There are more than 7,000 old Minnesota homes, buildings and districts perched on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, for the first time in the state, a bee operation has joined the ballyhooed list.

The Hofmann Apiaries, a four-generation cornerstone of the state’s beekeeping industry, stopped producing honey in 1985. But all the structures on the old family farm are intact near Lake Elysian and the southern Minnesota town of Janesville. It becomes only the second beekeeping property in the country to make the national register, according to preservation experts.

“If you stand in the honey house, which is technically a converted hog barn, you can feel the history in your bones,” said Joan Mooney, a Waseca County Historical Society co-director who has been writing grants and spearheading research for nearly five years. “It’s a rich, American story that speaks to a generation of innovative immigrant farmers in Minnesota.”

Its preservation comes at a time when the nation’s honeybees are dying off at an alarming rate. Based on the historic significance of the apiary and the farm’s relatively pristine condition, the state review board recommended by a 13-0 vote that the property be listed on the national register.

Plans call for the apiary to eventually extract honey again, which could help fulfill an educational role for the old farm, according to Larry Hofmann, a Minneapolis artist whose grandfather first hived a swarm of bees there around 1902. He hopes to restore the honey house and wax shed first but wants to open the place up to school field trips or other uses one day.

“When my parents died, the place fell on my shoulders,” said Hofmann, 72, who grew up on the farm and still owns 45 of the original 100 acres. “It’s imbued with a sense history of the people that built it and struggled there.”

Beekeeping dates back thousands of years. Archaeologists have found hives in Israel dating to the ninth century B.C. But the Hofmann saga starts in 1871 when 25-year-old Valentine Hofmann emigrated from Moravia — today part of the Czech Republic.

Valentine and Rosalia Frodl, his Moravian fiancee, were the first couple married at the newly built St. Jarleth Catholic Church in Waseca County in 1872.

One of their four sons, Emil, got the family into the bee business — by accident. He was working on the painting crew at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego when his father died of cancer on the farm in 1900 at age 54.

All his brothers had also left the farm by then, so Emil returned and, like his father, grew corn and raised dairy cows and hogs. According to a family autobiography, one day around 1902, Emil noticed a swarm of wild honeybees landing on a small bush near the house. He built a makeshift hive and, when the bees started nesting there, the family business was launched.

“He must have known something about beekeeping,” his grandson said. “I don’t think your average Joe would climb into something like that completely out of the blue.”

By 1908, Emil had quit raising hogs to focus on honey. He researched a certain kind of clover called alsike, popular out East, and brought it to Minnesota. He then purchased a clover huller, and Janesville promptly became a clover hotbed, with freight-train cars of seed churning across the country.

Emil kept a meticulously neat operation. When Iowa bee inspector Frank Pellett visited in 1912, he noted: “Hofmann belongs to that rare class combining neatness with good practice and extensive production. His hives are nicely painted, stands are level, grass is cut, all equipment is in place, and everything is slick as the parlor of a Dutch housewife.”

Emil expanded the bee business into one of the largest in the Upper Midwest. By September 1929, he was shipping 50,000 pounds of honey to a Minneapolis warehouse. Then the stock market crashed. The bank took over and tried to sell the place at a foreclosure sale. No bidders showed up.

Within five years, Emil died of pneumonia at 59. His son, Charles, was 26 but managed to buy the farm back from the bank and resurrected the family honey business to national prominence. To wit: Charles was among the founders of the American Beekeeping Federation.

He kept at it until retiring in 1985 at age 77. While the bees have disappeared, the old farmhouse, a reservoir, pump house, wax shed, winter bee cellar and the 1923 converted hog barn/honey house remain. They are all part of the successful historic register nomination.

“As the largest beekeeping facility in Minnesota, the multi-generational Hofmann beekeepers were highly influential in the field,” according to the winning nomination’s evaluation, which pointed out the apiary’s lofty status in the national honey industry, as well as a dearth of agricultural sites listed on the national register.

“The committee was fabulously impressed,” Larry Hofmann said. “I’m told a unanimous vote is quite rare, but they realized how unique our family’s history was to the state.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.