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Anna May (Jackett), Jack and Jim Thurston remember their brother Lorne Thurston

July 17, 2023

Lorne Thurston Collecting a Hive of Bees, Muriel and Murray Walker Farm, circa 2005

Lorne Thurston was born in 1929, and grew up in Dunsford in an era when a large proportion of the community was his extended family. His father, Wallace Thurston, farmed and worked for the local telephone company, the Dunsford Telephone, Light and Power Co-operative Association Limited—owned by local shareholders. Lorne was a boy during the Great Depression, a time when farmers were able to get by, but when there certainly were few luxuries, even for the Thurstons, who were successful as far as farm families went.

From the time he was a boy, Lorne was really interested in bees, would read everything that he could get his hands on relating to bee keeping and persuaded his parents to help him get his own hives when he was 8 or 9 years old. They went down to get them from the Skuce family at Omemee. Probably because of how deeply he cared, Lorne seemed to have a natural connection with his bees, and even as a youngster really knew how to handle them well. He wanted to learn everything he could about the bees, so he would paint nail polish onto them, observe where they would fly to, and how long they were gone from the hive. By the time he was a teenager, he had two or three hives, and had built his own honey house on the family farm. Being the oldest, Jim was 14 years younger, and “when Jim was just a baby, I remember him crawling over to one of the hives,” Anna May remembers, but though some might wonder, no one ever got swarmed. Lorne did not wear a veil, and if he did get stung, it was an opportunity to learn how better to interact with his insects.

At the time, bee keeping was not a common profession, “I did not know of anyone else in the community who had bees back then,” Anna May explains. There was a social expectation that as an adult he would practice mixed farming like most men did in the neighbourhood. But when Lorne was 22 years old, he fell very ill one summer day. His mother, Anna (not to be confused with her daughter Anna May) was quite worried and called the doctor. When he asked what she was afraid of, she replied with that dreaded word, polio. The ambulance came to pick up Lorne, who was upstairs in bed, “and as they were carrying him down the stairs on the stretcher, he couldn’t lift his arm, even though it was going to hit the newel post. That’s when I knew he was seriously ill.” Diagnosed with polio, he spent the summer and fall in isolation in Riverdale Hospital, but was one of the stronger patients who did not need an iron lung. While he was recuperating, he spent much of his time studying. When he got back to Dunsford, he began doing exercises to try to get his strength back.

Because of polio, Lorne would not be as strong as he was before, and for the rest of his life, “he could not lift his arm over his shoulder,” Jim explains. As the first tractors were becoming available in the area, farming typically involved a lot of heavy, hard labour, something that would be especially challenging for Lorne. While his younger brothers worked as labourers trucking and putting in telephone poles for the telephone company, “as time went on,” Jack recounts, “Dad would be so provoked at him, because he would be over at the bee hives, putting nail polish on the bees.” But Lorne certainly had come to know practically everything there was to learn about bees. For instance, that the moisture content was important to making quality honey, and that the bees would not cap the honey until it was 17.6% moisture, so once Lorne could see they were going to cap it, he knew it was at the correct moisture level.

Living on a farm, Lorne did the work that needed to be done. He was there to feed the cows and help with haying, and “he did not make overcoming polio a struggle—he never made and issue of it,” Anna May explains. The Thurstons lived beside the Dunsford’s non-denominational cemetery, that was basically privately owned. While his brothers would take a job digging the graves by hand, Lorne served as secretary-treasurer at the cemetery for 53 years. For many years he also looked after the natural ice rink in Dunsford—pebbling the ice surface with warm water through a hose. 

Lorne had always been smart, and though he had only been in school to the end of 3rd Form (Grade 11 now) he loved to learn and figure out how to do things. When his younger sister was doing her Grade 13 Math homework, there was one problem she could not figure out. Though Lorne had not made it that far in school himself, he was really interested to think it though “and he was so tickled when he came up with the answer,” remarks Anna May. He spent countless hours with a Rubik’s Cube (in the days before kids could look up the necessary tricks it on the internet), was determined to solve it—and eventually did. 

Lorne was a very intuitive person, and just as he enjoyed trying to figure out how to solve a Rubik’s Cube, Lorne loved to figure out how to make his own equipment for bee keeping. When asked if he would go out and purchase commercial equipment, he would reply, “you can’t do that!,” Anna May says. He made his own honey extractor—he would cut the top off the cells, put the frames in the honey extractor, turn the crank and the honey would collect on the wall of the tub, then drain out a tap at the bottom. He was a perfectionist in everything that he did—something he did not inherit from his parents. For his entire career he would use the honey house he built as a teenager.

Anna loved to help him sell honey. Living on a farm was at times a little lonely, and for her it was always exciting when someone came to visit. While Anna would talk and talk to the visitors, Lorne would “be feeling embarrassed,” Anna May explains. He was quiet, liked to read the newspaper, and even as an adult would voraciously consume any literature relating to bees or honey. He was a very practical person.  But the honey sold very well, and it never seemed like an excess of inventory would build up.

He sold most of his honey from the farm or at local fairs, but also through a few stores, like Lamantia’s in Lindsay and Strickland’s on the Danforth in Toronto. He would not sell honey to a co-op, because they mixed all the honey from different apiaries together. Many customers, went and bought a jar of honey and then threw it out without cleaning it—and he did not approve of that, because eating discarded honey was not good for bees. At his honey house, there was a little room with an old cash register where he made his sales—it was also where he kept the awards he won.

As a young adult, Lorne enjoyed showing his honey in the local fair, and he took it very seriously, to produce the best honey that he possibly could. While he started out competing at local exhibitions like Lindsay, before long he was competing at the Royal Winter Fair and Canadian National Exhibition. Wherever he showed his honey he could win first prize—anything he exhibited had to be perfect. “If there was a speck of dust in the honey, then you went in with a straw and pulled it out,” Anna May notes. “He would just clean up on the prizes.”

“At the Royal Winter Fair,” Jack recounts, “they had a trophy for comb honey, and if anyone won it three times they could keep the cup. Lorne explained that he did not want to take it, so the competition could continue. Then he won it three more times, and they were going to dispose of it, but Lorne said, that since it was his cup, he wanted to donate it for someone else to win.” Anna May continues, “Mom didn’t think it was fair that he was winning all those prizes, and thought that other people would lose interest. So Lorne became a judge, and then he had a free pass to the Royal Winter Fair.” At the time, even going to visit the Royal Winter Fair was a very special thing for many local farmers, something they might only do once or a few times in their life. It would be almost unthinkable for many farmers to go to the CNE, when they had so much work to do in summer.

One day, Lorne was working in one of his bee yards, when a stranger approached. Joe Valas was from Yugoslavia, and “Lorne quickly realized that Joe knew a lot about bees too,” Anna May observes. “They instantly became best friends, and were very good friends for each other—Joe for Lorne and Lorne for Joe.” Lorne helped Joe learn how to make honey that could compete at any exhibition. “One time they were driving down to the Royal Winter Fair, and somehow their boxes of honey got spilled or mixed up. One of them placed first, the other second, but they didn’t really know which honey was which.” They were friends for the rest of their lives, often took their honey around together, and would not compete with each other on sales at the same fair. Joe’s wife was interested in making products from beeswax.

For most of his life, Lorne was a bachelor, living with his parents. But as he got older, he enjoyed attending square dances. While at the dances, he got to know Myrtle (Robertson) Quibell, who was a widow and her husband had been gone a while. When they were about 65, Myrtle and Lorne married, and Joe was, of course, was there to give a speech at the wedding. Though he was of retirement age, Lorne was certainly not going to retire. He loved bees, and though he had moved into the village, Myrtle wanted to return to the Thurston’s family farm—Springbank.  

For many years, Lorne had hives throughout the area, one at Dr. Baird’s on Kenstone Beach Road, another at Gerald and Joyce Kelly’s on St. Alban’s Road, and one or two on Cedar Tree Road, to name a few. Near the end of his life, pesticides involving Neonicotinoid were starting to become common, which was causing a lot of his bees to die off. But Lorne would keep trying to care for the bees as long as he could, up to the age of 87 (he lived to 89).

Looking after his bees made Lorne Thurston happy, and because of his unusually deep interest in the subject, became one of the best beekeepers around. And the bees seemed to appreciate him. “His clothes smelled like bees,” Jim recalls, “while we were around the tractors or horses, so we smelled different. He was a friend, while we might seem like a foe.” For about 78 years, he devoted his life to caring for his bees and making honey, and in the process became the honey man who was much appreciated by many area residents. Over the years, countless people made the trip to Springbank Farm to buy a jar of honey. As he chatted with visitors at the Bobcaygeon Fair, not everyone realized that the ordinary-priced jar of honey, that looked just like something they would buy at the grocery store, was hand-made by one of the most skilled apiarists in Canada.         

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