Food Stories Part 5: Rural Life for a Senior Artist, Machinist and BirdHouse Maker


Richard in the entrance of his Garage Sale building a yellow building with green trim and a sign that reads "There is no place anyplace near this place like this place so this must be the place"

Many of the folks who qualify and receive assistance through our FarmShare for Homebound Seniors program and other services we facilitate have a wonderfully rich tapestry of life stories. These folks aren't just our customers. Their lives have expanded and changed and turned in ways we only know a little bit about. Often we only get a glimpse of their story through screening forms and income guidelines. So when we are able to make time here at the PR Food Center to visit with folks we deliver food to, it is particularly joyful.

We got permission from Richard to interview him using an audio recorder. Included in this most recent Food Stories edition is an edited transcript excerpt. Bree and I had the great fortune to spend a morning with Richard inquiring further into his career story and his struggles and joys as a woodworker living in Shirley, just outside of Greenville.

Richard shares his beginnings as a machinist:

Bree: So have you always been this crafty?

Richard: Well, I was a tool and dye maker as my career. Starting out I was working as a machinist in a machine shop- when you had to use your hands. Now- tool, dye-maker, machinist, anything you wanna call them- back then you had to really know and work towards small tolerances as a tool and dye maker. I’m talking about like this Vernier caliper here-it registers in the one thousandths, you know. In other words, one thousand, you can’t even see one thousand, you know. So when you’re talking about working in a machine shop, not like they do now because its all pushing buttons, but when I started out, you had to hold real tight to inches. On woodworking I do it but it doesn’t require that kind of skill you know, so that’s why I make good stuff.

Merrilee: How old were you when you [started] learning this trade?

Richard: When I was in a machine shop?

Merrilee: Yes.

Richard: Oh, my god- I started in high school. 1953 believe it or not. Working summers, I was still in high school. And I started in the machine trade. And I worked until- off and on machine trade- until about 1970 or so when they started using computers. I didn’t want any part of that. I don’t have internet or anything like that. So I went into the gift business and that type of thing. That’s why I've got a lot of gifts out there.

And now... now that was all before I got hurt. Because when I moved here, six months later I got hurt. So what happened is that I had to do something, [because] I didn’t have any friends or anything because I just moved here. And all the people I’ve met have since died more or less-the older people. But I’m stuck here. I’m gonna have to be building more bird houses this year here, this coming winter.

And his creative design process...

Merrilee: Could you describe to us your favorite design?

Richard: I always keep designs. I’ll always keep making. I’ll always keep making designs. For example this one here says Projects to Make, well, for example…

(moving towards workbench, flipping through pages)

Richard: Like my bird houses...I do wood burning on some of the bird houses and what it involves is patterns. This one here would be my blueprint for a two hole [bird house]. There’s two floors there. There’s a hole there and a hole there...But see this is the top [and it's] about 18 inches high or whatever but I draw that design first…and then I…

(Flipping more pages in a manila folder)

Richard: I mean [here is] a bolt circle- that’s what they call a bolt circle. And that’s my squirrel merry go round.

Richard: They’re just designs. Well I might draw a bird first something like that then I wood burn it. Theres all kinds of patterns I have here. How I wood burn, I don’t know exactly…

...I had a friend get [the patterns] off of the internet. I’ll wood burn those bees or those butterflies on the front of them. See there's a butterfly, there are all the little holes in them. That’s like those things you connect the dots and just lightly i put that on the wood with my awl- just a sharp little tool- and then I draw connect the dots and then I get a pencil outline on the wood, then I wood burn it. And I got hundreds of these- all the little dots. That’s how I do the wood burning.

As far as the bird houses go, I keep coming up with designs- my own designs- like outhouses!

I have bird feeders - they're different because you put fruit in them as a rule.

I make bird feeders in that you put fruit in. If you have fussy birds, a ball of suet. It works well.

And then I have snow gauges out there. What they are, is a bird on top of a yard stick 3 feet high. [You] put them in the snow to tell you how high the snow is.

One little foot at 12 inches, two little toes at 2 feet... They're all out there. And nobody else does that- I do that! Nobody does the work that i do and somebody would have to go out to see the kind of stuff I do.

Merrilee: How long have you been creative?

Richard: Oh I've always been into wood. I built my own house in Massachusetts, overlooking the ocean. It was a mansion. I'm not a builder but I did build it myself because I've always been handy. I was born with a hammer in my hand i figure I die with a hammer in my hand, that sort of thing.

On Making Money as an Artist Living Rurally:

Richard: If I was in Greenville or Barharbor- Whooo! But I don't want to be that way. Once in a while make a sale- pay for my heat or something.

Merrilee: So, you’ve got a few items people can purchase at this garage sale.

Richard: As long as I can get out there I'm still open. Unfortunately up here, there could be ice in the driveway in a couple weeks. Well this chair doesn't go on ice- it slides that way! Once I take that moose garage sale sign in, thats it, I'm done. I'm already bringing in stuff that I bring it that I don't want to freeze.

Richard: A lot of people need bread to eat besides eating a bird house and it’s a poor place...