rested.

All the boys went into the kitchen and the door between the rooms was closed, with a girl on guard.

Then the girls seated themselves, each with a vacant chair beside her. One of the girls gave a boy’s name to the girl at the door. She opened the door and called that boy. When he came, he must sit in the chair beside the girl he thought had called him. If he guessed right, he was allowed to stay and another boy was called. If he sat down beside the wrong girl, all the girls clapped their hands, laughing at him, while he went back into the kitchen until he was called again. When all the boys were sitting beside the right girls, the game was finished.

“It is a good time to play Miller Boy while we all have partners,” someone said.

“All but Gaylord,” Jennie corrected. There was one more boy than girl in the crowd.

“Gaylord,” Jennie went on. “You be miller boy; you haven’t a girl anyway.”

“Come on! I’ll soon get one,” Gaylord agreed as he stood up in the middle of the room.

Each of the other boys linked arms with his partner and they all formed a circle marching around, Gaylord singing, – “Happy is the miller as he lives by himself, As the wheel rolls around, he is gaining on his self. One hand in the hopper, the other in the sack, Ladies step forward and gents fall back.”

At the word, back, they all changed partners. There was a scramble and Gaylord’s arm linked Laura’s, while the boy, who had fallen back to be her partner, was left alone. He was the miller boy now and took Gaylord’s place in the center of the ring. Then the march and the song were taken up again.

Ma held Grace in her lap and looked on while Carrie stood wide-eyed behind her. Pa sat beside the table where his fiddle lay. Now he picked up the fiddle and drew the bow across the strings. Then the music of the fiddle joined the gay voices as they sang–

     “There was a jolly miller who lived by the mill,      The wheel rolls around of its own free will.      One hand in the hopper and the other in the bag,      As the wheel rolls around, he cries out, ‘Grab!'”

Partners changed and the wheel went around and around, until it stopped with a gust of laughter. Laura forgot her shyness and joined gaily in the fun.

The lyrics Pa sings are a variation of the traditional ones:

     Happy is the miller boy that lives by the mill,
     The wheel goes around with a right good will,
     One hand in the hopper, the other in the sack,
     The lady steps forward and the gent falls back.

Chanted in marching time, couples held hands and marched (or danced) around a lone boy – the miller boy – who stood in the center of the circle. The girls stood toward the inside of the circle and the boys directly in back of them. At the end of the verse or when instructed to “Grab!” such as Pa cries out, or when hearing “The lady steps forward and the gent falls back,” all couples drop hands and turn in order to promenade in the other direction. Each boy grab the hand of different girl near him. This gave the Miller Boy a chance to seize a partner in the confusion and the boy left out then becomes the new Miller Boy and takes his place in the center.

It was a fast-paced game! Click HERE To listen to “Miller Boy” in action.


“Miller Boy” (PG)