Sweet Relics of the Past

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“The Beekeepers” by Peter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1568.
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Among the vintage beekeeping items found at Jim Lacey’s museum is this wooden box. Boxes like these were used in the early 1900s to ship live bees to beekeepers across the U.S.
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View of an antique Root Cowan honey extractor on display at Little Village Farm.
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A wide variety of smoking equipment was used to calm bees during moves or honey extraction. These two smokers are on display at Little Village Farm.

The hobby of beekeeping is enjoying a resurgence today. It is a reminder of the era when farmsteads were diversified operations, producing almost everything a farm family needed to survive. Livestock, poultry, garden, orchard and hive were carefully tended to Vintage beekeeping equipment is scarce today, and many collectors have little knowledge of the category. Collector Jim Lacey is an exception. Jim has a few beekeeping accessories tucked away in the vast collection he and his wife, Joan, have amassed in their Little Village Farm museum near Dell Rapids, South Dakota.

“These pieces were given to us by neighbors and friends,” he says. “Most people who come through our museum use honey and find these pieces very intriguing.”

Common 19th-century beekeeping accessories include 1-pound honey storage sections, veils, protective suits and wax extractors. Jim’s collectibles range from a wooden box used to mail live bees to customers to a 5-gallon honey extractor made of tin. He also has a smoker, a knife that was heated for use in capping honeycombs, and tin containers used for honey storage.

The honey extractor, about the size of a 50-gallon barrel, originally belonged to L.G. Elsinger, the father of one of Jim’s friends. Before it was donated to Jim’s museum, the extractor was owned by one of Elsinger’s sons. After that, it went to Blue Cloud Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in South Dakota, where it was put to work once again.

“When the abbey closed in 2012, the extractor came back to my friend, Gerald Elsinger,” Jim says. “It’s now here on pretty much a permanent loan from Gerald.”

Honey extractors were used to extract honey from the comb without damaging the comb. Driven by centrifugal force, a frame basket within a drum spins, flinging honey onto the walls of the receptacle. After the honey is extracted, the comb can be reused in the frame.

Smoking out bees

Jim has first-hand experience with a bee smoker. He used one in 1953 while his family lived in a house in Trent, South Dakota. During a period when the house was vacant, before his family moved in, bees invaded a first-floor bedroom.

“Before we were able to get the bees out,” Jim recalls, “we had honey dripping from the ceiling of that room. In remodeling the house, it was my job to drill holes in the floor above the bedroom and smoke the bees into oblivion.”

Eyes watering from the smoke, Jim treated the bees until they were subdued. The bedroom ceiling and floor above it were removed and replaced and all outside crevices where bees might enter were sealed.

In a September 2016 article (“Up In Smoke”) in Bee Culture magazine, author Jim Thompson describes beekeeping smokers, noting that drawings in Egyptian pyramids suggest that torches may have been the first bee smokers.

Thompson’s article features 35 patented beekeeping smokers and fumigators. He also told of cigar-smoking beekeepers who used tobacco smoke to calm bees, and the practice of fueling smokers with rags soaked in saltpeter.

Improved production methods

Charles Dadant, born in 1817 in Burgundy, France, was an avid lifelong beekeeper. In 1917, his son, Camille Pierre Dadant, authored First Lessons in Beekeeping. The book focused on establishing a beekeeping business and identification of essential equipment.

In the chapter, “The Complete Hive,” Dadant noted that movable-frame hives were used in Europe as early as 1795, but were considered impractical until 1852. That’s when Ohio’s Lorenzo Langstroth developed a practical moveable frame hive, which some described as a “honey factory.”

One of the things beekeepers have most appreciated about Langstroth’s hive design is the fact that the hive’s honey could be extracted without harming the bee colony. Until that time, bees were often destroyed when beekeepers dismantled the hive to harvest their golden crop.

Because beekeepers of the past believed various types of wood affected bees in varied ways, selection of wood for hives received careful consideration. In a March 1921 issue of the journal Gleanings in Bee Culture, A.N. Clark writes about selecting “good paint” for hives. Recommendations included durability, leaving a good surface for repainting, opaqueness and spreading capacity.

The January 1918 issue of Gleanings featured an ad for Woodman’s New Protection Hive, a wooden hive offering a bottomless corrugated paper box that could be telescoped down over the hive to protect bees during winter. The same company offered the Section Fixer, which was used to secure the honeycomb to all four sides of the section, “a requirement to grade fancy.”

Educating the public

One hundred years ago, the state of Texas launched a campaign to educate the public about honey. Many consumers were apparently convinced that honey was nothing but sugar, and many were confused by the varied flavors.

“I was really surprised that the public was so ignorant of honey,” says T.P. Robinson, Superintendent of the Dallas State Fair Apiary Exhibit, quoted in the January 1917 issue of American Bee Journal. “Realizing this, I had leaflets printed, setting forth the flavors of honey, how to tell its purity, how to liquefy it when granulated, where to keep it, and fully explained its flavors and colors.

“Advertising by education has the advantage of influencing the prospective customer to become a user of honey regularly,” Robinson noted, “rather than impress him for the time being that you have something to sell.”

Increased honey consumption in Texas demonstrated the value of Robinson’s campaign, but beekeepers across the U.S. continued to struggle with rising and falling market demand.

Washington couple launches early sales blitz

A pair of Washington beekeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Sires, garnered media attention in 1917. Although honey as a product was successful in Washington, the couple struggled to find a sustainable market for their product.

“They found it impossible to get grocers to handle honey: Grocers weren’t interested and not capable of explaining the many uses of honey, as they had not used it themselves,” writes George W. York in a 1917 article in American Bee Journal. “Some think it is to be used only on the table, and call it a luxury.”

Determined to get their honey into hands of potential consumers, the couple purchased an automobile and set out to sell directly to farmers. The car also served as a hotel, since the Sireses often found themselves in remote areas with no lodging available.

“They followed the railroad mainly so as to take in each town,” York notes. “They would usually drive up to the post office and meet people who were coming in for their mail. Some of them would buy honey, while others would stand around and ask questions, which the couple gladly answered. They explained how honey could be used to make cakes, cookies, gems, and put up fruit preserves and jellies. Mrs. Sires’ personal experience helped greatly.”

Along their trek, the couple sold 1,000 recipe books featuring recipes that called for honey. They also posted roadside signs for Sires Bros. honey. In October 1915, the Sireses left their Wapato, Washington, home, traveling more than 3,600 miles by July 1916, when they arrived at Ryegate, Montana. By the next year, the couple had established a honey business in Great Falls, Montana, where they sold honey and an average of 5,000 cookbooks a year.

Antiques have enduring appeal

Moving from tin pails to glass jars also had a positive impact on honey sales. Producers of Wisconsin’s Hassinger honey demonstrated that “white flint glass shows the honey in its natural color,” according to a 1921 article in Gleanings. “The jug being of convenient size and neatly labeled, with the wood-and-wire handle, makes as pretty and attractive container as anyone would wish to see.” Customers were willing to return the glass jars (once they had accumulated some to use in housekeeping) and collect 15 cents.

The 1920 edition of The Bee-keepers’ Review reported an average yield for U.S. bee colonies that year of 59 pounds. At that time, California led the states in honey production, averaging 93 pounds per colony and producing 15 percent of the nation’s honey.

Today, the leading honey producer in the U.S. – Adee Honey Farms – is based in South Dakota, with operations in other states as well. “They have some vintage beekeeping items, too,” Jim says. “We find that visitors of all ages enjoy seeing and hearing about these items.” FC

Jim and Joan Lacey operate Little Village Farm, a museum of farm collectibles housed in 10 buildings at their home near Dell Rapids, S.D. Contact them at (605) 428-5979.

Interested in museums focusing on bees and beekeeping? Check these out: Honey Acres Museum, Neosho, Wisconsin; Florida Agricultural Museum, Palm Coast, Florida; Magnum Museum, Raleigh, North Carolina; Patrick Ranch Bee Museum & Learning Center, Dunham, California.

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at sorensenlms@gmail.com.

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