Birdhouses and Bluegrass

The sight of Glenn Palmer is a familiar one in Warrenton

Warrenton residents will be very familiar with the sight of Glenn Palmer. On the weekends, he sits in the parking lot of Murphy’s Motor Sports on the Route 29 bypass selling his birdhouses. Every Saturday and Sunday, he loads up his inventory into the trailer of his lawn tractor and pulls across the street from his house into the parking lot where he sits all day with his handmade wares. “I’m out there every weekend if it’s not raining. Try to be anyway,” he said.

It was a rainy, damp spring day when I went to interview Mr. Palmer at his home. At the door, I was told, “He’s in his work shed, he said to tell you to go on around back.”

I followed the path around the house, passing a whole row of beautiful peonies in bloom. In a corner of the backyard I found Mr. Palmer under his canopy, just outside his woodshed. Bluegrass music played loudly from a radio. He greeted me, and turned off the music. “I have to have my bluegrass,” he said. “That’s the only kind of music I know. I have it on here 24 hours a day.”

Since it was raining, we stayed under his canopy. He sat easily on a stool, and offered me a place to sit on the seat of his lawn tractor. I could smell the pine wood from the shed, and we were surrounded by his worktable and tall stacks of all kinds of birdhouses and bird feeders.

A man of few words, when I asked him to tell me about himself, he replied, “Well, I was a bricklayer for 39 years and had to retire because of my eyesight and my diabetes. I lost my leg 20 years ago. Started doing birdhouses as a hobby. That’s about it.”

A native of Orange, Virginia, he lived in Manassas until about 5 years ago when he moved to Warrenton. A widower, his daughter had arranged for him to live in a nursing home: “My daughter put me in a nursing home and I was there for four months then I got out of there. I’ll never go back to another one of those places.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine this productive, busy man in a retirement facility without his wood and woodworking equipment, and his bluegrass music.

And busy he is. He hates to sit still. “I can’t just sit in the house,” he says. He works on his birdhouses year round, weather permitting. Up by 3:30 every morning and at his workbench around 4 a.m., he produces a good number of birdhouses each day. “I cut ten out today, I put nine together this morning. They were all cut out, I just had to finish them up. But I build seven or eight, maybe ten or twelve at a time.” I asked him what he did when the weather was too bad to go outside. “Sit around and pout,” he admitted. “That’s about it. I build my birdhouses year round, as much as I can. I try to make a habit of it, to keep going.”

When I asked him how he became interested in birdhouses, he answered, “When I couldn’t drive any more, and I had to quit bricklaying, I had to do something. I couldn’t just do nothing, I’d go crazy. The lady I was living with, we went walking one morning, and someone had thrown away some pieces of lumber. She said, ‘why don’t you pick those up and build a couple birdhouses?’ That’s what started it.”

Not knowing anything in particular about birds when he started, he learned as he went along. “About 20 years ago when I started this, I learned a little bit about the bluebirds and the purple martins. I’d heard of them but didn’t know anything about them. This is not so much about birds, it’s more about the woodworking,” he said. He uses standard carpentry tools: a table saw, a mitre saw, hammer and nails, and screws. “But I use a hand drill to put the big purple martin houses together,” he said.

“I get my wood at Groves Hardware in Remington. They’re real nice down there. I give a call down there, and they always bring it up within a day or two. They know I don’t have any way to get down there and haul it up here. They cut it in four-foot lengths for me.”

Each house is made for a particular bird species, he told me. “Different bird, different size hole, different size building. Robin, you have to have a three-sided house, one side completely open. A bluebird needs a small house with about an inch-and-a-half hole to enter through. The house wren needs a one-inch hole, and the purple martins go in a two-inch hole. Sparrows, they’ll go in anything they can fit into.”

In addition to the birdhouses, he also fashions bat houses, bird feeders, squirrel feeders, and bee traps. All his products are made from pine, and they are all waterproofed, except for the bee traps. The purple martin houses are painted with two coats of paint. But the others are just water sealed. “People like to see the natural grain of the wood,” he explained.

What’s his bestseller? “The bluebird houses,” he said. But the bee traps are selling really well also right now. “I started last summer making them, and they’ve been going real good, especially in the last month. The trap sits on the shelf, the bees go down in there and will not come back up. They used to be called boring bees, but I think everyone calls them carpenter bees now. I think just about everyone’s got them now, everyone with a wood house or porch.”

Palmer has a good stock of all his products, and also takes special orders. “Somebody wants something, I pretty much have it. If I don’t have it, I can make it within a day or two. I have a lot of repeat business…customers will come back year after year.”

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I hope to do it another 20, but I doubt it though.” Somehow, I think he’ll give it a pretty good shot. As I left, the bluegrass resumed, and he went back to his birdhouses.

Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 32 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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