Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bee Heater, an Orlando Institution

by David Parmer

Oliver Lee Heater
During the mid 1900’s, a mention of Orlando and its people invariably touched on the name of Oliver Lee Heater, or “Bee” Heater, as he was generally known.

Bee Heater was born in the Threelick area of Orlando in Lewis County in 1892, the son of Samuel and Margaret Alice (Wymer) Heater. Bee had three brothers, Elias, Ernest and Raymond, and four sisters, Rosa, Nancy, Della and Genevieve.

lt: Margaret Alice (Wymer) Heater, Bee's mother
rt: Bee Heater after Sunday School, on the tracks in front of the church. With him is Nancy Stutler, granddaughter of Bee's sister-in-law Edith (Skinner) and her husband Oras Stutler.

Bee Heater came to Clover Fork to work in the 1910s. He roomed on Clover Fork with Gid and Sarah (Bennett) Skinner's family. Family legend claims right after he met their daughter Genevieve he told Gid Skinner that he was going to marry his daughter. In 1916, Bee married Mary Genevieve Skinner. The newly-weds took up residence in Orlando on the hill behind Conrad’s store for a while until they moved to Clover Fork where they lived their entire married lives and raised their family of nine children; four boys, Dale, Arnold, Jack and Joe, and five girls, Maxine, Louise, Mary, Lois and Ann.

rt: Gid and Sarah (Bennett) Skinner's family ca. 1905. Genevieve is at the far left. Oldest sister Edith, who would marry Oras Stutler is staning in the center, back and Jeannette "Tom", who would marry Worthington Hurst, is standing in front of Edith. Ann, at the far right, would die in childbirth with her first child. The baby is Edwin Glenn.
lt: Genevieve with son Dale.
Found Run
Joe Heater, Bee’s son who lives at Good Hope in Lewis County, tells us that the hollow where he was born and grew up originally had the name of “Found Run.” Joe advised that the name “Found Run” is attributable to an old legend that in the very early days of the settlement of the Orlando area, an early settler became lost and a search party found him at the head of the hollow where the Bee Heater family lived.

Early Life on Found Run
Dale Barnett was a contemporary of Joe Heater, Bee’s son, and often went hunting and fishing with him. Dale visited Joe at the Bee Heater residence a number of times. The Heater home at this time was located up the hollow about three-fourths of a mile from Gid Skinner’s two story home at the mouth of the hollow. Dale recalls that the boys of the family bunked in a comfortable room over the cellar house. Louise (Heater) Mitchell, Bee’s daughter, recalls that her brothers’ bedroom was a commodious room, large enough for two double beds, a dresser and a stove. Louise remembers it as a nice sleeping room because it had a tin roof which was pleasant when it rained and it was cool in the summer because it was over the cellar house. Bee’s son Joe recollects that the house he grew up in was not the house where he was born. An older home, built by some unknown earlier resident was located further up the hollow from the later home of Bee Heater. The later house and two acres was bought from Worthington Hurst, Bee’s brother in law.

Oil and Gas and Water Well Drilling
Bee early followed the farming occupation but the family’s nearness to the oil and gas industry which came of age along with Bee led him into the drilling trade. Going into the drilling profession at an early age, it became a life time of work for Bee. His daughter, Louise, recalls that when she was young, her father traveled far and wide drilling wells. She recalls that he was often in Kentucky and all over West Virginia working on gas rigs. In fact, Louise recalls that her dad drilled a gas well near the country club at Buckhannon and close to her present home. Bee’s son Joe remembers that for quite some time his dad worked for Charley Moran drilling wells on the “Free State” property owned by Charley west of Orlando.

The Hazards of Being a Tool Pusher
Drilling was a hazardous occupation for the men who worked in the gas well industry who were often referred to as “tool pushers.” Drilling rigs, when mixed with volatile substances such as gas and oil, pose an imminent danger to the men employed in the business. Dale Barnett recalls that Bee was drilling a gas well in the early 1930’s around Gassaway when an explosion and fire occurred, causing Bee to suffer serious burns. Dale says that Bee carried the scars of this accident the remainder of his life. Bee’s daughter Louise has a more vivid recollection of the accident and recalls the date of the explosion as 1938 because her younger sister Lois, who was born in 1938, was a baby at the time. Louise remembers that the fire occurred when a visitor to the gas well site which had just gone into production, in disregard of “No Smoking” signs, struck a match to light a cigarette. The spark from the match created a huge explosion. The gas workers were set afire and all ran and jumped into the Elk River to douse their flaming clothing. One worker died of his burns and Bee suffered grievous burn injuries to his face and hands. The fire was so intense witnesses said the rig itself melted within fifteen minutes of the explosion. Louise recalls visiting her father at the Sutton Hospital and remembers that her father’s face was swollen twice its normal size. Eventually, Bee recovered from the burns but was left with severe scarring on his face and his fingers were drawn and unusable. When Bee later worked for Charley Moran drilling the “ Free State ,” he acted as foreman since he could not dress the drilling bits because of the burn injuries to his hands.

Water Well Drilling
Bee often worked along with his brother-in-law Oras Stutler in the gas fields, and they traveled together when their drilling jobs took them out of the area. In the 1920’s Bee and Oras bought a water well drilling machine and drilled water wells in the central West Virginia area. In 1926, Bee and Oras drilled a water well for the United Brethren Church in Orlando. The cost of the water well was $161.63. To help pay for the well, Uncle Zeke in his Buzzardtown News column of June 10, 1926 offered this ditty:
. . . . If you want to hear from Uncle Zeke
. . . . Twice a month or once a week,
. . . . Just send a quarter on the well
. . . . And hear old Zekey give a yell.

Although drilling gas and water wells was Bee’s occupation and put food on the table, his true love was raising bees.

The Honey Man
Helen (Frame) Jeffries often made the journey with her husband Coleman to the home of Bee Heater on Clover Fork to buy honey. Helen remembers the honey was usually of a clear color and that the honeycomb was included with the sweet nectar. Her family used the honey primarily on the table and as a topping for biscuits. Helen also recalls that her sister-in-law Opal McCrobie and her mother-in-law Clora Henline relished eating the honeycomb. Helen recalls that many people in the Orlando community made the trip up Clover Fork for a sampling of Bee’s honey. According to the family, Bee’s honey customers would place their orders for honey for the next season when they picked up this year’s honey and that all of the honey production was sold in this way. One of Bee’s steadiest customers for honey was Lloyd Posey, a neighbor who lived on Clover Fork. The local demand for honey usually exceeded the supply and there was never any left over. Bee’s daughter Louise recalls that during the Depression her family used honey in place of sugar and that a cousin, Bob Skinner, during his visits to the home, liked it so much that he used honey on everything he ate. Louise said that there was always a coffee can of honey on their dining table. Louise also recalls that her dad kept a supply of three pound coffee cans on hand for gathering the honey when buyers came calling for honey to satisfy their ‘sweet tooth.’ Louise also reminisces that the bee hives were the exclusive domain of her father and that no one other than he was allowed to gather the honey or tend to the bees. However, Joe Heater recalls that when his dad was away drilling wells in Kentucky, or some other far away place, his grandfather Gid Skinner would look after the bee hives.

Bee Goes Hunting for Peewees
As early as 1923, Bee Heater had made his reputation as a producer of honey, a much sought after delight for country folk. In an Uncle Zeke Buzzardtown News column of that year, the honey man of Clover Fork was the source of a little fun by the Bard of Buzzardtown. About Bee, he wrote in his July 12th column: “Oliver B. Heater, a son-in-law of Gid Skinner and a brother-in-law of Oras Stutler, who lives on Clover fork of Oil Creek in Lewis County, West Virginia, is noted for his bee raising. He has three hives which he guaranteed to produce four hundred pounds of honey this season. After notifying his neighbors that on a certain day he would rob his bees and each one to be present would receive his share of the honey, to his surprise he only had five pounds in all, short weight. B. is a good marksman, but he mostly overshoots. He thinks peewees ate his bees, so he is now chasing them with a shotgun.” Uncle Zeke never revealed in subsequent columns whether Bee bagged the peewees.

lt above: a honey bee at work
rt: A peewee, the small songbird bird that eats lots of insects. Its call sounds like "pee wee".

Bee Swarms
When asked how her father handled bee swarms, Louise has memories that her father would position an empty bee hive beneath the swarm and would then immobilize the swarm with his smoker. He would locate the queen, place her into the empty hive, and the remainder of the bees would generally follow. Usually this succeeded in creating a new colony without substantial loss.

The Bee Hive
As Uncle Zeke indicated in his previously mentioned column, Bee had three bee hives in the early 1920’s. Bee’s daughter Louise remembers that her father had thirteen hives at one time during her childhood, all of which were producing honey. Bee used the hive known as the Langstroth hive for his honey bees. This type of hive was invented in 1853 and has been the pre-dominant hive used in central West Virginia during modern times. This hive was elevated above the ground and consisted of rectangular boxes with removable, interchangeable, and parallel hanging frames which are easy to remove and inspect without killing the bees. This hive is also easily transportable and can be easily moved from place to place as the need may arise.

Skunks and a Wayward Coon
Bee’s daughters, Ann and Louise, do not remember any particular problems encountered by their father such as sudden bee mortality, human theft of honey or wild animals raiding the hives. However, Ann’s and Louise’s brother Joe recalls that his dad frequently had trouble with skunks which would raid the bee hives. Joe said that his dad shot many skunks which were trying to help themselves to Bee’s honey. Joe also recalls an occasion that Ring, his dad’s dog, espied a coon trying to avail itself to some honey and Ring “treed” the coon up an electric pole. Bee decided to dispatch the coon with his rifle and after a successful hit, it fell dead into the electrical transformer and knocked off the electrical power to the house which was out of commission for quite some time. Despite a few troubles with skunks and wayward coons, Bee had good luck with his honey production. Consequently, honey seemed to be in constant supply in the Heater pantry until Bee’s final days.
rt: a bumble bee is on the left, and a valuable honey bee is on the right.

A Nickname
Most people around Orlando probably assume that Bee Heater’s nickname was derived from is lifelong association with the raising of honey. However, Joe Heater tells us that his dad, even as a child, was a busy young fellow and as a result his parents pinned him with the nickname of “Bee,” referring of course to his propensity of being as “busy as a bee.” Perhaps carrying the nickname as a child growing up on Indian Fork led Bee into a life-long as an apiarian, or raiser of bees. In either case the nickname seems to have been apropos.
Bee, the Hunter
As were most males growing up around Orlando, Bee enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. Although during his early days, deer and other large game were absent from central West Virginia, there were plenty of rabbits, skunks, coons, foxes, bobcats and other small game. Bee’s son Joe recalls a story his dad told about a night of coon hunting on Indian Fork. Bee treed a coon high up in an huge old poplar tree about five feet in diameter at the base. The coon however took refuge in a hollow of the tree far up the trunk and out of view of the Bee’s gun sight. Bee spent the night at the base of the tree waiting for the crafty coon to make an appearance. The coon slept that night more comfortably than Bee and finally Bee gave up the hunt and made his way to Heath’s Store at the mouth of Ben’s Run. Bee told Mr. Heath his sad tale of spending the night at the base of the tree and of the wily coon staying put in his safe haven. Mr. Heath told Bee that he was timbering the area where Bee spent the night and that the timber cutters were due to start that very morning. Mr. Heath said that the first tree to be cut would be the poplar tree which had served as the roof over Bee’s head that night. Going back to the tree with the timber cutters, Bee said it took two men with a crosscut saw one hour and fifteen minutes to cut the tree and bring it to the ground. The crafty coon did not survive the day.

A Night of Elevatoring
Joe Heater enjoyed his father’s tales of the olden days in Orlando. Joe recalls one story his father and mother frequently told of a dance one Saturday night in Orlando. Although West Virginia was a dry state in the late 1910’s, many young men around Orlando did not take the law very seriously. Shortly after they were married, Bee and his wife Genevieve decided to attend a dance at Mike Moran’s Wholesale Building on a Saturday night. At Saturday night dances in Orlando, bootleggers made their appearances wearing large coats with equally large pockets to accommodate the makings from an over-abundance of the year’s corn crop. Bee apparently imbibed a little too freely of the white lightning and became totally disoriented as to time, place and good common sense. To complicate an already delicate situation, Bee also came to the dance with a very large pistol which he began brandishing at will. Bee confessed to his son Joe many years afterward that he didn’t know how many times Mike Moran humored Bee by taking him up and down in the elevator in the Wholesale Building until Bee’s wife was able to steer Bee on the path home. There was some considerable delay in starting on the trip home because Bee couldn’t locate his hat which his wife Genevieve was finally able to find. Bee, of course, was an inveterate wearer of a hat and wouldn’t depart until his chapeau was on his head.
Bee, the Family Man
Perhaps the night of “elevatoring” taught Bee that moonshine was not all it was cracked up to be and the arrival of children had a lasting sobering effect. Always a steady worker, Bee continued to work in the oil and gas fields until he was well into his 70’s. Bee became a faithful member of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Orlando and was its Sunday School Superintendent for many years. Few people knew Bee Heater by his given name during his lifetime, and even long after death, he is simply remembered as Bee Heater.

Rt: Genevieve with three of their children: Jack, Lois and Louise in the 1940s.
Above: Genevieve and Bee in 1966, on their 50th wedding aniversary

Bee died in 1974 at the age of 82 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Clarksburg. His wife, Mary Genevieve Heater died at age 86 in 1986. They are both buried in the Orlando Cemetery.

. . . . .
comment 1
from a 1941 newspaper article by Harriet Jane Kidd, titled "Orlando Man Drills Large Well"
"The Clay County gas well disaster in which his fellow townsman Bee Heater was seriously burned was too fresh in Stutler’s mind, he said to overlook any rules of safety. The bursting of an electric light bulb would cause an explosion fatal to every living thing."

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