The “foremost bee man in the world…”

Portrait of John Harbison, circa 1888

John Harbison left his mark on San Diego County. He did it mainly by raising and selling colonies of the insect which some supporters, with good reason, like to call the world’s greatest pollinator: the honeybee.

In November 1869 Harbison arrived in San Diego on the steamer Orizaba with his business partner R. G. Clark. Among the items they brought with them were 10 colonies of honeybees.

Harbison at that point already had a national reputation as an apiarist. He’d patented what came to be called the “Harbison Hive Box” in 1859. Then he’d written a groundbreaking textbook on the subject, The Beekeeper’s Directory on the Theory and Practice of Bee Culture, in 1861. He had flourishing hives and honey businesses in his home state of Pennsylvania and in northern California when he turned his attention to San Diego.

Within a couple of years he was shipping honey from his San Diego County operation across the country. He sold colonies and hive boxes to other apiarists as well, encouraging a burgeoning industry in the county and the state.

“In 1874 beekeeping became a major industry in the county,” according to a 1969 article in The Journal of San Diego History. “ Two sawmills were kept busy a good part of the year turning out beehives, frames, section boxes and shipping cases. Honey production for that year was nearly one-half million pounds.”

By 1885, according to the book, Picturesque San Diego, published in 1887,  honey production had reached 2,679,747 pounds, making San Diego County “the chief honey-producing county in California.” That came out to roughly 1.3 million tons of honey. Of that total, over 1 million tons were exported across the country.

It’s not hard to see why late nineteenth century San Diego newspapers used phrases like “King of the Beekeepers” or “the foremost bee man in the world” when describing John Harbison.

Honey production isn’t as dominant in these parts today as it was then. Still, San Diego County produced over $4.4 million in honey and other apiary-related products in 2020, according to the most recent statistics available from the county agriculture department.

So John Harbison’s name and contributions live on in today’s local apiarists and in the Harbison hive box design many of them use. His name lives on as well in the place near the Sweetwater River that was home to his local hives, Harbison Canyon.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the article, “John S. Harbison: Pioneer San Diego Beekeeper,” by Lee H. Watkins, which appeared in the fall 1969 issue of  The Journal of San Diego History, the 1887 book Picturesque San Diego, by Douglas Gunn, and the 1888 book, The City and County of San Diego Illustrated and Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers, by Leberthon and Taylor.

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Mission Valley Snapshot

Here’s another view of San Diego from way back, 137 years to be exact. The San Diego Union of November 8, 1885 ran an article entitled “Mission Valley and the Mission” that provided a view that might surprise many readers today: “Only a few miles from the city is the Mission Valley. It is still very sparsely settled. Herds of cattle graze along the river banks on ranges, which, to a large extent, remain unfenced. The hill sides are, generally speaking, devoid of improvements. In the little canyons there are bee ranches.”

That view of what was then a rural, sparsely populated area also included this: “At the head of the valley, visible at a long distance and overlooking the country for miles, is what remains of the old Catholic mission. While the buildings are practically demolished, enough of the front elevations remain to make a striking feature of the landscape.”

That written description of the mission ruins is borne out by the photo below, taken two years later for Douglas Gunn’s book, Picturesque San Diego:

The mission buildings would eventually be partially restored by the local Catholic archdiocese in 1891 to house a school for Indigenous students. That school would be moved to Banning in 1907. The entire mission would be fully restored in 1931.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the aforementioned book Picturesque San Diego and the website of Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

Bonita Then

Below is an ad which appeared regularly in the San Diego Union in early 1885:

In addition to the ad, one finds news items pertaining to “the Cooper place” and “Bonita Ranch” often in late nineteenth century San Diego newspapers, as part of the coverage of developing farming operations in southern San Diego County.

Mr. Cooper was soon branching out from poultry to citrus fruits, a trend evident throughout the county during that time. Wheeling and dealing in land was another trend. A Union article in May 1890 reported the sale of the ranch “to a Boston syndicate for the sum of $25,000.” The ranch, the article went on to say, “contains 115 acres. The present lemon grove will be enlarged to the full capacity of the ranch. There are now about thirty acres in citrus fruits. The entire ranch will be devoted to lemon culture together with eighty acres adjoining the tract.”

To apply a little historical perspective on that sale: please note that $25,000 1890 dollars would be worth $772, 384.62 today. For those 115 acres, that would come out to paying roughly $6,700 per acre.

That’s a lotta lemon juice.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the books California Place Names by Erwin G. Gudde, San Diego County Place Names A To Z, by Leland Fetzer, the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Robert Sahr and Ian Webster for information on inflation, and the website of the Bonita Historical Society, .

Announcing My Newest Book

Announcing the publication of my newest book: From Measures to Missiles.

From 1951 to 1971, a United States Government laboratory was in operation at Corona, California, first under the National Bureau of Standards at the Department of Commerce, then as part of the United States Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance. During that period some of the most brilliant scientists and engineers in the nation engaged in groundbreaking work in service to the national defense. That work included the creation of the first guided missiles in the U. S. arsenal.

This book is the story of that lab. It was written based on the recollections of one of those lab scientists, Everett B. Ireland, who asked me to write it. He shared his personal memories of his years at the lab and also guided me to books and other sources from a number of government archives. What emerged from this research was the story of a group of men and women who literally re-invented not only military technology, but also laid the foundation for the digital revolution that continues to transform America and the world today.

It’s a complicated history reflecting the intersection of science, national security and politics. And by politics I mean not only governmental politics but also inter-service, inter-departmental and interpersonal politics as well, told by the people who were on the ground, making in happen.

From Measures to Missiles is now available for purchase on the “Books” tab.

The Flume

It was a big event in San Diego. How big? On the front page of the San Diego Union on February 22, 1889, Washington’s Birthday was bumped four columns over by an article on the dedication of the San Diego Flume.

The flume was a massive irrigation project that damned the waters of the San Diego River at the base of the Cuyamaca Mountains, then relayed that water through a network of 35 miles of wooden chutes, climbing atop hundreds of trestles and down through excavated tunnels, winding through the El Cajon Valley to be impounded in another reservoir in La Mesa, from which pipes carried the water to the city of San Diego.

Here’s a photo from the 1908 book History of San Diego: 1542-1908 by William E. Smythe showing a delegation of officials in flat-bottom boats riding the flume as part of the dedication ceremony. The bearded man sitting on the far right in front is then-California Governor Robert Waterman.

Access to a steady water supply was crucial to San Diego City and County. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, San Diego County farmers and ranchers practiced water management individually by digging wells, creating earthen dams to form local reservoirs, and keeping careful track of rainfall. The last half of the century saw growing collective action within and between individual communities, private companies and public efforts at the county and state level to promote irrigation and other conservation programs. The city of San Diego’s first water company was formed in 1873. The San Diego Flume Company was founded in 1886. Other water companies and irrigation districts began to form throughout the county, like the Escondido Mutual Water Company and the Vista Irrigation District, formed in 1904 and 1923 respectively. Local, county and state water management efforts became more intertwined with the creation of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California in 1928 and the California State Water Project (SWP) in 1960.

The MWD brought a steady supply of Colorado River water to San Diego County, while the SWP linked our water systems to the reservoirs of northern California.

These efforts along with aging infrastructure made the flume system obsolete by the 1930s and led to its abandonment. But remnants of the old trestles and tunnels can still be seen in parts of the county.