When it was essentially prudent, my grandfather was scrupulously honest, but there were those in the community who advised not to trade cows with him. You may understand the difference better if I relate how he sometimes sold honey at the fairs.
My grampy had many colonies of bees, and he sold honey in the comb in little basswood boxes provided by the A.I. Root people for that purpose, sized exactly right so the bees capped the comb off at one pound. The basswood box fitted into a pasteboard container, also from Root, and the whole thing sold for 25 cents. Grampy never owned an extractor, and he didn't foresee clear honey in a glass jar.
Grampy had made a screened cage 10 feet square that he took to the fairs with a hive of bees. With the bees flying inside the cage, it made a spectacular attraction. And with Grampy inside, ready to sell honey, fascinated spectators would stand about to hear his bee lecture and then buy a box of honey through a little slot in the screen.
Grampy would be in his shirtsleeves without gloves and veil, and to the public this seemed a daredevil stunt. Grampy had feeders suspended in the cage, filled with sugar syrup, and his bees were occupied in peace, carrying the syrup into the hive to digest it into honey. They were too busy to sting anybody. So he'd hand a box of honey out through the slot, collect a quarter, and say, "Next!"
Grampy was a fixture at the fairs, and never missed the last one of the season, which came in October at Topsham. (Now it is held in August.) This was late in the bees' summer. From spring flowers to fall asters, the honey flows were over, and by October, many mornings were too cool for his bees to fly. The bees he took to Topsham Fair often found it too cool in the exhibition hall to fly around in his cage, and would have to wait until a crowd assembled and body heat warmed the place.
He wouldn't begin his sales spiel until his bees were flying and he had a crowd. He had short paragraphs prepared, mostly selections from his bee journal, and he had ready answers to the most frequently asked questions. He was able to deliver all these prepared words as if they were off the cuff, playing beautifully his part as a real hick from the boondocks.
Instead of observing Columbus Day on Oct. l2, our town always substituted the middle day of the Topsham Fair. So I had a no-school day to go and sell honey with Grampy! I was 10 the first October I did. But I was no stranger to Grampy's honeybees.
He'd taken me among his hives, and I had my own veil and leather gloves. Grampy had told me never to be afraid, but always to be cautious, and I did know how to listen and tell if the bees would be unfriendly. I was never stung by one of Grampy's bees. Grampy said bees have no ears and can't hear if you shout at them, but it's still wise to say hello when you pass.
Grampy had told me our best honey is from apple blossoms, and next is from white clover. He said that when honey flows taper off, bees fly farther and farther to find nectar, so he always planted a field of buckwheat close to home and spared them mileage. Late-season nectars, he said, produce darker honey, and lack the delicate flavor of apple and clover.
I was real important when I stood in my shirtsleeves inside the cage at Topsham Fair! I even heard a lady say, "Lookit that kid! You couldn't hire me!" I was having more fun! I handed out little samples of honey, and Grampy stood by me selling the honey.
The bees circled about us, coming and going, and every so often we'd need to put more sugar syrup in the feeders. One of Grampy's tricks while he was giving his bee lecture was to pick one up by the wings and hold it to the screen so folks could see the stinger. I noticed, but the audience didn't, that each bee he held up was returning to the hive from a feeder, and was so loaded with syrup he didn't want to make a fuss about anything.
Then something happened that was not in the script. I had handed a sample of honey out to a gentleman who had taken it, tasted it, and said, "Very good! I'll take a box."
I stood back so Grampy could use the opening in the screen. Grampy said, "Yes, sir?" The gentleman said, "I'll take a box of honey."
Grampy reached out a box to the man and said, "That will be 25 cents."
The man put a dollar bill in Grampy's hand. And Grampy said, "Yes, sir. Here you are, sir." And he handed out three more boxes of honey. Grampy seemed pleased with himself.
The man said, "I gave you a dollar!"
Grampy said, "Next!"
The man said, "I don't want this honey! Give me my change!"
Grampy said, "What say?" pointed at his ears, and shook his head. Deaf?
My grampy could hear a penny fall on a featherbed at 500 paces! The scene that followed was a dumb show well worth a fantasy trip back into the Middle Ages, and the man finally gave up and walked away, no doubt muttering that something should be done about these midway swindlers that show up every year at Topsham Fair.
I now knew why people mentioned cow trades. All Grampy said was, "Nobody argues with a swarm of bees! I didn't cheat him! He gave me a dollar, and I gave him a dollar's worth of honey!" Which was true, but I think the man felt he got stung. Did he?