Nodji VanWychen: A Bittersweet Combination

Nodji VanWychen, 1970 American Honey Queen

Nodji VanWychen grew up in Monroe County Wisconsin on a small rural farm, where her family had always kept a few colonies of bees. She was a 4-H member and after taking an interest in bees and beekeeping as a teen, she applied for the Local Honey Queen program in Monroe in 1968. The local program was very limited at the time and she was selected simply because of her interest in the position–and that was the beginning of her reign.

In 1969 Nodji competed in the State Honey Queen competition, and in 1970 became one of the first Wisconsin Honey Queens to win the national title. At the height of her reign as American Honey Queen, traveling all around the United States and educating many about honey, bees and the beekeeping industry. She traveled with her chaperon to “perhaps a third of the states,” staying in each place for about three to four days.

“My chaperon … couldn’t drive, so I had to drive everywhere,” she said. They stayed mostly with families wherever they went, and visited mostly rural areas and small towns. WanWychen remembers her first time in New York: “I’ll never forget the experience of driving into New York City, all the tunnels and traffic and I didn’t have a clue which lane to be in … by the sheer luck of God I happened to be in the right one.” They were booked for the convention for the New York Hudson Hilton Hotel, and she remembers driving up to the valet in their old station wagon and feeling totally out of place; the valet told her that he didn’t want her taking the old car out again until it was time to leave. She laughs good-humoredly, and adds: “I’m not the Ritz-Carlton type … I’m kind of a rural farm girl … the country bumpkin type.” But the perks of being the American Honey Queen in New York City were great–she excitedly remembers getting to “present a small honey bear to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.”

The memory of the January 1970 American Beekeeping Federation National Convention in San Diego, where she won her title (her first time in California) is also vivid, along with the boardwalk in Atlantic City and the National Lions Club Convention in Wisconsin where she rode in a convertible covered in purple and yellow paper flowers. “The yellow was good,” she says, it was like honey. At the Wisconsin State Fair she ran the honey booth herself several times, but the year she was American Honey Queen stands out to her in particular: “The evening entertainment was Sonny and Cher. I got to go backstage and have them sign my sash!” She saw Cher years later in Las Vegas, “this was after Sonny had died … she looked great! She looked exactly the same!”

In Ohio she wore a “bee beard:” after the beard was complete (bees covering her jaws, neck and upper chest) the beekeeper whose bees they were “would take a piece of cardboard and ‘shave’ the bees…” I asked her if that wasn’t a nerve-wracking experience for her. “No … what helped was that I had worked with bees before.” If you know how to be around bees, she clarified, “it’s not a big deal.”

But honey and bees are not Nodji’s only areas of expertise; she is also a third generation Wisconsin cranberry grower. A famed Cranberry Queen, she is currently Royalty Chair of the Warrens County Cranberry Festival. She and her husband Jim VanWychen own a cranberry farm and are major players in the Wisconsin cranberry scene. They frequently host public events on their cranberry marsh such as Cranberry Blossom Day. Nodji also does food demonstrations, incorporating both cranberries and honey.

Though Nodji is now much more involved in the cranberry industry, the honey and beekeeping industry is still an integral part of her livelihood: honey bees pollinate their cranberry marshes every year.