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October 8, 1998

Bee-keeping the faith in Chelmsford
On his solitary bee farm, a beekeeper re-discovers his trade’s storied history

CHELMSFORD — At the end of a long, winding gravel road in Chelmsford, there sits a bee farm. You wouldn’t even know it was there, except for two ominous signs: one, a weathered metal sign that says "No Trespassing"; and another, which merely reads, in block letters four inches high, "Caution: Bees." bees.jpg (15816 bytes)

The wind moans in the tall trees. It is a lonely place for anyone, but especially for any bee, for bees are among the most sociable of insects.

Jack Crawford is the beekeeper here, the sixth beekeeper-in-residence in a line that dates from the 1770s. A tall, taciturn man, Crawford is the quintessential New England beekeeper: resolute and honest, with the hands of a surgeon and the heart of a Presbyterian. In the years since he took the job in 1963, Crawford has whiled away the long winter nights by researching the history of beekeeping.

One of Crawford’s discoveries: the old farm was the starting point of the famous Bee Rebellion of 1793, when six or seven beekeepers, with their smokers and bee nets, marched on the county courthouse to protest Alexander Hamilton’s honey embargo with France. The resulting "Honeycomb Affair" led to the ouster of the United States’ second President, John Adams, and the removal of the pro-bee Federalists from power.

At the time, says Crawford, "honey wasn’t the sweet, delectable ambrosia" that we know and love today. Rather, Colonial-era honey was "sandy and hairy."

"It’s hard to believe, I know," says Crawford, "but its main use was medicinal. Honey was used to cure gout. When combined with saltpeter and chert, it could be used as an explosive."

In the early 19th century, beekeepers were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement. The Chelmsford farm, like other bee farms nationwide, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves could often be found walking the grounds, disguised in full beekeeper uniform.

"For days and nights those slaves would travel, from bee farm to bee farm, submerged in huge vats of honey, all the way to Canada," says Crawford, his voice emotional.

"Through their makeshift breathing tubes, you could still hear their joyous songs — about the ‘honey-coated way’ and the ‘sticky road to freedom.’"

Today, Crawford has a thriving business making and selling his clover honey. Was this, we wondered, why he kept at it after all these years?

"The money’s good, I guess," Crawford says. "But I’m not in it for the money ... Some folks beekeep because they like bees. And some beekeep because they like the paraphernalia — the heavy veils, the smoke machines, the flashing red lights. But I’m not like that. I … I beekeep for other reasons. I beekeep to forget."

And then there are the bees, Crawford’s constant companions through three decades and eight presidential administrations. When asked to describe what he loves most about them, Crawford lapses into an almost childlike wonderment.

"They do this little dance," he says. "They shake their wings like so," he says, as he crouches on the ground and moves his rear from side to side. "Then they reach … reach ..." he exclaims, leaping high in the air. "Then they fold inward like a bud in spring," he says, moaning, collapsing into a tight ball and clutching his knees to his chest. "The bees, the bees," Crawford repeats, his voice muffled by his waders. Clearly, this interview is at an end.

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