Remembering Mr. Rowe

Farming is full of characters—the Allis Chalmers salesman turned antique tractor restorationist who’s worked on many a piece of our machinery, the salt-of-the-earth pig farmer and dairyman who supplied our first piglets, the retired road crewman who gathered maple sap for us in his yard, riding around on his lawn mower hitched to a home-rigged trailer. They all have their favorite phrases:

“Sometimes you just get lucky.”

“Well girls…not much today.”

Or one of the favorite local saying before parting, “Well, I suppose.”

But the top of the list for our favorite local characters was certainly Mr. Rowe. Known to many as the “bee man,” we likely would have never crossed paths with this gentleman and his incredible family if we hadn’t embarked on this crazy adventure of restoring the family farm. One year into the plunge, we decided to join the Cable Farmer’s Market on summer Saturday mornings as a way to market the extra produce from our garden.

We hadn’t served at a farmer’s market before, so it was all very new. It was 2001, and I was about 14 years old, Kara being 11. It was a fairly small crew then, with vendors coming and going as the market established itself. We jumped in on the market’s second season, joining a jeweler, a florist, a wood carver, a bake sale, another farm, and this older fellow with honey from his 50-odd beehives he kept in the area.

Keith Rowe had served in the Airforce during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, built a cabin on Lake Namakagon with his wife, raised his five kids solo after she passed away, and had kept a special relationship with honeybees since he was a teenager. His infectious smile and laughter, colorful stories, and engagement with any learning moment (whether you were ready for it or not) were a notable piece of the farmer’s market’s social fabric.

For 15 years our farm’s stand has been right next to Mr. Rowe’s at the Cable Farmer’s Market—through drenching rains, high winds, snow, sleet, oppressive heat, bone-chilling frosts, and many a gorgeous Saturday morning. Through it all, he kept up his cheery disposition, though he’d only ever admit to being “Fair to middlin.”

I’m not sure we’d even been a full season into our farmer’s market experience before he began encouraging me to take on beekeeping. “You want to get into bees, don’t you? All those plants in the garden, you need pollinators!” Finally, in the spring of 2003, I agreed to take on having a hive at the farm, with Mr. Rowe as my mentor. With a homemade head net he’d fashioned and a rain coat for my first bee suit, he arrived at the farm in the silver minivan I always knew him to drive to “take a peekaboo” at the bees, explain again about the queen (making sure I really did have all the facts about her memorized), and check for healthy eggs and larvae.

Then came the next round of adventure, with a wintry phone call. “Our honey producer’s association is having a booth at the Top of the North Show in Ashland, could you be our honey queen for a day?”

Well, you can stand on your head for a day if you really want to, and Mr. Rowe was fast becoming something of a second grandfather. He’d been helping me with bees, sharing stories…sure, why not. Then it was “I have this school presentation to give to the 3rd graders in Drummond…” and “Could you join us for the Top of the North Show again?”

The piece that really took the cake was “Our honey producer’s association is hosting the state beekeeping convention at Telemark. This will be the first time ever the Northern District has hosted. Would you run for state honey queen to represent our district?”

From the stories I’ve been hearing this last week, I wasn’t the only person who found it hard to say no this gentleman, and I found myself at the convention as the ONLY honey queen candidate for the 2006 season. Yikes! But that year’s saga is a story unto itself for another time.

Sometimes in those early days of the farmer’s market, I’d bring along my guitar and Dennis Kinsel would arrive with accordion and we’d serenade together. Mr. Rowe loved to polka with me in the parking lot, laughing and tripping. He also loved to have me sing him songs, sometimes singing along if he knew the words. We’d help each other load and unload, raise and lower our canopies, chase after items caught by the wind, and look out for each other—whether it was pushing that jar of honey someone had set too close to the table’s edge back a few more inches or staffing the stand when someone needed a quick break. And over the years, there was lots and lots of trading dollars and quarters to keep our cash boxes able to make change as the twenties all piled up at one stand or the tens at another.

“Now no lollygagging,” he’d reprimand with a grin if it looked like we were taking our time setting up in the morning. “Now, tell me, how many eggs does the queen bee lay?”

Mr. Rowe passed away this month at home with his family at the age of 91. This last Saturday I attended his funeral and sang a couple of songs at the reception afterwards—the same last two songs I’d ever gotten to sing to him in person. The gather was filled with family and friends—folks from his military, beekeeping, and farmer’s market background, as well as neighbors—sharing stories I’d heard a thousand times and other that were new to me.

He’s a local character loved by so many (around the world in several countries even), cherished for his dedication to family and eagerness to share his passion for nature’s creatures. The Cable Farmer’s Market will certainly never be the same without him—the brown “Bee My Honey” hat, the gray jacket, the twinkling grin. It shall all be missed, but that spark that shone inside him even the last time I saw him—that shall be missed the most.

This weekend, as I wrapped my two hives of honeybees up snugly for the winter, I thought about how Mr. Rowe’s legacy lives on through the people he has touched. May his travels to the next journey beyond this world be lit with the grace and laughter he so willingly shared with us all. Here’s to the memory of Mr. Rowe! See you down on the farm sometime.