Jessie and Frances Emery at the Bee Farm in 1936. Photo courtesy of Marjorie Smith

Valley Voices: Bee Farm and Cupid in the Apiary

  • Jan. 13, 2020 1:30 a.m.

Excerpt from Exploring Wells Gray Park by Roland Neave

The Bee Farm is one of the few surviving homesteads in Wells Gray Park and has taken its place alongside the Ray Farm and Majerus Farm as a remarkable pioneering story. The buildings had been abandoned and derelict for 60 years, when the Friends of Wells Gray Park and BC Parks co-funded a restoration project.

The Stillwater Road turns right off the Clearwater Valley Road at km 35.7, just south of the Park entrance. The road descends to Blackwater Creek, then climbs up the other side of the valley. The trailhead to the Bee Farm is signed at km 3.5.

A hike of less than 10 minutes leads to Smith Lake which is 400 m long at an elevation of 750 m. The trail skirts the lake on the right or south side, then goes over undulating terrain with a gradual descent to the next junction. Here, follow the left fork which soon reaches a collapsed bridge over Hemp Creek.

Continue upstream along Hemp Creek for about 30 minutes to reach the Bee Farm. The three main structures are the cabin, bee shed, and outhouse.

The Bee Farm is the story of two remarkable sisters, Jessie and Frances Emery. Jessie was born on Aug. 16, 1910 and Frances on May 23, 1913. Eventually, the family had nine children and they moved from Alberta to East Blackpool near Clearwater in 1922. The girls’ father, Ernest, had invested in some bees and Jessie gradually took over his beekeeping tasks as she got older.

In the summer of 1926, life in Upper Clearwater took a dramatic change when a huge forest fire swept through the valley. Large burned tracts of land created by the fire were soon covered in fireweed, willow and other deciduous shrubs. Ernest died in 1928 and, by 1930, the Great Depression was taking hold on western Canada.

Jessie still managed to earn a small income from her six beehives on the Blackpool farm. The bee inspector told her about the vast fields of fireweed growing in the Hemp Creek Valley, thanks to the fire of 1926. In Upper North Thompson Reflections, Frances described how she and Jessie, assisted by older brother Norman and younger brother Ralph, relocated their beekeeping operation:

Jessie filed for a homestead there in 1930 when we were 20 and 17, and we moved the bees to the Upper Clearwater Valley. Norman and Jessie built the cabin while Ralph and I split shakes and helped any way we could. There were beautiful cedar trees that had been killed by the fire but not really burned. What lumber we needed was split from them …

Any other materials needed had to be packed to the Bee Farm, as the end of the road in 1930 was near Trout Creek.

The Canadian Association of Palynologists estimates that, to produce one pound of honey, bees must visit two million flowers, fly about 80,000 km and carry about 37,000 loads of nectar back to the hive. During peak flower blooming periods, bees from a single hive may visit up to 250,000 flowers in a single day. With such activity, a beekeeper’s job continues year-round and, in the case of the Emery sisters, they had to hike quite a distance into the wilderness to tend their bees.

In spring, the hives’ winter insulation was unwrapped, food supplies checked and dead colonies removed. If the queen was productive, the hive filled quickly with brood and honey and could run out of space, causing swarming. This was prevented by adding extra shelves (or supers), giving more space for honey production. In summer, honey was removed, processed and packed. During fall, the colony’s health and strength had to be checked again because weak or diseased hives would be unlikely to survive the winter.

The sisters also had to protect their hives from invading animals because bee larvae and honey were a delicacy for bears, skunks and raccoons. In winter, the girls also had to check the hives regularly because the bees could suffocate if the entrance to the hives was blocked by a heavy snowfall. Charlie Ludtke recalled that his brother Fred had a trapline near the Bee Farm and he cleared away the snow from the hives when he went by.

After they had set up their beekeeping operation among the fields of fireweed, the Bee Girls realized they needed to expand, so they doubled their hives to 12 and began to enjoy even more plentiful honey harvests. They sold their honey for up to 18 cents per pound locally. With each of the 12 hives producing 200 to 250 pounds of honey, the girls could make as much as $540 per year.

Their business was flourishing.

The Shook family arrived in the Clearwater Valley in 1934 with nine children and homesteaded near Grouse Creek. Two of the boys were Floyd and Roy. Frances Emery recalled, “On March 1, 1934, Jessie and I headed for the Bee Farm to clean up the bee supers. On the way, we picked up the mail for the valley settlers and, while we were delivering it, we met Floyd and Roy Shook.”

Soon the brothers arrived at the Bee Farm where they helped the girls finish some of the buildings and built a bee house for the hives. The romance developed from there. Frances married Floyd in 1936 and Jessie married Roy the following year. Two weeks after that wedding, Roy and Floyd’s sister Freda married Frances and Jessie’s brother Ralph, creating a triple relationship between two families of nine children.

Jessie and Frances kept the Bee Farm operating until about 1940. They did most of the work themselves because Roy and Floyd were busy on the homesteads and not too interested in bees after all. Both had young children and trips to the Bee Farm entailed packing children along too. In addition, the forest was gradually growing again after the fire and replacing the once-abundant fireweed with other plants. The hives were brought out from the Bee Farm about 1945. Jessie kept a few hives at home until she was in her sixties.

Roy Shook owned several small sawmills and the family moved frequently between mill sites. Jessie was kept busy with their five children, her wonderful gardens, and her beehives. They retired in Barnhartvale, a suburb of Kamloops. Jessie died in 1991 and Roy in 1999. Frances and Floyd raised four children and moved to Vavenby in 1947, then to Barriere, Louis Creek and back to Vavenby in 1960. Frances returned to the Bee Farm only once, with her brother-in-law Charlie, when she was 80. Charlie wrote about this event:

Fifty-four years after leaving the Bee Farm, Frances Shook came back… Frances’ greatest fear was that her old home would be dilapidated, but she was pleasantly surprised at what she saw. The lilac bush still grows strongly and blooms well, a big reward for backpacking in its first beginnings and giving it loving care 60 years ago.

Floyd died in 1981 and Frances in 2001, just before her 88th birthday.

Seventy years after the Emery sisters established their Bee Farm, an examination of the buildings revealed their deteriorating condition. Comprehensive restoration was completed in 2001, co-funded by B.C. Parks and the Friends of Wells Gray Park. The project was partly finished when the Friends organized an interpretive hike to the Bee Farm in July 2001. Joining the group were all four of Frances’ children (the first time they had been there as adults) and two of Jessie’s children, a remarkable family reunion.

A journalist, Nigel Pooley, visited the Bee Girls in 1938 and wrote a story about them which was published in the Family Herald & Weekly Star on January 18, 1939. It gives some slightly different facts about the amazing story of Jessie and Frances Shook, but is reproduced here in its entirety.

CUPID IN THE APIARY

By Nigel Pooley

Jessie Emery was not doing well with her bees. She lived at Blackpool, 70 miles north of Kamloops on the North Thompson with her mother and brothers and sisters. But Blackpool is a poor bee district – not enough wild raspberries, clover and fireweed. The government bee inspector told Jessie that 40 miles from her home up the Clearwater River and five miles by packhorse beyond the last settlement were thousands of acres of fireweed. Bees should do well there. That was in 1932.

Jessie loaded up a packhorse and tramped the 40 miles to the end of the road at Upper Clearwater to see this bee Eden for herself. Yes, it was true. Four or five miles beyond the last homestead, she came on valleys choked with fireweed shoulder high.

Being a girl of action, she did not say, “Well this would be a fine place for bees if it were a little more accessible.” She selected a likely piece of ground, filed on a homestead, bought six packages of bees, had six hives made, and packed in the equipment.

The bees did well, so well in fact that she got her younger sister, Frances, to come and help her look after them. In the following year, the hives averaged over 200 pounds of honey to a hive, some of them producing as much as 250 pounds. The Bee Girls, as they became known in Upper Clearwater, made more money off their bees than the homesteaders did off their quarter sections.

They sold their honey for 10 cents to 15 cents a pound locally, the average being 12.5 cents. The honey was of fine flavour and density and the demand unlimited.

The original six hives increased to twelve. The girls built a fine cabin, cleared a little land, built fences and tended their bees. Every ounce of equipment had to be packed in by horses over four miles of trail from the end of the wagon road and very often over the full 24 miles from the nearest store at Clearwater. In winter, the girls lived at home, but after every heavy snowfall Jessie tied on her snowshoes and hiked into the Bee Ranch to clear the snow away from the hives lest the bees suffocate.

No doubt the Bee Girls would still be on their lonely Bee Ranch among the burned snags and fireweed had not Cupid taken a hand. The boys in Upper Clearwater somehow became “bee conscious” all at once. You can find out about bees from government bulletins, but with the Bee Girls right there only four miles from the end of the road, it was much easier to just walk up there and get some firsthand knowledge. And while there, it was just too bad to let the girls do all that wood-chopping and stake-splitting and fence-building.

Learning about bees soon broke into romance. Two brothers finally won the day and Jessie and Frances Emery became Mrs. Roy Shook and Mrs. Floyd Shook respectively.

I went with Roy Shook out to the Bee Ranch. He is setting up a fine home on his homestead and his wife has a full-time job looking after their five-month-old son down in “civilization”. Roy makes trips once a week out to the apiary to see that all is well. Since they were married, he has taken over the bee-keeping and is finding it no easy task. Last winter, he was unable to get to the hives soon enough after a heavy snowstorm and lost a strong hive through suffocation.

On one trip to the hives this spring, he discovered a swarm on a nearby bush. In cajoling it into a new hive, the greater part of the swarm escaped. This summer, he had trouble again with a hive of strong bees robbing a weaker hive. He is learning fast, however, and soon hopes to get as high production as his enterprising wife had.

There is plenty of room for more bee keepers in the valleys beyond Upper Clearwater. It took two enterprising girls to show that bee-keeping can be profitable out in the wilds. The truth is, the bees barely made an impression on the sea of fireweed that chokes the valleys of this district.

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