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Shared Waters, Shared Traits: Sacramento's First Nurserymen In Early California

Written by Darrell g.h. Schramm

Whether pioneer, banker, newspaper mogul, miner, merchant, or nurseryman, early Californians were a gambling folk, willing to take risks, to gamble their lives if not their fortunes for a better future. Many speculated or strove but lost; others became millionaires; still, others lost but started over. Some were indomitable. Certainly, that last adjective would apply to most of Sacramento’s first eight nurserymen.

When one thinks about nurseries, most likely honeybees do not come to mind. Yet six years after the Gold Rush, John S. Harbison (1826-1912) opened a nursery of fruit and shade trees in a Sacramento area three miles from the City Depot on 10th Street between I and J Streets. Born in Pennsylvania, he had arrived in San Francisco via Nicaragua, settling briefly in Calaveras County in 1854. The following year he relocated and established his nursery on a property in what was then known as Sutterville. In 1857 he imported 67 bee colonies sent on the steamer Northern Lights. By April 1858, he had sold sixteen of his bee colonies for $100 each. That same year he constructed special hives with moveable frames, soon to be known as the Harbison Hive. At the State Fair in Marysville in August 1858, he displayed his bees. Demand encouraged supply: The second stock of bees arrived late in 1858.

In the 1859 season, he sold almost $30,000 worth of bees, soon becoming the state’s largest bee and honey supplier. Word spread quickly of Harbison’s profit, initiating, according to apiculturist Lee H. Watkins, “the greatest mass movement of honeybee colonies the world has ever seen.” In short time and short order, numerous importers had shipped thousands of active hives to California. In the spring of 1860, importers set at least a thousand beehives on vacant lots in Sacramento, creating a public nuisance. These imports broke the market to such an extent that many hives sold for as little as $4.00, driving ignorant speculators out of business. Meanwhile, Harbison’s reputation was made; able to continue his business, as usual, selling trees, bees, and honey, he did well.

Before Harbison’s arrival, importers had little or no experience with beekeeping; consequently, he wrote his book The Beekeeper’s Directory, published in 1861. But new horizons beckoned. With his partner, Mr. Goodrich, in 1874 he sold off much of his stock of trees, took his bees, and moved to San Diego. By 1875 he was acknowledged as the largest beekeeper and producer of honey in the world. At the time of his death at age 86, he still owned 100 hives and was bestowed the title King of the Beekeepers.