Honeyville employee Sandy Wade rings up a variety of products for a visiting family from Texas at the store’s headquarters north of Hermosa. A local landmark for nearly 30 years, Honeyville is tripling its existing space to accommodate a larger tasting room, a distillery and a museum./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Growing the hive

Four generations keep ‘Falfa Honey Man’s’ dream alive

by Jaime Becktel

In 1925, Vernon Culhane drove his “Mountain Bouquet” honey down through the Florida River Valley to Durango, peddling his golden wares for the first time at a store near the Rio Grande rail station. His love for bees began in 1918 at the age of 16 with the discovery of a wild colony nestled within a tree, hand carving his first hive from locally sourced pine using nothing but a pocketknife. He went on to a six-decade career as the “Falfa Honey Man,” growing from a handful of humble hives to the Honeyville commercial packing operation his son Danny and grandson Kevin now manage.

Employees fill jars with raw honey to be sold near and far. Honeyville works with roughly 20 family-owned producers, primarily from Colorado and the inter-mountain region./Photo by Jennaye Derge

By the 1930s, considered the “golden age” of beekeeping, Culhane was one of the largest honey producers in Southwest Colorado. His bees produced superb, white sweet clover honey grown atop Florida Mesa before alfalfa became a mainstream stock feed. He delivered his honey to Denver in a 1-ton pickup, maneuvering the treacherously steep escarpments of Red Mountain Pass before it was paved. 

In 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of WWII, Vernon’s beekeeping efforts were put on hold when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps B-26 Marauder Squadron. While stationed in England, he visited Buckfast Abbey in Devon, a community of Benedictine monks raising their own variety of bees known as “Buckfasts.” Throughout his time overseas, he carried a hive around with him, and at the end of his service, he eagerly returned to his bees to continue producing Mountain Bouquet.

In the late 1940s, he created a directory called “The Honey Salesman,” hoping to network producers and packers across the country, and in 1950, he married his honey queen, Marguerite. It was around this time that Vernon created his timeless family recipe for Chokecherry Jelly, made from wildcrafted chokecherries and local honey to offset the cherries’ puckering tartness. Until his passing in 1989, he dedicated endless hours to the perfection of the Chokecherry Jelly recipe, which to this day is made from fruit handpicked by Durangoans.

On a recent tour of Honeyville, roughly 12 miles north of Durango on Highway 550, a mother and daughter arrive with stainless steel bowls of freshly harvested chokecherries. Vernon’s son Danny greets them with a smile and the tiny crimson fruit is weighed out at $1.65 a pound to be transformed into one of six chokecherry recipes: Chokecherry Syrup; Chipotle Grill Sauce; Vinaigrette; Chokecherry Lime Drink Mixer; Chokecherry Honey; and the age-old family classic, Chokecherry Jelly.

For a packing facility that processes up to 500, 55-gallon drums of raw honey a year, the equipment and kitchen are strikingly clean. To maintain the ever-growing demand for gourmet, honey-infused products, the staff works with roughly 20 family-owned honey producers, primarily from Colorado and the inter-mountain region, which collectively operate between 4,000 - 5,000 colonies. Honey arrives raw, straight from the source and is melted out of the drums into a 3,000-gallon dairy tank where it’s then filtered and added to more than 40 different sauces, jams and the newest addition to the roster… bourbon whisky blended with Rocky Mountain Honey from the adjacent Honey House Distillery.

In a shiny copper still, the “Colorado Honey Whiskey,” winner of multiple awards from the American Distilling Institute, is made from premium bourbon whiskey, Colorado honey and mountain spring water. With a flavor harkening back to the speakeasy days of Prohibition, the small batch artisan spirit can be found in most Durango bars and restaurants.

Danny Culhane is enthusiastic about the bright future of the company his father started so long ago and the possibility that his son Kevin will follow in their footsteps. As a young man, Danny paid for his first year of college at Fort Lewis with money made from leased bees. After studying European history and political science, he decided to continue the business after his father retired in 1974.

A vintage shot of Vernon Culhane with his hives. He went on to build the Honeyville empire as we know it today./ Courtesy photo

Around that time, Danny was managing a couple thousand hives, still operating as Mountain Bouquet. In the 1980s, the U.S. Government began subsidizing honey based on a dramatic decrease in national consumption, so the Culhanes made the decision to transition from honey production to honey bottling, merging with local packing company, Honeyville, in 1986. No longer honey producers, they sold their hives to Milligan Honey Farms in Lewis, which continues to produce nearly 40 percent of Honeyville’s annual honey volume.

Now in their 29th year as Honeyville, they are in the process of expanding their 5,000-foot facility to a 15,000-foot space including a larger tasting room for a growing variety of products, a tasting room for the Honey House Distillery and a museum of antique supplies from Vernon Culhane’s early beekeeping days.

Once the caretaker of more than a thousand colonies, Danny is now perfectly content to care for the solitary observation hive at the center of the Honeyville store – a crowd pleaser for both children and adults who marvel at the inner workings of the bee world. He continues his passion for beekeeping by contributing his knowledge to the Fort Lewis College Bee Club, the Four Corners Beekeeping Association and the Colorado State Beekeeping Association. “I’ve been around bees all my life and caring for them has become second nature for me. I’d like to see more people getting involved with beekeeping, especially more hobbyists making the transition to commercial. I can talk bees to anyone at anytime, and I especially love taking people out to the bee yard.”

Danny’s son, 34-year-old Kevin, studied mechanical engineering at Fort Lewis before becoming the production manager of Honeyville. Growing up around his beekeeping grandfather and father, he would head straight to the honey house after school to ride his tricycle through the aisles of 55-gallon drums until he was old enough to sweep the warehouse floor – his first job at Honeyville. “It was fun being a kid growing up around bees and the extraction of honey, and my grandpa was the nicest guy. We had a really good bond and like him, I’m kind of a tinkerer. He knew honey and bees from the inside out and was very creative.”

Kevin and his wife, Sarah, are expecting their first child, a fourth-generation of Culhanes and a new “Honey Baby,” which Kevin is quick to distinguish from “Honey Boo Boo!”

“It’s nice to look back at what my grandfather and father started, and I’m excited to see this business grow from that first hive back in 1918 to a 15,000-square-foot facility. Being a multi-generational family business is pretty special. We’re very tight-knit, close and connected.”

On a Tuesday afternoon in July, the Honeyville store is abuzz with people from all over the country and the world. Children squeal with curiosity as they suck on honey sticks and watch bees coming and going from the indoor hive to the outdoor world. Two elderly ladies twitter with delight at being asked for their IDs before sampling the Colorado Honey Whiskey, and somewhere in a field of white sweet clover in the sky, Vernon Culhane looks down upon the world he created and smiles.

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