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Apr-18-2014 10:10printcommentsVideo

Oregon's Oldest Beekeeper, Gone but Not Forgotten

Remembering 99-year old Oliver Wendell Petty, A Beekeeper’s Beekeeper
June 9, 1914 — April 6, 2014

Oliver Petty
Oliver W. Petty at his 99th birthday party last June.
Photo by Bonnie Ehry-King

(SALEM) - Oliver Petty was a very clever fellow, and lead a very colorful life for a “lone wolf”. He was born in Creswell, Oregon to Riley and Mamie Petty and at age 4, he started school where his mother taught in a one-room school house near the family homestead at Bear Creek in Lane County.

Oliver graduated from Creswell High School in 1931, attended Eugene Bible College for a year with the ambition of becoming a minister. He later enrolled in Oregon State College where he obtained a degree in forestry management in 1940.

During World War II, Oliver Petty declared his conviction as a Conscientious Objector and was stationed in San Dimas, Calif., at a forestry research center and in Montana.

He was one of the first smoke jumpers for the US Forest Service’s new firefighting program. Besides working on projects for the Forest Service, he also was the camp cook and jumped 39 times as a smoke jumper. (Read about his Smoke Jumping experiences in this book: Smokejumpers of the Civilian Public Service in World War II: Conscientious Objectors as Firefighters for the National Forest Service)

After the war, Oliver Petty determined that he would become a beekeeper. He apprenticed in Ojai, Calif., for several years. It was here that he met and married Loretta Gloria Vaughan “Connie Petty” in Santa Barbara, Calif., on April 2, 1950. Oliver and Connie traveled to Albany to start their life together as well as begin the bee business, Fairview Apiaries, later known as Gibson Hill Honey Farm. The couple raised five children in their home on Gibson Hill.

As an early beekeeper in the Willamette Valley, he was instrumental in convincing farmers to rent bee hives to improve crop yields, something that is a thriving part of the business model today. Prior to that time, most beekeepers made their living by selling honey.

“Oliver, in his beekeeping career, had seen things that only we can dream about- thousands of acres of hairy vetch blooming all over the Willamette Valley and other bee forage untouched,” said beekeeper Dirk Olson.

At the pinnacle of his career, Oliver managed 1,200 hives. He was a lifetime member of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association and of the American Beekeepers Association.

My family and the Petty’s go way back. My mother, Marjie Ehry remembers how Oliver helped mentor them in beekeeping, in the early days. “Alan and I were once a young beekeeping couple. Oliver has been an integral part of our beekeeping experience, from the very beginning. Alan had just gotten out of the Navy in September of 1962. He had saved and put enough money together to get started as a commercial beekeeper, which was his plan for some time.

“He found an outfit for sale just outside of Newberg. John and Callie Burt, owners of “Bee Good Apiaries” had been in business for 30 years. They had attempted to sell once already, and had a bad experience with a guy from California, so they were really gun shy of a young kid who had just turned 21, lived in a motel room and - who was he anyhow?!” Alan Ehry had to prove himself, and that he did.

Oliver was secretary of the Oregon State Beekeepers and the Burt’s were active members so Oliver vouched for Alan. The deal was, the Burt’s wanted Oliver involved because Alan was so young, though he had plenty of life experience under his belt at that age. So, a contract was drawn up stating that Oliver bought the bees but gave Alan the right to take over after the first year “if” everything worked out as expected. Things did go well, and the Ehry’s lifelong commercial beekeeping adventure, “Happy Bee Apiaries”, was off and running.

“The first time I met Oliver and Connie Petty was at our wedding, in December of 1962. Little did I know but Oliver would be living with us 4 or 5 days a week for the next year. We lived in a one-room apartment in the back of a Quonset hut, in Dundee. Oliver set up a twin bed on the other side of the wall in the area used for stacks of bee equipment.” Oliver was a “never say die” kind of man.

“Our warehouse was across the highway; a big old abandoned railroad building that Oliver and Alan rented to set up an extracting plant, render wax, store supers and fill any other beekeeping needs. There was so much work to do, restoring the warehouse to useable condition and trying to get the bees and equipment ready before the pollination season just a couple months away. This was one mentorship I am sure Oliver gave a lot of thought to after-the-fact!

The first year, Oliver indoctrinated them into the State Bee Association. They were submerged in every function of the OSBA, from the spring meetings to the summer picnics, the fall conventions and local Portland and Tualatin Valley meetings, and even the American Beekeeping Federation, letter-writing campaigns. “This was all part of Oliver’s mentoring technique!” Marjie laughed.

Oliver was well known for being frugal. Some might even say a cheap date! For example, when he went to the Federation meetings representing OSBA, the Association would pay all of his expenses, but he would really budget. One year he turned in a total bill of just $29 dollars. The board chuckled and asked how he came up with that. He said, “I stayed with beekeepers all the way and ate 19 cent burgers.” That was Oliver.

The year my folks raised our cherry pollination fees in the valley and Hood River areas, Mom sent out a mailing to our customers in the valley raising $6 to $7 and $8 to $9 (the rates now are 10 x that), in Hood River. We didn't lose a customer! When Oliver stopped by to visit, and when we told him the increase, he was appalled. He said, “Oh, oh you should never go up more than 50 cents!” That was Oliver.

There are hundreds of great stories that could be shared about Oliver. Some reflect a man “of his day”, with his conditioned beliefs about women’s roles “in a man’s world”. Sometimes the teacher becomes the student however, and Oliver had his moments as well. He was the Oregon State Beekeepers Association (OSBA) secretary for 17 years and had planned on 20 years. At the annual meeting, my mom was nominated and won by one vote. Oliver was shocked, and he told her privately, “You will just make a LADIES AID SOCIETY out of the Association.” That may have been challenging for Oliver, but it was a time of change for all of us, and a few years later Oliver was elected again and finished out his 20 years.

John Mespelt is another beekeeper mentored by Oliver as a young man. John remembered a quote that Oliver would often say, “There’s still life in that!” John said, “No matter what it was, it could be used and reused. That was Oliver!”

Oliver extended himself to John, teaching him the ropes. “In 1980, we worked together moving his bees into the almond orchards and when we moved out - they were my bees. Oliver was ready to retire but he never quit. He always had some bees and sold honey until just a few years ago from his honey house at his home on Gibson Hill,” he recalled fondly.

Dirk Olsen, a long time beekeeper in the Albany area, shared a fun moment with Oliver. Dirk had stopped by to visit with Oliver one day while Oliver was having lunch at the kitchen table. A car drove up the drive way and the remote bell rang. Oliver looked up and said, “It’s just the mailman.” Then he said, “Last night Connie and I were sitting here and a car drove in, the bell rang, and Connie said “that bell has to go or I do!”

“Well,” he said, “You see the bell is still here.” That was Oliver’s dry sense of humor. His wit and wisdom are just a few of the memorable characteristics that Oliver embodied.

Over the fifty-plus years our family knew and loved Oliver, my mom says he really did not change a lot. He was always determined and had a goal - whether you knew it or not.

The one story I’d like to tell, but cannot in great detail, is about his Russian adventure. He joined Lou & Anita Alexander and others and traveled to Russia for the International Bee Convention while the Cold War was still raging. All I know is that Oliver insisted on going to church on Sunday, and that caused a row...in Russia. Luckily, all got home, safe and sound.

Of all the events, activities and memories, there is one thing that my mother recalls about Oliver. One day he told her, “Marjie, I am very dogged,” and that he was, but he was kind-hearted. She said, “I never heard him raise his voice; he would just go on persistently, doggedly working toward his goals. That’s Oliver.“

Dirk Olson said, “One time he told me how commercial beekeepers often work long hours by themselves and how he considered he and other commercial beekeepers to be "lone wolf's" in their personalities.” It is true, beekeeping is often a lonely job, working under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.

Oliver was truly a “wise man” for beekeepers, young and old. He regularly attended the Willamette Valley Beekeeper’s Association Meetings in Salem until a just couple of years ago.

“In 1990 I went to the ABF [American Beekeeping Federation] convention with Oliver and Morris Smith and we roomed together, a memorable experience,” Olson said.

“Oliver would get up very early and beside his bed do push-ups and stretching exercises for about a half an hour- maybe this explains why he lived up to being just two months shy of hitting his one hundred birthday.”

Oliver Petty was a man with a hard working spirit, a Christian man of faith and conviction who also understood and appreciated the role of the honeybee in our world.

Heaven must be a very lush, and well pollinated place, with all the great beekeepers in alliance there.

Oliver was preceded in death by his wife of 57 years, Connie; son Douglas Riley, who passed away in 1994 of cancer; and sister Ethel Petty Vedder.

A funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 19, at the Hill Street Church of Christ, 1805 Hill St. S.E., Albany, Oregon.

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