FROM BARN TO BIRDHOUSE

SCOTT MCDOW­ELL CRE­ATES FOLK ART HOMES FOR FEATH­ERED FRIENDS.

Successful Farming - - CONTENTS - By Ce­leste Huttes

The small south­ern Illi­nois town of Ol­ney is known far and wide for its al­bino squir­rels. It’s all about the birds for lo­cal wood­work­ing ar­ti­san Scott McDow­ell. A phys­i­cal ther­a­pist as­sis­tant by trade, McDow­ell found his av­o­ca­tion as an avian ar­chi­tect. For years, fam­ily and friends nudged him to sell the quaint bird­houses he cre­ated in his free time. In 1991, he trans­formed his hobby (and barn) into a busi­ness – and Na­ture Cre­ations took flight.

“A birdhouse gives the land­scape a fo­cal point,” says McDow­ell, not­ing that bird feed­ing and gar­den­ing rank among the most pop­u­lar hob­bies in Amer­ica. “That is our busi­ness right there.”

To­day, he and a team of about a half-dozen em­ploy­ees hand­make more than 10,000 bird­houses ev­ery year, bring­ing to life de­signs dreamed up by McDow­ell. All of his cre­ations are grounded in a rus­tic, avian Amer­i­cana aes­thetic.

Re­claimed wood

Ahis­tory buff, McDow­ell finds in­spi­ra­tion in the Land of Lin­coln’s his­toric build­ings, from grain tow­ers to wa­ter mills. In fact, many old barns and build­ings find new life as Na­ture Cre­ations bird­houses.

“We use a lot of re­claimed wood. From the be­gin­ning, I’ve liked the dis­tressed look, so we started re­claim­ing old barns and build­ings in south­ern Illi­nois,” says McDow­ell. “In our area, peo­ple know I do that and let us know when a build­ing is go­ing to be torn down.”

McDow­ell has also mas­tered tech­niques to mimic the ef­fects of time, from sand­ing and stain­ing to cre­at­ing his own rust.

When he’s not in his work­shop, you may find McDow­ell at a farm auc­tion sift­ing through sal­vaged ma­te­ri­als he can trans­form into unique ac­cents. Where oth­ers sim­ply see tat­tered tin or a rusted hinge, he sees po­ten­tial.

“I search for ob­jects that of­fer some­thing unique,” says McDow­ell. “I don’t want any­thing shiny on our bird­houses. I like a time-worn look.”

New de­signs

To­day, Na­ture Cre­ations pro­duces about 50 dif­fer­ent styles of folk art bird­houses that cap­ti­vate cus­tomers across the U.S. and as far north as Canada. The col­lec­tion in­cludes coun­try church bird­houses and one-room school­houses. The pop­u­lar barn quilt trend in­spired a new de­sign that will de­but in spring 2019.

“We add two new styles to our in­ven­tory ev­ery year to keep things fresh,” says McDow­ell. “We plan ahead and watch color trends. I like some­thing that has some di­men­sion to it, so I play around with shapes a lot.”

McDow­ell par­tic­u­larly en­joys build­ing the most rus­tic styles, some of which re­sem­ble minia­ture log cab­ins be­decked with moss and twisted twigs.

“I like to put them to­gether. They have a lot of unique parts, and I can get pretty cre­ative with them.”

Iron­i­cally, many cus­tomers are so charmed by McDow­ell’s cre­ations that their bird­houses never make it to the gar­den, nest­ing in­stead in an in­te­rior land­scape.

As de­light­ful as the bird­houses are to be­hold, McDow­ell is pas­sion­ate about pro­duc­ing fully func­tional prod­ucts. He puts great care into de­sign­ing homes for dif­fer­ent types of birds, con­sid­er­ing fac­tors such as drainage, air­flow, and en­trance size. All of his bird­houses can be eas­ily cleaned out.

“We make a lot of bird­houses, and all are func­tional and durable,” he says. “I al­ways want my bird­houses to be unique and use­ful.”

Those very qual­i­ties make this whole­sale busi­ness a fa­vorite among bird stores and gar­den cen­ters across the coun­try. Na­ture Cre­ations has even pro­duced spe­cial orders for na­tional brands like Crate & Bar­rel and Home Goods.

“The unique­ness of their bird­houses ap­peals to us. They’re handmade. They’re not com­ing off an assem­bly line,” says Bob Niestradt, owner of Niestradt Land­scap­ing in Shel­byville, Illi­nois, a cus­tomer of Na­ture Cre­ations for well over a decade.

“The paint and the metal prod­ucts hold up very well. We also like that they re­use ma­te­ri­als like tin pieces and barbed wire,” he says.

Most pop­u­lar

The coun­try school birdhouse is one of the most pop­u­lar at Niestradt Land­scap­ing. “The barn style is ap­peal­ing, too. It’s a nice fit for our area,” says Niestradt. “As a small, in­de­pen­dent busi­ness, it’s nice to be able to work with an­other small, in­de­pen­dent busi­ness.”

No one is more sur­prised than McDow­ell that his one­time hobby gave wings to a busi­ness that prom­ises to span gen­er­a­tions.

“I love my busi­ness. It’s kind of a fam­ily busi­ness now,” says McDow­ell. His wife, Con­nie, and sons, Coen and Cade, are ac­tively in­volved with Na­ture Cre­ations. “I’m very proud of what it’s grown into. I never ex­pected that.”

Con­sid­er­ing Amer­i­cans’ per­sis­tent pas­sion for back­yard bird­ing and gar­den­ing, the sky’s the limit for Na­ture Cre­ations. It seems McDow­ell’s motto is shared by many: “You can never have too many bird­houses.”

Scott McDow­ell’s rus­tic de­signs – and ac­cents like this red tin roof – have made Na­ture Cre­ations bird­houses a fa­vorite at gar­den cen­ters across the coun­try.

The McDow­ells have made Na­ture Cre­ations a fam­ily af­fair.

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