The small community of Atchafalaya as shot from the old railroad bridge circa 1930. Tom Bernard began his bee business at this location. Atchafalaya was located at the present day Butte La Rose Interstate 10 exit.
The Atchafalaya River keeps a lot of secrets; but for those willing to listen, it says a lot.
Most of the people who lived along the Atchafalaya River, or the ‘Chaf as they called it, are dead and gone. They lived in communities called Atchafalaya, Pelba, Bayou Chêne, and Happy Town. They listened to the river, and when the Atchafalaya Basin was built to hold Mississippi River floodwater, the river told them it was time to go.
Writer Gladys de Villiers, a reporter for the venerable St. Martin Parish Teche News, revealed one of the ‘Chaf’s mysteries in a 1986 story: “ … a resident was walking along the River bank [at Butte La Rose] and the bank began caving in. Something suddenly caught his eye, and it was a pot with gold coins in it. It must have come from the [Civil War] fort, people concluded.”
The story de Villiers’ source cited may be apocryphal, but there was plenty of gold along the river: agriculture, timber, fish, crawfish, crabs, alligators, moss, oil, recreation. Steve Bernard of Breaux Bridge is still mining a little bit of gold from the basin. He’s a 61-year-old beekeeper, and he makes his living selling golden honey. He markets his honey under the Bernard’s Pure Natural Acadiana Honey label, which is available at local grocery stores, including Rouses, Fresh Pickin’s Market, Winn-Dixie, Walmart, and other Associated Grocers stores.
Folks who study the ‘Chaf for its historical value know that Steve’s grandfather, Tom Bernard, was the last resident to leave the river community known as Atchafalaya. Atchafalaya was once home to about three hundred residents, swampers who lived off the river’s bounty. Their town was located where Interstate 10 crosses the Atchafalaya River (Interstate 10 exit 121 – Butte La Rose).
In 1908, Southern Pacific Railroad had given Atchafalaya residents and surrounding river communities another way to make a living when they built a rail line connecting Baton Rouge and Lafayette. “My grandfather was from Thibodaux and came to Atchafalaya in 1914,” Steve said. “He was the railway agent at the Atchafalaya train stop.”
The Southern Pacific Railroad Bridge at Atchafalaya.
The Southern Pacific railroad bridge at Atchafalaya, the community. Atchafalaya was located at the site of the I-10 Butte La Rose exit. Southern Pacific Railroad built the line traversing the Atchafalaya River and the swampy area known today as the Atchafalaya Basin in 1908, sixty-six years before Interstate 10 was completed between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. The bridge was damaged during the Great Flood of 1927, and Southern Pacific abandoned the line a few years later.
Like most river people, Tom made his living doing a little bit of everything, including bees.
“He had a store,” Steve said. “He was a police jury member, a deputy sheriff, and the postal agent. He dealt in ice, fish, timber, and honeybees. He had porter boats and housed crews working in the basin.”
At first Tom bought honey from beekeepers who lived along the river. Then in 1918, he bought a few apiaries and began selling his own honey. Like the ever-changing river, Tom realized his bee business could evolve as well. He recognized the Atchafalaya wilderness as fertile ground that could supply queen bees and package honeybees to a growing northern market. Indeed, Louisiana, with its mild climate, is a safe environment for bee colonies to survive through the winter.
“He sold queens to beekeepers and shipped them out by rail,” Steve said. “He even sold bees to Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.
“During World War II, they needed beeswax for waterproofing canvas. If you had beehives, you could get gas and sugar coupons to keep your beehives alive. His family used the honey and sold the sugar coupons to the moonshiners.” (That may have been convenient for a beekeeper who also kept a saloon during Prohibition. Now that’s a symbiotic relationship).
The Great Flood of 1927 damaged the Atchafalaya River railroad bridge, but Southern Pacific still routed trains to Atchafalaya for a few more years.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers decided to use the Atchafalaya River wilderness as a spillway for the Mississippi River and completed the construction of huge earthen levees twenty-five miles apart on the eastern and western sides of the river by the 1940s. As more water flowed through the Atchafalaya and flooded river and bayou communities annually, residents eventually moved away. Tom, however, remained until 1959. He was the last one to go.
He moved his house and beekeeping business away from the river to Henderson, a community located just west of the basin levee. The business is still located at 1025 Bernard Street in Henderson. The street didn’t have a name when Tom moved to Henderson. Heck, Henderson was barely a community, founded only twenty-seven years earlier in 1932. Town fathers eventually named the street after Steve’s family.
Folks who study the ‘Chaf for its historical value know that Tom Bernard was the last resident to leave the river community known as Atchafalaya.
Tom officially retired in 1977 after a fifty-nine-year beekeeping career and sold the bee business to his son, James, in 1978. James was almost as well-known around St. Martin Parish as Tom, and everyone knew him as “Nookie.” He was the “beekeeper man.” He wore khakis and a wide-brimmed Jungle Jim-type hat to protect his bald head from the sun.
One might think it was pre-ordained for Steve to go into the bee business after his grandfather and father, but there were plenty of other opportunities (and temptations) for a young St. Martin lad in the 1970s. “I was cutting grass around the beehives during the summer when I was 10 years old, so I’d been around the beehives for a while,” Steve said. “I didn’t really want to work bees, and I went to UL [University of Louisiana at Lafayette] for one semester; but I thought I’d go find a job. My dad said, ‘I wish you’d give me one season.’”
Steve recounted the work was hard and hot. Plus, beekeepers get stung. “I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to do that,” Steve said jokingly. “But I told him I’d give him one season.”
One season turned into three, and then the Bernard’s experienced queen-bee yardkeeper fell sick and couldn’t work anymore. “We needed two hundred queen cells every day for our customers, and my dad told me I had to go and take care of the queen yard. It was hard. It was seven days a week, but I did it. I was 21 years old and wanted to have a social life, but I did it. Then my dad told me, ‘You saved us. You saved the business.’”
Another season or two and Steve was rewarded with a honey bonus. “My dad gave me a load of honey,” Steve said.
A load is sixty barrels, and in 1980 dollars was worth about $25,000. That sealed the deal. Steve was now a beekeeper.
Photo by Sam Irwin
St. Martin Parish beekeeper Steve Bernard and his honey at his apiary barn in Henderson.
Today, Bernard’s Apiaries, operated by Steve and his wife, Jeanise, has 2,200 hives in and around the Atchafalaya Basin in St. Martin environs. He sells honey to wholesalers but has also developed a market for his own Bernard’s Apiaries label. His bees produce about five hundred drums of honey a year.
Now in the second half of his life, Steve is the beekeeper man. His work is in the country. His bee yard is filled with historic buildings salvaged from Breaux Bridge and other parish locations. He manages a pecan orchard and tends goats, chickens, and guineas, remnants of his children’s 4-H projects. “I love working out here,” Steve said. “I live in Ruth. I drive from my house on Zin Zin Road, and if there are five cars in front of me, that’s a traffic jam to me.
“I practically have the Atchafalaya Basin as my office. You’ve got Lafayette city right there, and over here, the Basin. The Basin is a retreat.
“I completed an industry survey once and the question was, ‘If you weren’t keeping bees in Louisiana, where would you keep bees?’ I wrote, ‘I’d have to find another job.’”
Steve Bernard has truly found gold.