Local Wisconsin Farm Store Has a Honey Focus

River Valley Kitchens Farm Store

On our way to visit Lake Geneva, WI, we investigated this unassuming barn-shaped store with a giant mushroom painted on the end. It was quite a find—not only an excellent source of locally grown products both prepared and fresh, but a nice selection of local honey, with a surprising supply of some hard-to-find Italian honeys.

River Valley Ranch

It is located in Slades Corners at the intersection of Hwy 50 and County Road ‘P’ about 8 miles due east of beautiful Lake Geneva and the same distance south of Burlington WI.

River Valley Kitchens Outlet

With a large sign declaring, “Fresh Mushrooms – Open Year Round” you might imagine rows of tables covered in mushrooms, but although freshly grown mushrooms are a specialty (grown across the highway), they produce a wide selection of locally grown products, including pickled vegetables, salsas, chutney, soups, spreads, pasta sauces, brushetta, giardinera, dips and fresh vegetables. Most, if not all, of the prepared foods are made on site.

From their brochure, you wouldn’t know that honey played a big role in their offerings, but it does! They had three brands of honey:

Wisconsin Natural Acres Honey

Wisconsin Natural Acres Honey

Located in Chilton, WI, Natural Acres produces a multifloral honey primarily from the nectar of Alfalfa, Clover, and the Basswood tree. They move their beehives near these nectar sources, choosing only areas where organic or natural farming is done. They produce raw honey from their bees with no heating and no blending or filtering, ensuring the best tasting, most healthful honey possible. We purchased a jar of this honey to try later. It was amber colored, medium sweet, with a delicate aroma and medium persistence.

My Honey Co.

My Honey Co.

Located in Richmond, IL, My Honey Co. is as family-owned business since 1975, producing a wide selection of bee products from Wisconsin sources, including Wildflower honey (mainly golden rod and aster from the fall), Cranberry honey from Cranberry bogs of Wisconsin and Clover honey. Only Clover honey was offered here. No additives and raw honey is produced to ensure flavor and healthful qualities.

Mieli Thun

Mieli Thun

Quite a surprise to find this honey well represented here. Mieli Thun is one of the premier honey production companies in Italy from the northern province of Trento, about a 3 hour drive from Milan or Venice. Winners of the Grandi Mieli d’Italia for the last 7 years for at least five honeys each year. Well known for a wide variety of single flower honeys, I found Thyme (timo), French Honeysuckle (sulla), Eucalyptus (eucalipto), Chestnut (castagno), Wild Carrot (carota selvatica) -*rare*, and Sunflower (girasole).

Wisconsin Honey Sweetened Root Beer

Wisconsin Honey-Sweetened Root Beer

We purchased some fresh veggies and root beer for a snack. I was pleasantly surprised to see the gourmet root beer, made by Sprecher Brewing Co. of Milwaukee, was sweetened with raw Wisconsin honey!

..dark honeyed brew..

Later, upon closer examination of the ingredient label I discovered the primary sweetener was glucose syrup, then malto-dextrin, followed by WI Raw Honey. I suppose the product development folks need to catch up with the marketing folks. Nevertheless, you are on the right track Sprecher! Perhaps the next new and improved version will declare, “Now Made With Even More Raw Honey!” and WI Raw Honey will be the first (and only) sweetener on the label. Or if that isn’t feasible, and since Sprecher also brews beer, perhaps we can look forward to the introduction of a true WI Honey Mead?!

River Valley Kitchens Farm Store
39900 W. 60th Street (map)
Burlington, WI 53105

A Short History of Honey in Wisconsin and a Honey of a Museum

Serious honey production in Wisconsin began in the mid 1800’s, a short time after the state opened up to settlement. While there were some settlers in the early 1800’s, disputes over territory by the native Indians made life uneasy for them. This situation escalated until the Black Hawk war in 1832 ended the dispute and opened the territory to settlement. For an insightful account of the Indian version of events and their traditions, I recommend reading the autobiography of Black Hawk, chief of the Sacs, dictated by him and faithfully translated for posterity.

Honey bees had settled in Wisconsin in the 1820s on their own migration across the continent from the east. Unlike their human counterparts, bees were welcomed by the Indians who quickly discovered their sweet treasure. They became proficient in finding honey, as was determined by settlers who found ladders and bee trees cut by the Indians. Black Hawk too, refers to cutting down bee trees in his autobiography.

Bees thrived in Wisconsin because of the natural openings between forest and open land where they could find hollow trees for hives and extended blossoming seasons of non-forest plants. In Wisconsin this was commonly found between prairie and forest and in natural “Oak Openings.” Also many surviving trees on the prairie lands (kept open by frequent burnings by the Indians) were hollow.

By the mid 1800’s the state of Wisconsin was likely the largest source of wild honey outside of New England. Locations of bee trees were noted by W. A. Schorger 1967/68 The wild honeybee in early Wisconsin mainly in Southern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Countryside - Largely Agricultural

Ostriches - Near Walworth

Alpacas - Near Madison

Wisconsin is an agricultural state well known for beer and dairy products, but is also home to more exotic farm animals. And in 2010 it ranked eighth in honey production in U.S. Welcome to the land of “milk and honey.”

By 1850 over 300,000 people had settled in Wisconsin. Many settled in, or arrived through Milwaukee.  Most came from the Eastern United States, but almost a third were from other countries, primarily Irish, Germans, Norwegians and French Canadians. Other ethnic groups of note that settled in SE Wisconsin include the Danes in Racine county, and the Italians in Kenosha county.

Honey production grew dramatically as it transitioned from wild honey hunting of bee trees to bee farming in the late 1800s. The growth was fueled partly by the familiarity with beekeeping by European farmers who settled there, and partly from the rarity of sugar, but mainly from innovations in beekeeping. Early on beekeepers made hives by cutting out the section of the bee tree with the hive and locating it close to the farm. These early hives were called “Bee Gums or Log Gums.” These were replaced later with straw hives or “skeps.” But it was movable frame hives, patented in 1851 by Lorenzo Langstroth, later to become known as the father of beekeeping, that fueled the incredible growth in beekeeping in the late 1800’s. This allowed extraction of the honey without destroying the bees and the brood.

At the turn of the 20th century, the most important types of honey plants in Wisconsin were dandelion, clover, basswood, sweet clover, fireweed or Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), buckwheat, goldenrod, spanish needle (Bidens pilosa) and asters. Even with the reduction of forests and change of crops, many of these plants still produce production levels of honey today.

Honey Acres Honey & Museum

All most all of the historical beekeeping enterprises are gone, although some in existence today were built upon the successes and knowledge of these early beekeeping pioneers. And there is one that can actually trace its family ownership back to the mid 1800’s—Honey Acres Inc., home of the Honey Acres Museum. Unique in Wisconsin, this museum is actually housed in the honey production plant on a working apiary.

Honey Acres Honey Museum & Headquarters

It is located 2 miles north of Ashippun, Wisconsin in Dodge County. It was begun 5 generations ago in 1852 by Christian Friederich Diehnelt. Christian brought his beekeeping skills from Rosswein, Germany. He purchased 7 1/2 acres (or 12 according to some sources) in what is now Milwaukee and started keeping bees. He began selling honey to the people in the area and eventually grew a substantial beekeeping and honey processing business. The city so well known for beer was also known for honey. The business moved to Ashippun in 1978 where it stands today.

As you approach the entrance you will notice the straw hives in small alcoves along the outside wall. The alcoves are called bee boles, built to protect the straw hives, called skeps, used for hundred of years by beekeepers in the UK and Europe.

Five Types of Honey From Wisconsin

The museum has a retail outlet located at the bottom of the striking six sided tower (shaped like a honeycomb cell). The fist thing you see when you enter is a row of five types of honey with a spigot below each—Clover, Wild Flower, Buckwheat, Honey Apricot (a flavored honey) and Basswood; representing many of the major honeys of Wisconsin. Spoons are provided so you can taste them all. Although I am partial to the stronger tasting basswood and buckwheat, the wild flower was my favorite.

The museum is well worth the trip! It is small but well organized. You can easily spend an hour if you take the time to look around. Inside are beekeeping artifacts, examples of hives from all over the world, Egyptian bee hieroglyphics, a slide show and, perhaps the most interesting, a live bee hive with glass sides and a microphone so you can see and hear the bees at work.

Walter Diehnelt, CEO of Honey Acres, is interviewed by Milwaukee Public Television’s Mondy Carter who gets bitten by the honey bug (the segment is 12 minutes long).

Honey Acres, Inc.
Honey Acres, Inc
PO Box 346
N1557 Highway 67
Ashippun, Wisconsin 53003
Phone: 1-800-558-7745

References, Further Reading

The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting By Eva Crane
The wild honeybee in early Wisconsin by W. Schorger (1967/68) (see excerpt from the State of Wisconsin Collection)
The oak-openings or the bee hunter by J. Fenimore Cooper (1789 – 1851) Published 1871 (see digital archive)
Beekeeping in Wisconsin, By Lloyd Victor France, Thesis Submitted to the University of Wisconsin, 1915
Wisconsin Honey Producers Association
The honey bee is the Wisconsin State Insect.
Beelining and Bee Gums – Old Settlers Gazette 2006 (pdf)
Historic Images From the Wisconsin Honey Producer’s Association (1875 – 1979)

Collingwood, Ontario - Shipping Past and Honey Present

This beautiful area of Ontario on the southern shores of Georgian Bay, about a 2 hour drive north of Toronto, was a great place to spend Easter. Staying in a comfortable condo just outside of Collingwood offered us a central location for exploring the area. The condo was courtesy of my mother who traded in some of her timeshare credits for a week there and invited the family.

My memories of the Collingwood area centered around the Blue Mountain Resort*, where I skied as a kid. It is also a great summer vacation area with plenty of sun, beaches and wonderful natural areas to explore. Situated on the Niagara Escarpment, there are incredible views and many trails, such as the Bruce Trail*, winding its way through the area on its 560 mile journey from Tobermory to Niagara Falls along the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment is designated by UNESCO as a World Biosphere with towering cliffs, aquatic ecosystems, ancient cedars and rare plant life.

Historical overview of Collingwood

Collingwood played a key role in the history of the Great Lakes. It was once home to a major ship building industry and a port for literally all the grain shipped across Canada to the rest of the world. At one point, it was promoted as the “Chicago of the North” and had a United States Consulate to help handle the freight and passenger traffic between American ports and Canada. The massive grain elevator used to transfer grain from ship to rail is still there, a testimony to the grain trade and the massive lakers and railway used to transport it.

View from the top of Blue Mountain ski area looking NE over Collingwood, Collingwood harbor and Georgian Bay. The grain elevator is the large structure.

Looking back at Blue Mountain from just beside the grain elevator shown in the photo above. The ski runs are still snow-covered although they only had a few open today.

One of the shop-filled streets in Blue Mountain village. A lively spot for skiers and travelers alike. Plenty of restaurants, pubs and shops.

A horse-drawn wagon full of people meanders through the village. We sit outside listening to live music, watching the skiers and enjoying a beer and food.

Grain Elevator

The grain elevator is on the spit that forms the eastern breakwater of Collingwood harbor. The scale of the structure is hard to describe. It is truly gigantic!

My sister and niece are dwarfed by the giant silos.

From the information kiosk beside the elevator:
” …The Collingwood grain elevators have dominated the harbourfront since 1854 and have served as a symbol of Collingwood’s imporance as a supplier of grain throughout the world. Prior to 1854 surplus grain reached markets only after long and often impossible routes… …The last railroad car was loaded at the elevator in 1986. The spit had space for 70 cars, each holding 100 tons of grain… …The cement elevator (seen here), built in 1929… …had a capacity of 2,000,000 bushels of grain and the ability to handle up to 30,000 bushels an hour…”

Visualizing 114,000 Tons of Honey

My mind boggles when I think of the amount of honey produced by the billions of bees around the world. I’ve never been able to visualize the yearly world production of honey of around 1.3 million tons. What if the grain elevator was re-purposed as a honey vat? How much honey would it hold?

The volume of two million bushels of grain is about 72,000,000 liters and a liter of honey weighs about 3.17 pounds. If the silos were filled with honey rather than grain, they would hold about 114,000 tons of honey! Therefore the annual world production of 1.3 million tons would fill 11 Collingwood grain elevators (CGE)! As large as they are, that doesn’t seem like so much for the entire world’s production. By the way, one “CGE” is approximately equal to the entire 2010 honey production of both Canada and the United States!

Show me the Honey!

As we walked along the main street of Collingwood I noticed a shop called, Wheat & Honey Natural Health Foods. Naturally I checked it out. I hoped to learn more about the local honey and I wasn’t disappointed. They had a small selection of honey including a jar of “Beaver Valley Gold” from “The Honey House”. The Honey House was a short drive away in Clarksburg just west of Collingwood. I bought the jar shown here and got directions. Unfortunately they thought it was probably closed, only being open later in the week this time of the year—we would be headed back home before then… Nevertheless, the Clarksburg area seemed as good a target as any for our exploratory drive the next day. Our resolve was sweetened once we tasted the honey—it was delicious! If you look carefully you can see we had eaten more than half the jar by the time the photo was taken a couple of days later!

Honey House in Clarksburg, Ontario

The next afternoon we headed to Clarksburg, actually located in Beaver Valley, and as feared, the Honey House was closed! Not to be daunted, I crossed the road to the post office and asked the helpful gal behind the counter if the owners were available. After some investigation and some help from a local resident we found the phone number and were able to arrange an appointment an hour later!

Honey House in Clarksburg, Ontario

We were met by Al Lockhart, who with his wife Keri, own the Honey House. Al gave us a tour of his modern and very clean facility where about 20 tons of honey are processed per year from their own hives. The Lockhart’s produce raw honey. This is the only way to retain the aromatic and healthful properties of the honey. This is like eating honey as it comes from the honey comb. In extracting and bottling the honey, its temperature is kept under 95 degrees and it is only strained to remove larger particles. This retains the pollen, enzymes and volatile aromatics vital to the flavor and the healthful benefits of the honey.

Inside the Honey House

Their store was modern and filled with local goods including honey and beeswax products. In addition to more honey, we bought some natural beeswax furniture polish, made by Keri (we later used on our butcher block counter with great success).

While all Al’s honey is made with mainly clover and wildflowers of the season from Beaver Valley and the Meaford area, occasionally a particular flower will predominate and create a unique and special honey. Al speculated that last fall’s honey from one of his hive areas near the “Tank Range”* outside of Meaford contained a large amount of yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), similar in taste and color to a mild version of clover.

Al Lockhart

I asked Al about his bees and whether he’d had any problems with CCD (colony collapse disorder). It turns out that last winter’s die off was only around 25%. This is quite good. Al felt that this was because of a varied diet and especially intense management and inspections of his hives. He also attributed his good beekeeping practices partly to the support and education provided by the University of Guelph’s Honeybee Research Center, where Apiculture research and education are internationally renowned. Part of a long beekeeping tradition that started in 1894 when the first beekeeping courses were taught at the Ontario Agricultural College.

To find other bee farms and delicious Ontario honey, check out the Ontario Beekeepers Association Source Directory

There are many unique artisan shops and owner operated restaurants to visit in the area. Here is a small sample of ones we dropped into:

The Stuffed Peasant:
A cozy American restaurant with an eclectic menu. Head chef and owner, Scott Carter created a wonderful meal for the five of us and later chatted about wild edible mushrooms he has found in the area, including a chart of the common species!
206 Hurontario St.
Collingwood Ontario L9Y 2T2

The Honey House:
204 Marsh St.
Clarksburg, Ontario N0H 1J0

Matilda Swanson Gallery:
We found a surprising number of beautiful paintings here. Click on “Paintings” on her website. Or better yet, visit the gallery.
185 Marsh Street
Clarksburg, Ontario N0H 1J0

Ashanti Coffee Estate:
Who would have expected a coffee shop in this out-of-the-way place to also be the primary roaster and distribution point for their Zimbabwe coffee plantation. As expected, the coffee was superb and the pastries, butter tarts and tea were “lekker” too.
39 Bruce Street South
Thornbury, Ontario N0H 2P0

The Cheese Gallery:
An eclectic tea, cheese and art framing shop. They distribute a wide variety of Canadian cheeses including goat.
11 Bruce Street South
Thornbury, Ontario N0H 2P0
*Other Resources:

The Blue Mountains Bruce Trail Club
The Blue Mountain Resort
Tank Range Historical note: Like the grain elevator, the Tank Range was also shut down; deemed unnecessary in the late 1960’s, but was resurrected as one of Canada’s largest military training centers.