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Early life, Civil War, druggist
Polk Miller was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia in August, 1844. While growing up, he learned to play the banjo from slaves on his father's plantation. He became a druggist in Richmond in 1860. During the American Civil War, he served as a Confederate artilleryman.
At his drugstore in Richmond, Miller began making remedies for Sergeant, his favorite hunting dog. His friends soon found these remedies worked for their dogs as well. In 1868, began selling the products in the drugstore. This was the beginning of Sergeant's Pet Care Products, Inc. The tradename was established in 1886. By 2007, over 400 pet care products were sold under the Sergeant's trade name.
In 1892, he began performing music professionally. Polk Miller and his "Old South Quartette" had a variety show of "Stories, Sketches and Songs" depicting African American life before the Civil War. Miller was white, and the four members of the quartet were black, only 2 of the 20 or so black singers that sang were ever identified James L. Stamper and Randall Graves. They gained national prominence, and toured between 1900 and 1912.
At one performance, Mark Twain introduced Polk Miller at Madison Square Garden. Although he did not perform in blackface, Polk sometimes billed himself as "The Old Virginia Plantation Negro" and performed Negro spirituals and pop and folk tunes such as James A. Bland's Carry Me Back to Old Virginny. Miller and his quartet played colleges and military schools, as well as the "most exclusive social clubs" in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette also performed at African American churches.
Polk Miller died on October 20, 1913. He was buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
Polk Miller's scrapbook is now in the archives of the Valentine Museum at Richmond. It is notable in that it recorded the problems with racial discrimination the five faced in both the northern and southern portions of the United States as the group traveled and toured.
A few miles west of Richmond, Bon Air was founded by principals of the Richmond and Danville Railroad as a Victorian resort. Polk Street there was named in honor of Polk Miller. Bon Air Elementary was the inspiration for a series of children's books, The Kids of the Polk Street School by Patricia Reilly Giff.
Miller's recorded renditions of the traditional gospel song Old-Time Religion, as well as the Confederate war song The Bonnie Blue Flag, as well as the folk song Watermelon Party are featured in the 2013 video game Bioshock: Infinite.