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By Michele Roberts

From simple wooden boxes to complex systems made for an entire flock of birds, birdhouses come in all shapes and sizes.
However, one Lancaster resident has turned them into works of art.

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John R. “Cornbread” Collins Jr., 75, started building regular birdhouses back in 2004, after retiring as a truck driver in 2001.
Collins said he sold about 1,200 of the birdhouses in one year, mainly on eBay, but also out of the back of his truck.

David Poston, who lives in Rock Hill, saw the birdhouses and ordered 150 of them, Collins said.

In the course of their conversation, Poston mentioned that Collins should consider building designer birdhouses.

“I really didn’t know what he meant by that, so he gave me some pointers and I started building them,” Collins said. “They seemed to be very popular, and I’ve been building them ever since.”

Collins’ birdhouses certainly give the birds a stylish place to nest. Many take the form of replicas of real houses in the community, churches and even historical structures.

One replica is that of a slave house in Durham, N.C., which he built from a picture given to him by author and award-winning storyteller Kitty Wilson-Evans. Wilson-Evans is known for her storytelling at historic Brattonsville in York County and often portrays Kessie the slave in her narratives.

“She actually takes the house with her when she goes and does her talks,” said Collins’ wife Helen. “It brings things to life for the kids, and makes it more real for them when they have something like that to look at.”

Collins said he never keeps the measurements of any birdhouse he builds, as he wants each one to be as unique as the person who requests it.

“No two of my houses are alike,” he said. “And that’s part of what makes them so special.”

Collins said some birdhouses can take between 70 to 130 hours to build.

Depending on the complexity of the house, the prices range anywhere from $150 to $600.

“I do this, though, because I love to do it,” Collins said. “It’s nice to be able to make a few dollars from it, but that was never the real reason for it. It’s a mystery to me how I’m able to do it, actually. I’m not a person with a lot of patience, yet here I am doing something like this.

“God is good, and it’s by his grace that I build them,” said Collins, who attends First Baptist Church Through these houses, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of people, and that’s a lot of people I’ve been able to talk to about the Lord. I’m so grateful for his giving me the ability to do all of it.”

Part time at AJSP
Collins has also worked part time at Andrew Jackson State Park for about nine years. One of the first things he built was the park’s donation box.

“I guess that kind of started it,” he said. “Building stuff, I mean. I really enjoy being at the park, though, and I do my houses in between. I’m most often in the museum, and have built some replicas of things at the park, too.”

One of those replicas is the blue meeting house and another is of the one-room schoolhouse. Another replica that can be found in the park’s museum is the old Waxhaw meeting house/Presbyterian Church which was burned by British soldiers when the Jackson brothers spent the night on the banks of Waxhaw Creek. The replica is of the burned remains after the fire.

Collins is also well known for his interaction with AJSP guests and visitors. He has a scrapbook filled with letters and e-mails written by visitors, thanking him for making their visit so enjoyable.

“That book helped win him the title of Employee of the Year for the Olde English District in 2009,” Helen Collins said. “That same year, he also won the customer service award from the South Carolina State Park Service for his dedication, leadership and service.”

Collins said he doesn’t build many replicas anymore, as he suffers from COPD and arthritis and those are more labor intensive, but says that he has now built 51 designer houses. Only two remain unsold.

“I really do enjoy it, and I guess I’ll keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “Mrs. Cherry Doster says I am an artist, and I would’ve never thought anything like that, but I’ll tell you, it makes an old man feel good to hear that his work is considered art.”