SOUTH SALT LAKE — The sweetest business in Utah, and one of the oldest, can be found on a quiet street here in South Salt Lake, tucked away behind an audio-visual supplier.
Except for a small sign out front that says “Miller’s Honey Company,” there is nothing to suggest that this is a successful enterprise that has been around for 124 years, and no clues that it was this made-in-Utah business that pioneered the practice of transporting bees to warm climates in the winter so they could be productive and pollinate crops all year long.
Accuse them of modesty, accuse them of not embracing marketing, but do not accuse Miller’s Honey of being braggers.
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The longtime sales manager of Miller’s Honey is John Frederickson. I’m talking to John because the person in charge, Ilene Miller, a fourth-generation descendant of company founder Nephi Miller (she’s his great-granddaughter), said she’d rather not talk to the media.
Ilene is pleasant and courteous, and certainly has the pedigree, but she’s not at all eager for the limelight. The same might be said of the company she runs. As Frederickson confirms, Miller’s Honey doesn’t do much advertising. It’s stayed in business for well over a century by what it does, not what it says.
“My job,” Frederickson explains as he dodges a forklift carting barrels of honey, “is to stay out of the way and sell the stuff.”
That, and entertain the media.
The story he recounts of Miller’s Honey dates back to Utah’s pioneer roots when a pair of Mormon converts, Jacob and Barbara Mueller, made their way from Germany to the town of Providence in Cache Valley in 1865 and modified the spelling of their surname to Miller.
In 1873 they had a son whose given names reflected their Mormon devoutness – Nephi Ephraim. Twenty-one years later, in 1894, it was Nephi who asked his father if he could trade five bags of oats left over from the fall harvest to a neighboring farmer for seven beehives.
He thought maybe he’d go into the honey business.
For the next 10 years he sold honey on the side while marrying his wife Harriet and continuing to farm. As their family grew to include seven children, the bee business kept growing just as fast.
By 1904 Nephi had 300 beehives, at which point he bid adieu to the farm and became a full-time beekeeper.
It was on a trip to California in 1907 that Nephi noticed, while visiting with fellow beekeepers, that bees in the warm California climate did not hibernate for the winter – unlike his bees back in northern Utah, who bedded down during the cold months.
A light went on in his brain: what if he transported his hives to California in the winter and thus kept his bees busy all the time?
It was a simple concept, but one no one had thought of before.
After that, Nephi Miller became known as “the Henry Ford of beekeeping.” Everyone in the industry started copying what he was doing.
By 1940, the year he died, the national bee industry recognized Nephi Miller as the country’s largest beekeeper, with 20,000 colonies spread over six states.
Three of his sons followed in his footsteps, all successfully. Ray stayed in Utah, Earl moved to Idaho and Woodrow to California.
Over time, the family business split into two separate categories. One is honey-producing and pollination – in essence, renting out your bees to farmers and fruit growers to pollinate their fields and trees and increase their yield (a lucrative practice that traces its beginnings to Nephi’s pioneering of migratory beekeeping).
Earl Miller’s descendants run that side of things, called Miller Honey Farms, with headquarters in Idaho and California and beehives in several states.
Ray Miller’s descendants have remained here in Utah and run Miller’s Honey Company. They are honey packers. They buy raw unfiltered honey from beekeepers in the Intermountain West – not least of which is Miller Honey Farms – and melt, strain and bottle it before shipping here, there and everywhere.
What that means is you could search high and low at the Miller’s Honey plant in South Salt Lake and not find a single bee. The Utah Millers stopped running bees years ago.
But they’re still going strong after 124 years.
The biggest reason for their success, in Frederickson’s view, is the same thing that’s behind a thriving beehive – strong women.6 comments on this story
When Ray Miller died at 56, his wife, Clarice, stepped in and took over. After that, her son David assumed command, but when he also died early at age 56, his wife, Shirley, ran things, and now it’s Shirley’s daughter Ilene who is at the helm, assisted by her younger brother David Miller.
“The women have kept this company together,” says Frederickson. “Wonderful women who are courageous and capable.”
But they’re sure not media hounds. They let their honey do the talking. Then they get out of the way and sell the stuff.