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'I'm hip-deep in sawdust': Man's conservation statement is crafting birdhouses from barn wood

John Guertin calls it, "A hobby that's gone mad." His barn wood birdhouses have gained the attention of a former President as well as Smithsonian Magazine.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — When traveling along the countryside, we often see old, dilapidated barns that have been ravaged by the elements and time. 

While most will continue to drive by, not giving these once-noble structures a second thought or glimpse, a Grand Rapids, Mich. man believes life can be found within these skeletons, and every warped plank, standing or fallen, splintered or split, still has purpose.

While growing up in Ontario, Canada, John Guertin worked with the Department of Lands and Forest planting trees. He also worked on his uncle's farm.

"My family was also gung-ho about conservation," said Guertin. "That's where I got the seed sewn."

When he came from Canada to Grand Rapids, his 'environment-first' approach came with him. 

He says he noticed a lot of old barns in disrepair dotting the landscape, causing the environmentalist within him to conger-up an idea of how to repurpose all that termite-infested material.

He decided to make birdhouses.

"Suddenly I had a second occupation," said Guertin, who used to write for the Grand Rapids Press. "Twenty-five years later, as you can see, I'm hip-deep in sawdust."

Guertin has transformed the basement of his 19th century Grand Rapids home into a mini-workshop, filled with all different sizes of old barn lumber, tools and wood-cutting machinery.

"It's become a hobby that's gone mad," Guertin joked.

He takes the old barn wood and handcrafts birdhouses with historically accurate architecture that ultimately become homes for our feathered friends.

"The environment is not a disposable thing," Guertin said. "We are all stewards of the world."

Guertin approaches each of his creations the same way most people honored their work in the 19th century.

"Reverence was the motivator back then," Guertin stressed. "When you make things, you suddenly realize what reverence for accomplishment is because you frequently have to wear band aids when you're doing it."

Guertin went on to say that people didn't measure their lives by dollars per hour in those days, like we do today.

"A way to honor the future is to protect the past," said Guertin. "Each one of these birdhouses is a tangible way of saving a piece of ourselves."

Over the years, Guertin has gotten his barn wood in a variety of different ways. He says when people find out what he does with the wood, many have literally donated their old barns to him.

"[Old barns] may be held together by lightning rod cables and the old style prayers," Guertin said. When I go to a barn, often times I have to sign a liability form, so in case I get severely hurt, it's not their fault."

Guertin's work is so highly respected, one of his custom birdhouses was featured on Smithsonian's Craft Optimism program, which ran from April 24 to May 1 of this year.

"It's a considerable accomplishment," Guertin said, of the Smithsonian nod.

Another one of Guertin's accomplishments along his birdhouse-making journey, was being asked by former President Gerald Ford to make one.

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE
South of the Home Depot on the corner of Patterson Ave. and 28th St. sits this silo, which is all that's left of the barn where Gerald Ford campaigned in 1948.

"I salvaged a barn that stood at the corner of Patterson Ave. and 28th St. in Grand Rapids," Guertin recalls. "Gerald Ford was running for the U.S. Congress in 1948 and he made a campaign appearance at that barn."

In 2003, Guertin decided to send the President a letter to see if he remembered stumping at that old barn, and if he'd like a birdhouse made from it.

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE
John Guertin salvaged a barn where Gerald Ford campaigned for Congress in 1948. Guertin offered to make Ford a birdhouse from the wood.
Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE
President Gerald Ford hand-signed the letter he sent back to John Guertin. Ford asked Guertin to make a birdhouse for Ford's daughter, Susan.
Credit: Ford Museum
Gerald Ford will forever be called "Grand Rapids' Favorite Son," because he grew up there and eventually would become President of the United States.

"I got a letter back from him within ten days," Guertin said. "He thanked me for the offer, then said he had more than enough birdhouses, but he wanted me to make it for his daughter, Susan."

President Ford included Susan Ford Bales' address in his letter back to Guertin, who then made the birdhouse and sent it to her.

Guertin stresses that he doesn't make the birdhouses to please himself. His mission is to use his creations as a statement for conservation.

"It was my intention to create something splendid so people would realize the environment actually generates things that are collectible and something that can be treasured," Guertin said.

If you're interested in learning more about John Guertin, his work or perhaps purchasing one of his birdhouses, check out his website: barnsintobirdhouses.com

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