The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1981, Volume 27, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

E.W. Morse and the San Diego County Beekeeping Industry, 1875-1884

Copley Award, San Diego Historical Society 1981 Institute of History

Images from the article

THE late 1800s was an active time for the San Diego business community; new industries were being established at an amazing rate. One such enterprise was commercial beekeeping. Most of the beekeepers were local businessmen interested in developing the San Diego economy and increasing their personal fortunes. The experiences of E.W. Morse were typical of those who chose to become involved in this new industry.

In 1849 Ephraim W. Morse came to California to seek his fortune in the gold fields. Due to poor health, he relocated to San Diego and entered the mercantile business. Twenty years later Morse was instrumental in establishing the banking community in San Diego. His economic activities continued to expand and he became involved in most local enterprises to some degree, including the beekeeping industry.1

E.W. Morse first became acquainted with beekeeping through articles in the San Diego Union and from conversations with fellow businessmen. On September 30, 1874 the San Diego Union published the initial financial statement of an apiary that had been operating since 1871. The figures showed a $7,500 return on a $2,000 investment in the business.2 Morse read this article and after further investigation into the local honey industry, he was convinced of its stability and economic potential. He began collecting information on beekeeping from businesses throughout the United States and in February 1875 Morse proceeded with what he referred to as his Honey Adventure.3

In a letter to J.S. Harbison, the leading beekeeper in San Diego, Morse expressed an interest in purchasing forty stands of bees and asked Harbison to please notify him of the price and place of delivery within a day of two.4 Impatient to begin this new career, Morse went ahead without an answer from Harbison. On February 26 he gave his apiary manager, Alexander Smith, a check for $50 to purchase seven stands of bees. One week later, he bought an additional thirty-one hives for $248.5 After moving the bees to the Oak Glen Apiary in Fallbrook, Smith reported the loss of ten stands, leaving him a total of twenty-eight stands of live bees.6 From February 6 to May 12 Morse spent $750.41 to establish his apiary. He realized his first income on May 12 with a sale of honey to local merchants for $11.307

Morse had figured that a $500 investment would yield a $1200 return for his first year in beekeeping.8 However, as with any new business, Morse encountered expenses and problems that could not have been predicted in his original cost projection. Some of these expenditures were minimal, such as the $2.66 school tax paid to the Poway District and the $20 spent to have an outhouse hauled to the bee ranch.9 The bills from the local sawmills for hives and related equipment were more substantial, totaling more than $500 in his first year of operation.10 During his first thirteen months of business, Morse invested $1,281.30; his income for that same period was $92.25.11

Morse's first manager, Alexander Smith, was a local business acquaintance. Smith had some background in beekeeping and Morse trusted his judgment in running the apiary. He would offer suggestions to Smith, but usually tempered his comments with the phrase, "do what you think is best."12 For the first two years Smith spent most of his time and much of Morse's money on building up the apiary and his living quarters at the ranch. By June 1877 he had acquired a total of one hundred hives through purchase and natural increase.13

Morse was enthusiastic about his new venture and tried to make the two and one-half day trip to the Oak Glen Apiary about once a month. He usually brought out supplies and spent his time discussing new ideas in apiculture with his manager. In the four years Smith ran the apiary, Morse never refused any of his numerous requests for supplies or money. Although Smith was a competent beekeeper, he seemed to lack some of his employer's enthusiasm. When asked to keep a record of the flowering bee plants in the area, Smith ignored the request.14 Morse also suggested that Smith visit a nearby apiary owned and operated by George Merriam.15 He repeated the suggestion several times in his correspondence, but Smith made no mention of having gone to see either Merriam or his hives.

Morse was aware of Smith's waning enthusiasm. In a letter to Rufus Morgan, a beekeeper in Bernardo, Morse wrote that he "will sell or rent soon, as the party in charge has 'Arizona Fever' and will probably leave."16 Morse's prediction was correct and by February 1879 Morse was without a manager for his Oak Glen Apiary. Upon Smith's departure, Morse contracted the services of Rufus Morgan as his new beekeeper.

Morse's enthusiasm for the beekeeping business was matched by Morgan's. He had sent his gold watch to Morse for an appraisal and two weeks later asked him to use it to purchase some bees. Morgan told Morse that he hoped to "make his honey business a very profitable thing—much more so than I expected before I arrived."17 Morgan visited Merriam's apiary that summer and reported to Morse that he was very much pleased with the setup he saw.18 He realized that Morse was short on capital and tried to work within that confine. He used the barter system whenever possible.19 Local beekeepers had especially hard luck in 1879 and 1880. A severe drought during that period nearly devastated their industry in San Diego County.20 Their lack of success and the injurious weather conditions prompted Morse to tell Morgan that he was quite discouraged with the bee business. "I have been putting money into it for five years," he complained, "and getting nothing out—I need some little income to keep up my faith in the business."21 An examination of Morse's ledger for this period reveals the reason for his unenthusiastic attitude: his expenditures totaled $3.156.62 and his income was only $698.47.22 Morgan refused to accept defeat and continued to write letters of encouragment to Morse. Unfortunately, Morgan's career in beekeeping was ended suddenly when he inadvertently ate poisonous mushrooms and died in April 1880.23

Coming into the busiest season for honey production, Morse had to find someone to run his apiary as soon as possible. After asking several local beekeepers for recommendations, he engaged the services of Elden Lovett.24 Lovett was an experienced apiarist and the Oak Glen Ranch was most successful while under his management. From the time Lovett took over until Morse sold the apiary four years later, he spent $1,127.06 and received $547.99 as income.25 It is possible that this relative success was due to the improvements made by Morgan. However, the evidence seems to favor the conclusion that it was Lovett's shrewdness and aggressive business practices that accounts for the decrease in losses. During the nine years that Morse owned the Oak Glen Apiary he spent $5,564.98 and took in only $1,338.71.26 He must have suffered a grave disappointment since his original calculations had indicated a potential 150 percent return on the bee ranch within one year.

In the late 1870s Morse came into possession of another apiary through nonpayment of a loan. This bee ranch, the Woodland Apiary, included 272 stands of bees, forty cans of comb honey, two barrels of extracted honey, one extractor and the buildings on the grounds. Morse estimated the value of the bees alone at $1,860.60.27 Unfortunately, when his manager, C.J. Burleson, took inventory of the apiary, the report was unfavorable. The bee population was so low that Burleson was not sure the hives could be built up again. The lumber was in poor shape and many of the combs in the stands were crooked, making it difficult, if not impossible, to remove the honey. Eight of the beestands were empty and of the two barrels of extracted honey, one was only half full.28

In addition to these problems, Burleson was a beekeeper of questionable competence. After he had managed the apiary for sixteen months, the number of full bee stands had dropped from 272 to 110. One month later, there were niney-four left, and one month after that the inventory was further reduced to seventy-eight.29 Morse seemed to have some reasonable doubts as to Burleson's capabilities and urged him to visit Morgan at the Oak Glen Apiary to "talk bees." As with most of Morse's suggestions, Burleson chose to ignore it and never went to see Morgan.30

During the first year of operation Morse paid out over $1,100 (excluding the original debts) and received only $228.36.31 He was no doubt discouraged by the experience and began to make plans to sell the Woodland Apiary after two years of ownership. Morse sold the bees to Elden Lovett and entered into a partnership with him for two more years before selling out completely.32

Although individual success varied, all the beekeepers in San Diego County were faced with a variety of problems. On the local level, Morse had trouble obtaining properly cut lumber used to make hives. Within the first month of business, he received a note from his beekeeper, Smith, saying that a lumber order had been filled improperly. Two months later, Smith complained again that "the millwork was very unsatisfactory."33 In January of the following year, Smith and Morse were still having problems with the local lumber companies; Smith reported that several pieces of hives were missing in an order he had just received. Morse finally found a temporary solution by ordering hives from George M. Wetherbee of San Francisco. Although he preferred to patronize home production and manufacturers, Morse was unwilling to pay their inflated prices.34

Morse continued to order some of his hives from Wetherbee, having received a satisfactory product at a competitive price. However, after three years of business with the merchant, problems arose. Rufus Morgan had sent Wetherbee written instructions for a particular type of hive he wanted him to build. When the finished hives arrived, the dimensions were off just enough to cause problems for Morgan. Morse wrote to Wetherbee explaining the error and never received a satisfactory reply from the San Francisco businessman.35 Since lumber was, in many cases, the greatest expense in building and operating an apiary, it is understandable that the quality and price of millwork was a major concern for the beekeepers.36

Morse was confronted by another local problem, but this time it was caused by the San Diego Union writers. He objected to the terminology in newspaper articles used to describe the honey that was produced by the county bee-men. In a letter to the newspaper, Morse explained that to use the words "strained" or "liquid" when referring to honey depreciated its quality. All honey was liquid, he wrote, including that which was sold in the comb. Strained honey, obtained from broken or mashed up combs by partially straining out particles of comb, dead bees and dirt, was of a poor quality. The most common method for removing honey was extraction, a process whereby the honey is centrifuged out of clean combs. Morse explained that "extracted" was the preferred term for describing honey in the bee journals.37 The problem apparently was solved since Morse did not raise the issue again in any of his correspondence.

Although problems in the production of honey were nearly solved due to the innovative methods and inventions of J.S. Harbison, there still remained two areas of concern for the beekeepers—transportation and profitable marketing.38 Difficulties in shipping honey were due mainly to the transportation monopoly of the Central Pacific Railroad. Morse was deeply disturbed by this situation and expressed his anger on several occasions. He wrote to his son in Massachusetts saying that he intended to send him some honey, "but due to the increase in freight charges by the monopoly controlling the Pacific Railroad and Steamship line, I found I could not do so reasonably. . ."39 In letters to business acquaintances back East, Morse complained about the negative effects that the railroad had on the honey industry. The enormous charges of the monopoly made it impossible to ship honey overland and the Pacific Mail and Steamship Company, also under Central Pacific control, made it no cheaper to ship by water.40

Aside from the exhorbitant rates charged, the railroad and steamship companies were also guilty of careless and irresponsible treatment of the honey. The Central Pacific refused to guarantee nonstop shipment, as they did with fruit, thus creating a situation where the honey had to be loaded and reloaded several times before reaching the East Coast markets. The Central Pacific also refused to store the honey in its warehouses, which meant it had to be hauled to other facilities and stored at the shipper's expense.41

In an article written for the San Diego Union, local businessman C.J. Fox gave his analysis of the transportation problem. He told of some steamship agents who refused to ship honey on the premise that the iron ships would be damaged by any leakage that might occur. Fox found this to be a "very frivolous excuse." He argued that the railroad should be able to guarantee nonstop shipment, in hopes of decreasing the chances of damage to the packing cases. And finally, Fox addressed the issue of dishonest and careless commission men. He emphasized the need to find responsible agents and included the names of some competent firms he had contacted.42

The other major area of concern for San Diego beekeepers was finding a profitable market. The basic problem was that the San Diego bee-men were not organized in their marketing practices and this caused poor prices for wholesale honey. The large shippers would send their honey to various commission houses in the East with orders to sell immediately and gave no thought to the prevailing market conditions. By selling in small lots, the producers created unnecessary competition. The disorganization of the bee-men gave rise to similar problems in their home market.43

San Diego wholesale prices for honey fluctuated almost daily because of the unsystematic manner in which the beekeepers shipped their product to town. The local merchants based their prices on supply and demand and in the summer months, when honey production was at a peak, the bee-men were forced to sell at greatly deflated rates. Due to the unpredictable nature of the local market, the decision to sell was made at a risk. In 1880, Morse wrote to Lovett that "the San Diego merchants are paying 6€ for honey today. It seems we sold a little too soon. Our judgment was not at fault in selling," he explained, since "McDougall and Utt sold their whole crop for less than we did."44

The lack of organization in merchandising created other problems for the beekeepers. By 1878, excessive shipments to San Francisco eventually caused that market to be glutted. A businessman in the Bay Area wrote to Morse saying he could do nothing with honey to the local market since every commission house was full for the season and no sales were being made. Two years later, the San Francisco market was still overstocked and the Southern California beekeepers were told not to bother shipping their honey to Northern California. Poor management also led to a glutting of markets on the East Coast.45

The depression of the American economy in the 1870s created one more problem for the beekeepers in San Diego County. Hoping to obtain higher prices for their product, the bee-men had marketed honey as a luxury item. In 1877, Fox reported that the financial distress in the United States had caused a poor market for luxury items and the sale of honey was dropping.46

One solution to both the transportation and marketing problems came with the establishment of foreign markets. Morse sent letters of inquiry to friends and businessmen throughout the world in hopes of finding new markets, higher profits and better transportation. He reached his greatest success through contacts in Britain and Germany. By his efforts, and those of C.J. Fox, reliable commission houses were found in Hamburg, Liverpool and Glasgow. Unfortunately, much of the honey was still being transported over monopoly roads to New York, where it was then sent on for transatlantic shipment. Morse hoped to solve this problem by shipping honey directly to Europe on vessels that came to San Diego for cargoes of wheat. If this could be done, then the services of the Central Pacific could be avoided completely.47

By mid-1870s, many beekeepers realized that the success of the honey industry depended upon their ability to solve the problems they faced. On July 12, 1876 E.W. Morse, C.J. Fox, J.S. Harbison and several other bee-men met in San Diego to discuss and formulate plans for a professional organization.48 Two weeks later the San Diego Beekeepers Association was formally established with the following objectives: to promote knowledge of bee culture; to extend and improve the market for honey; to systemize and cheapen transportation; to establish and maintain grades and trademarks that shall be considered reliable; to provide safe storage and careful shipment of the crops; and other objects as may be found useful. Morse was elected president and Fox was vice-president.49

During his first three months as president of the Association, Morse signed 1,864 grading certificates, of which 1,600 had been used.50 In his annual report dated February 2, 1877, Morse was optimistic about the activities of the Association. Extensive correspondence had opened new markets in Europe and honey had already been successfully shipped to Scotland. After seven months of existence, the Association and its forty-five members had done things not possible within an individual's capacity. The great need now was for cheaper transportation. If rates could be reduced, Morse believed, then San Diego beekeepers would prosper. He hoped to accomplish this through an organized effort of the Association. He ended his report with the positive prediction that the Beekeepers Association would be able to do much to help San Diego County business interests.51

C.J. Fox served as the Association's agent and spent three months on the East Coast trying to solve some of the problems in transportation and marketing. In February 1877 he gave his first report to the Association members. While in New York, Fox found a careful and thorough agent to oversee the transfer of honey from the Central Pacific Railroad cars to warehouses. As to the exhorbitant rates, the only hope Fox had for a reduction was that conditions would improve as shipments increased. Until then, Fox surmised, San Diego's superior honey-producing conditions would offset the freight costs in shipping to the East. He also reported that the dealers appreciated the grading system used by the Association. And finally, Fox felt that once the public realized that extracted honey was as good and pure as comb honey, then the advantages of organizing would become known.52

The San Diego Beekeepers Association and its members met with many successes in the 1870s and 1880s. At the July 5, 1877 meeting, a commission was appointed to make an appeal to the Board of Equalization for a reduction in taxes. During the same month, C.J. Fox invented a new packing case that would allow honey to be inspected more readily. In September, the Association made arrangements with a responsible commission house in Hamburg, Germany for the sale of honey. The Association also rented a warehouse in downtown San Diego to be used for safe storage of the honey. Arrangements were made to organize future shipments, in order to avoid the Hooding of any markets.53

The efforts of the San Diego Beekeepers Association were vitally important in stabilizing the county's honey industry. It provided an invaluable service to the bee-men by controlling and organizing those conditions that would determine the success or failure of their enterprise. C.J. Fox best summarized the benefits of having a professional association in his 1877 report when he wrote, "by concentration of business through cooperation, we obtain respect and consideration."54

Beekeeping in San Diego County continued to grow and became a major industry by the late 1880s. The personal experiences of E.W. Morse serve to illuminate the sort of problems and barriers that had to be overcome before a successful enterprise could be realized. It was only through the tremendous efforts and creative expertise of Morse and his fellow San Diegans that this became possible.



1. T.S. Van Dyke, The City and County of San Diego. Illustrated and Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers (San Diego: Leberthon and Taylor, 1888), pp. 88-90; Biographical File, E.W. Morse, San Diego Historical Society, Library and Manuscripts Collection, San Diego, California.

2. E.W. Morse, Letter Books, 1870-1884, 12 vols., San Diego Historical Society, Library and Manuscripts Collection, 5:87. (Hereinafter cited as Letter Books).

3. Letter Books, 5:190-365, passim.

4. Letter Books, 5:316-17.

5. E.W. Morse, Day Book, 1871-1879, John W. Allen Collection, Mandeville Department of Special Collections, Central University Library, University of California at San Diego, pp. 117-18. (Hereinafter cited as Day Book.).

6. Alexander Smith to E.W. Morse, March 15, 1875, Morse Letters, Box 2, San Diego Historical Society, Library and Manuscripts Collection. (Hereinafter cited as Morse Letters).

7. E.W. Morse, Ledger, 1869-1884, John W. Allen Collection, Mandeville Department of Special Collections, Central University Library, University of California at San Diego, p. 162. (Hereinafter cited as Ledger).

8. Letter Books, 5:248.

9. Day Book, pp. 118, 134.

10. Day Book, pp. 124-26, 135, 140, 144, 166.

11. Ledger, pp. 162-64.

12. Letter Books, 7:32.

13. Alexander Smith to E.W. Morse, June 7, 1877, Morse Letters.

14. Letter Books, 7:336, 416.

15. Letter Books, 9:101, 321, 359.

16. Letter Books, 9:278.

17. Rufus Morgan to E.W. Morse, March 19, 1879, April 1, 1879, Microfilm Collection, San Diego History Center, Library and Manuscripts Collection, Reel 6. (Hereinafter cited as Microfilm Collection).

18. Rufus Morgan to E.W. Morse, June 14, 1879, Microfilm Collection.

19. Rufus Morgan to E.W. Morse, January 30, 1879, Microfilm Collection.

20. San Diego Union, February 27, 1880, March 4, 1880.

21. Letter Books, 10:318.

22. Ledger, pp. 162-65, 246-47.

23. Letter Books, 10:419.

24. Letter Books, 10:379-80.

25. Ledger, pp. 247-50.

26. Ledger, pp. 162-65, 246-50.

27. Letter Books, 9:202; Day Book, p. 259.

28. C.J. Burleson to E.W. Morse, September 3, 1878, Morse Letters.

29. C.J. Burleson to E.W. Morse, January 24, 1880, February 18, 1880, March 25, 1880, Morse Letters.

30. Letter Books, 9:351, 10:274, 317, 355.

31. Letter Books, 10:224.

32. Letter Books, 11:79.

33. Letter Books, 5:330; Alexander Smith to E.W. Morse, May 3, 1875, Morse Letters.

34. Alexander Smith to E.W. Morse, January 12, 1876, Morse Letters; Letter Books, 7:533.

35. Rufus Morgan to E.W. Morse, February 14, 1879, Microfilm Collection; Letter Books, 9:570-72, 574, 592-93.

36. Day Book, pp. 119-207, passim.

37. Letter Books, 11:379-80.

38. San Diego Union, February 6, 1877.

39. Letter Books, 7:411.

40. Letter Books, 9:280-81, 7:650, 8:215, 11:98.

41. San Diego Union, February 6, 1877.

42. San Diego Union, November 21, 1880.

43. Letter Books, 7:777; San Diego Union, February 6, 1877.

44. Letter Books, 9:95, 11:31.

45. C.B. Culver to E.W. Morse, September 17, 1878, Subject File, Honey, San Diego Historical Society, Library and Manuscripts Collection. (Hereinafter cited as Honey File); San Diego Union, November 21, 1880; Letter Books, 7:749.

46. San Diego Union, February 6, 1877.

47. Letter Books, 9:573, 12:444.

48. San Diego Union, July 12, 1876.

49. Statement of Objectives, Honey File.

50. Letter Books, 7:777.

51. Letter Books, 8:20-23; San Diego Union, February 3, 1877.

52. San Diego Union, February 6, 1877.

53. San Diego Union, August 15, 1876, July 6, 1877, July 13, 1877, September 10, 1877.

54. San Diego Union, February 6, 1877.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from the San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection.