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A Life: Fred Merriam Jr.; ‘He was taught … you did it right the first time’

  • Fred Merriam Jr., in the front right, is shown with his family in a Sept. 2019 photograph. In the back row are, from left, Holly, Aidan and Noah. The middle row is Daisy, Clover, Levi and in front are Elijah, Jonah, Jackie, Fred and Moses. (Becca Boone photograph) Becca Boone photograph

  • Fred Merriam Jr. in an undated photograph from his youth. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2021 7:01:54 PM
Modified: 8/29/2021 7:01:56 PM

RANDOLPH — Beekeeping is often thought of as a sedentary activity. The bees leave the hive, of course, but the hives stay put.

But to do it successfully, to make a living at keeping bees, means moving around, and Fred Merriam Jr., and his family adopted that lifestyle over a decade ago, driving their bees around the country.

“We always thought of ourselves as modern-day cowboys,” Jackie Merriam said of the business she and her husband built.

They drove the bees to California to pollinate almonds and to Georgia to make tupelo honey and back to central Vermont to circulate among the basswood blossoms on the White River and its tributaries.

“All we’re doing is we’re moving to other pastures,” Jackie said.

Merriam died on July 8, 2021, as the basswoods, from which the bees made his favorite variety of honey, were in bloom. He was struck by a brain aneurysm, Jackie said. He was 50.

“He just said, ‘My sinuses hurt,’ ” she said. He laid his head back on a pillow and was gone. There had been no warning beyond elevated blood pressure.

Frederick Earl Merriam Jr. grew up in Bridgewater. His aunt Judi Holm said he was a happy-go-lucky country kid.

He grew up fishing and around horses and among a group of friends who became known as the Bridgewater Boys.

At the same time, he absorbed an old-school Vermont work ethic.

“He was taught that if you were going to do a job, you did it right the first time,” so you wouldn’t have to go back and do it again, Holm said.

Merriam graduated from Woodstock Union High School in 1988 and went on to Vermont’s Lyndon State College and to Johnson & Wales University, in Rhode Island, where he studied culinary arts.

Living near Woodstock, horses are never far away, and in the late 1990s, Merriam started Acme Carriage Works, repairing and rebuilding carriages, carts and sleighs for people in the carriage-driving community. His father, Fred Merriam Sr., won the bronze medal in the 2002 world championships for singles combined driving.

Fred Jr., also started Vermont Bell Company, which made sleigh and harness bells.

The carriage business introduced him to Jackie.

“I had this little Morgan horse and crashed my sleigh,” she said. Merriam repaired it, but they dragged the engagement out, she by ordering more parts, he by giving her only one at a time so she had to keep coming back. She grew up in Brookfield, Vt., a rural town between the larger communities of Randolph and Northfield, much as Bridgewater is a satellite of Woodstock.

They were married in 2003, and their union represented a dramatic change. While Jackie was pregnant with their third child, “we were called by God himself as a couple,” she said. They were reborn and devoted their lives to God and Jesus, she said.

While they don’t worship in a particular denomination, they attend church as they move around the country and Jackie teaches their children a homeschool curriculum based on the Bible. “We live that way every day,” she said.

Steadily, their family grew to its current size, six boys and three girls, ranging in age from 4 to 20.

Their work lives underwent a similar renewal after the Great Recession.

They had moved the carriage business to Braintree, Vt., but the recession did it in. “We couldn’t keep the carriage business afloat,” Jackie said.

The bell business was sold and is now known as New England Bells.

They had five beehives as a hobby and decided to expand. Vermont is a difficult place to raise bees, partly because they don’t overwinter well and even when a hive survives the cold months, it won’t produce a brood, Jackie said.

“For us to grow to the size where we could support nine children,” they had to take the business on the road, she said. That meant Jackie stayed home to school the kids while Fred transported the hives, although the past two years, the three eldest boys, Aidan, Noah and Levi, went with their father to help unload the hives for pollination and to see the country.

Over the years, the Merriams’ company, West Meadow Apiary, has amassed 2,000 hives, which spend the summer at locations around central Vermont.

In a story from May 2019, The New York Times reported that Merriam “processed only about 16,000 pounds” of tupelo honey that year. Made during the brief blossoming of the white Ogeechee tupelo trees in the swamps of southeast Georgia and the Florida Panhandle, the honey has a faint greenish tinge and is highly prized among top chefs.

“You can almost taste the culture of the forest and the sweetness of the swamp,” Merriam told the Times. “It’s one of those things that is just a part of the heartbeat of the place.”

Merriam loved varietal honey, which takes more time to produce. Making it means clearing the honey out of the hives at each stop, so it retains the flavor of the crop the bees were visiting.

The extra work was part of his character. He was “the fun one” of the family, Jackie said, but he also was a smart planner, “always steps ahead.”

“He just had a way of not letting negativity or anything get in his way,” she said.

In the King James Bible, Luke 9:62 says: “And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

But Jackie rendered the verse, which is about the cost of discipleship, in a more positive way that typified her husband: Put your hand on the plow and look forward if you want to make a straight furrow.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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