Jun 08, 2023
Sulphur Rock couple craft career of birdhouses
SULPHUR ROCK — Gary Milligan didn’t plan on making a career out of crafts, but
SULPHUR ROCK — Gary Milligan didn't plan on making a career out of crafts, but when a little wood duck caught his wife, Marcia's, eye at a craft show 40 years ago, he figured he could make the same thing for her. Little did he know that he would take to the craft like — forgive the pun — a duck takes to water and start a lifelong career.
Marcia and Gary attended Cord-Charlotte schools together; she graduated in 1969, and he graduated in 1970. The couple married in 1971.
"The story goes, I was in the second grade when he started in the first, and his mother always said she picked me out for him then," Marcia said.
By the time the two were entering their teen years, they were friends, and when they started officially dating, Gary would bring his horse down to her house.
"I had a horse, but you just couldn't go by yourself, so my cousin Tony Anderson and my little brother, David [Anderson], would ride with us," Marcia said.
Gary said he wasn't much for whittling or working with wood when he was a kid and sort of fell into making wooden crafts, including birdhouses, which soon became the Milligans’ signature item.
"It all started out with a little wood duck," Marcia said. "We went to the Hall of Industry — they had a flea market there in Little Rock — and there was a little plain wood duck, no painting, with a candle in the back. I wanted that so bad, and Gary said, ‘Well, you can draw. We’ll go home, and you draw it, and I’ll cut it out for you.’ And that's actually how it all started."
Back then, she said, ducks and geese, often with blue- and mauve-toned bows and ribbons, could be found at any craft show and in any home-decor magazine. Marcia came home and drew the duck she wanted.
"We started this about 1980 and went full time in 1984," Gary said.
Gary said he was working at Builders Supply in Batesville, which was then on Lawrence Street, and the business had a woodworking shop in back.
"I started doing cabinet doors for people after hours," Gary said, explaining that he refaced the doors for people who were remodeling so they didn't have to buy all new cabinets.
"She got into the country look, and it took off from there. The way we got into the business was purely accidental," he said with a laugh.
"And both of us had enough imagination to make it work," Marcia said.
Marcia was raised on a farm and said her dad kept her busy there with work, so that didn't leave a lot of free time, but she liked to draw.
"I didn't play a lot with dolls, and I didn't have any little girlfriends to play with, so I would just get out and make my own room, stacking cans with a two-by-four on them, sweeping the floor and just playing by myself. I guess I should have been a decorator."
In 1990, their business had grown to the point that Gary built a shop building next to their house.
"At the time, we were selling [grapevine decorated wreaths] through the Country Sampler magazine, so we had to have someplace to pack and ship," Gary said.
By the late ’90s, the couple were going to craft shows near and far and continued making country decor until the late 1990s, when Gary made his first birdhouse, "and we’ve been the birdhouse people ever since," he said with a laugh.
"Nobody knew our names, but we were the birdhouse people," Marcia added.
Marcia said they’d seen a birdhouse that was made out of plain wood, "but I love bright colors, and I said, ‘Let's paint ours.’"
Soon, they had an array of houses in orchid, red, sunny yellow, sage green and robin's-egg blue. Gary said the first show they took painted birdhouses to, they sold every one. They kept adding birdhouses to their shows, and by 1999, he was building the birdhouses exclusively.
He said he builds 20 to 40 at a time, with an assembly-line setup. He doesn't copy patterns, so when people began requesting larger birdhouses, he put some together. The designs are "trial and error," he said.
At the height of the birdhouse building, he said, the couple built between 8,000 and 10,000 a year.
Marcia said that at the Arkansas Flower and Garden Show, which was a three-day show, they would take a load Wednesday, then come back with more on Thursday to keep the booth filled. They’d sell 500 birdhouses, and many would be assembled with posts of the buyers’ choice on site.
"The flowers don't sell as much as they used to — it's still birdhouses," Gary said.
"He also builds furniture," Marcia went on to say, such as cabinets, signs and other items.
Gary said the couple don't sell at craft shows anymore, and they don't have a website or a Facebook page, but they do have booths at Old Town Mall in downtown Batesville and at Bee's Knees in Searcy.
"It's hard work," Gary said. "We have traveled for so long; we just like being at home."
But he estimated that he's probably got birdhouses in 30 states.
"It feels good to see people carrying your stuff. That's what we miss about the shows, the people coming every year to see what we had new, what we had different."
At the War Eagle Mill Arts and Crafts Fair in Benton County, east of Rogers, the couple found a more chaotic scene, however.
"Within 30 seconds after it opened, we had at least 50 people in our booth, hanging onto birdhouses, clutching them like babies," Marcia said. "And then you had people stacking them, and you were falling over birdhouses. Within 4 1/2 to five hours, everything we took was gone; then we had another day and a half to sit there. But that's how big of a phenomenon it was up there. One woman grabbed a big birdhouse in the back and was trapped there for 45 minutes before she could get out because she knew if she left, it would be gone. … It got worse every year because people knew if they didn't get there at 9 o’clock, they weren't going to get what they wanted."
The church birdhouse is their biggest seller. Gary said he was thinking of new designs when he hit on the church style. The Milligans have bought lots of rustic-looking finials from old iron fences, but they then found a retailer from which to purchase the finials new.
"We rust them ourselves," he said.
The birdhouses are made out of red cedar and are made to last, Gary said. "Nothing holds up outside like cedar."
Gary said they do enjoy seeing the birds and feed them in the winter, but he said that doesn't make him a bird expert.
"I’ve had people come up to me at shows and show me a picture of a bird and want to know what kind it is, and I have no idea," he said.
Marcia said people have asked whether the birds will get wet inside the house because it does have a hole; others have asked if the birds will hurt their feet on the barbed wire that decorates some of the Milligans’ birdhouses. "I thought, you never saw them sit on a barbed-wire fence?"
Another question occasionally posed is how long the birds will live in the houses, or whether they will live in them forever.
"They just nest in them; they don't live in them like we do houses," Marcia explained.
Gary said he can't imagine doing anything else now for a career.
"I’m planning on doing it as long as I’m able because I really enjoy it," he said.
"I said it's not everybody who gets to do what they love to do and make a living out of it, so we’ve been very blessed," Marcia added.
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