The store that ‘had everything’

Watertown’s Bee Hive a retail landmark

Watertown’s Bee Hive store in 1965 on Court Street. The store was known for its wide array of merchandise and being one of the longest operating family businesses in the area. Photo courtesy Watertown Daily Times archives.

Every so often when a longtime Watertown resident starts to reminisce, they go back to the times when Public Square was the retail hub of Jefferson County. Long before Salmon Run Mall was even a concept, and when Arsenal Street was nothing but farmland, downtown Watertown buzzed with retail activity.

It’s never long before that longtime resident mentions a few stores they vividly remember from their childhood. The store where they bought their first candy for a penny or rode on their first elevator.

Court Street’s Bee Hive store is one of those retail landmarks that make the list of “fondly remembered.”

Founded in 1894 at what was originally 32 Court St., and later 144 Court St., the Bee Hive was known as the store that had everything. Even the most unusual household items, unobtainable elsewhere, lined the shelves of the department store.

Founder Sylvanus V. Barker, a native of Rossie, spent most of his early life in the Carthage area, where he learned the carriage maker’s business. After seven years in that business and a year in a grocery partnership in Syracuse, Mr. Barker moved to Auburn. He soon opened a variety store in 1887, called the Bargain Store. Some seven years later, he disposed of the Bargain Store and headed north for Watertown. In October 1894, the Bee Hive was born, named after a store in Auburn that caught the fancy of Mr. Barker’s wife.

The space of the original store had been occupied prior to 1894 by the firm Waite and Irving, which relocated.

Mr. Barker’s stock included an almost endless variety of woodenware, granite and tin ware, crockery, glassware, kitchen utensils, many lines of house furnishings, dry goods, underwear and hosiery.

The business grew rapidly because it was a type new to the city. Mr. Barker established himself a name for strict business integrity and a faculty of keeping stock moving from his shelves. He also had a reputation for keeping his clerks over a period of many years. The longevity of help at the Bee Hive became a notable aspect of the business for many.

Twice Mr. Barker enlarged the store by opening adjoining space. On March 20, 1897, he opened a second section, formerly occupied by B.L. Taylor, wholesale dealer in boots and shoes. In 1924, he decided to further expand into a former grocery store and the former Regal Clothes Shop.

Following Mr. Barker’s death on Aug. 31, 1939, the store went to his son, Ross W. Barker, and daughter, Mrs. Charles A. Shafer. The younger Mr. Barker had helped to manage the store since 1907. Ross continued to run the store until 1965, when he decided to shutter the business and dispose of the building after more than 70 years in business.

In a Sept. 8, 1989, Letter to the Editor published in the Watertown Daily Times, Alex T. Duffy, a noted Watertown icon, recalled of the department store:

“[The Bee Hive] was to be a general store, with a policy of pleasing the public, having strict integrity, fair prices and quick sales. At its closing, after 70 years of business, all these aims had been accomplished.

“There were several departments … [but] what intrigued me as a youngster was their famous candy counter, featuring the famous Ox-Heart chocolates made in Oswego, and the famous fudge, along with a full line of other treats.

“The Bee Hive also had a system of overhead electric baskets operating on cables. The baskets sent cash to the main office and back with your change.

“The Barkers had a son, Ross, and a daughter, Evelyn. Evelyn later became Mrs. Charles Shafer. Ross was unmarried. As they grew up they became part of the store’s management.

“Noted for keeping their employees for years, here are some who were all friends of my parents: Eleanor Byrne (who was there 49 years), Bessie Boyd, Ada Reid, Pearl Tinney, Libbie McMillan, Zulema Robbins, Anna Barber, George Whitford (the head of the china and glass department). I’m sure there were more, but that’s a long way back. Another employee, Mildred Hamm Currior, just passed away. Her father ran Hamm’s famous Shooting Gallery, which was across from the Bee Hive on Court Street.

“I talked recently with two other employees, Clayton Jones and his brother-in-law, Eric Young. Eric went to work at the store as an errand boy for $2 a week. He later became head of the delivery department. He was there for 38 years and was a familiar figure around town with his horse and buggy.

These are just a few of my memories of ‘the store that had everything.’ ”

Business history is a monthly feature from the archives of the Watertown Daily Times. Visit www.watertowndailytimes.com to access digital archives since 1988, or stop by the Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown to research materials in our library that date back to the 1800s. The piece “Bee Hive Store, Landmark, Closing by End of Year,” published Aug. 7, 1965, in thet Watertown Daily Times, was used in the writing of this column.