Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beekeeping in Toledo

[This was a Bend of the River article. I had great fun hunting down beekeepers in old Toledo City Directories.]

Beekeeping in Toledo by Alan Borer

“Apiarist: One who keeps bees, or a bee-keeper; and the plot of ground, including hives, bees, etc., is called an Apiary. As you can not well aspire to be the former until you are possesses of the latter, we will proceed to start an apiary.” (A. I. Root and E. R. Root, The A B C and X Y Z of Bee Culture (Medina, Ohio, 1910, p. 20.)

I never got around to starting an apiary. Although I gardened in Toledo for many years, I thought my neighbors might object if there were stinging bees rushing back and forth. I wasn’t keen on being stung either, to be honest. Even though I knew that professional beekeepers use smoke to keep bees calm, and set up carefully controlled bee boxes to replace their natural hives, beekeeping requires some very specialized knowledge of how to handle them.

It is hard to believe now, but Toledo had several people active in the bee business over the years. Toledo was the metropolitan area for a large rural section of the state, stretching all the way to Indiana in the west, and at least as far as Lima in the south. Many thousands of farms in the area kept bees as all or part of their livestock. Toledo served the beekeepers in this large rural hinterland with supplies and markets.

When Ohio was being settled, there was a profession of “bee-hunter.” Bee-hunters scoured the woods and swamps looking for supplies of wild honey. By sighting the flight patterns of laden bees, they could use a sort of do-it-yourself trigonometry and find generous supplies of honey. One Crawford County bee-hunter named Samuel Kinsley routinely found twenty or even thirty gallons of wild honey, which was then packed and shipped to Sandusky or Mansfield. [History of Crawford County and Ohio (1881), p. 533]

With the passing of the original forests, the search for sugar focused on commercial bees. Beekeeping, which saw several technological breakthroughs in the making of artificial hives in the 1860s, was a topic of growing interest until refined cane and beet sugar surpassed it. American farmers produced between 150 and 175 million pounds of honey in 1908, but the figure may never be known for sure because so many bees were kept in one or two hives, and the honey and wax used strictly for family use.

Taking a closer look at the apiarists of Toledo, we find many individuals and companies that were involved in the sale of beekeeping equipment. S. J. Griggs was once such merchant. He apparently started in the bee supply business with his brother, as early city directory entries listed the “Griggs Brothers,” but later, only S. J. The company operated from about 1904 to 1915. In the 1915 Toledo city directory, his company was listed as “Producers, Packers, and Shippers of Honey, Bees, Beekeepers Supplies, Beeswax and Poultry Feeds.” He workplace was at 521 Monroe, and from the sound of it, beekeeping must have been a substantial, although not entire, part of his livelihood.

Also listed in 1915 was Frederick W. Summerfield (1861-1947), of 730 Lorain. The directory index lists him under “apiarist,” but the alphabetical listing identified him as a “grocer.” Summerfield’s obituary confirms that he operated a grocery at the corner of Lorain and Newbury. He probably kept bees as a sideline to running the grocery, which may have been more typical of beekeepers of the time. Summerfield retired as a grocer in 1929, but maintained a “bee farm” at his retirement home on River Road in Grand Rapids until his death in 1947. Less than a career, more than a hobby, bees and the honey they produced helped feed the sweet tooth of early Toledo.

I suspect that there were many people who tried to make some extra money keeping bees, but found it not suitable, or like me, were leery of stings. E. T. Lewis and Co. was listed as “Apiarists and Manufacturers of Bee Keepers Supplies” at 36 Monroe Street from 1884 to 1887. Frederick Schroeder of Upton near Monroe lasted a single year as a beekeeper in 1917. Lewis J. Paratschek of 285 E. Manhattan sputtered along in the business from 1922 to 1925. Northwest Ohio even once boasted an apiarists’ newspaper with the florid title, “The Bee-Keepers’ Journal and Agricultural Repository.” Meant to be read by those specializing in the “Apiary for the Farm & Fireside,” it was published in Nevada in Wyandot County in 1869. It moved to New York after only a few months in Ohio.

One West Toledo beekeeper left a letter giving a glimpse of, if not his beekeeping operation, than at least his experience and a rather pugnacious attitude.

“Feb 24, 1884,
Dear Sir,
I received your letter and i send one in re turn and i want a situation to work in and apiary for a responciable man my age is 28 year old i have Handled Bees for a little over eight years i had 32 colinies fall count and i can handle Bees as good as any other man and i will not take the Back seat for any one and Don’t you forget it...A. L. Miller”

Perhaps Mr. Miller had been stung once too often, but as this letter is addressed to a beekeeper in Knowersville, New York (now part of Albany), it appears that he was trying to find a job far from his West Toledo home.

If anyone deserves the title, the “bee king” of Toledo was one Jesse Sisson. Sisson was an early arrival in Toledo, coming from New York State in 1847. Like some of our other apiarists he came to the bee trade in the second part of his life. He apparently succeeded to or bought out the aforementioned E. T. Lewis in 1886. J. Sisson and Company partnered Jesse Sisson with the colorfully named Ianthus L. Van Wormer. According to city directory information, the partnership started life at 214 Oak Street, but later occupied a “large and spacious building” at 214 Jackson. The Sisson partnership seems to have sold beekeeping equipment, rather than maintaining beehives themselves. “He makes a specialty of the U. S. Standard Honey Extractor” [a machine used “to spin honey out of the combs after they have been uncapped.”], claimed one article, and the name of Jesse Sisson, “upon any article used in bee culture is accepted throughout the United States as standard and the best made.” This may be advertising hokum, but Mr. Sisson lasted in business for a relatively long time, from 1887 or 8 to at least 1901. Shown as 75 years of age in the 1900 census, I suspect he died sometime before 1910.

Beekeeping in Toledo appears to have died out during the Depression of the 1930s. The Toledo economy has tilted more towards the manufactured item, but there are still any number of produce stands and farm markets around the area. A good many of these retailers sell farm fresh honey, made on local farms. So even if the price is a bit more, stand solid with the old beekeepers of your home, and when you buy honey, see where it comes from. Pass over the honey from Chicago or San Diego, and buy from the nearest Ohio beekeeper.

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