Back to Previous Page

History Lives Here Text

In 1964 Carl Bird, aSaugatuck boat builder and craftsman who had a picturesque shop on FrancisStreet just west of Butler Street, restored for his niece, Margaret (Graves)Van Houtte, a desk that had been built by hergreat-grandfather, Henry Bird Jr., who had first come to Saugatuck in 1868.Henry ran a lumber mill on Lake Street and occasionally made furniture for himself and others. When the work on the desk was completed, Carlwrote Margaret and along with some interesting comments on the desk specificallyand building things in general, he spins some fascinating yarns about the Birdfamily and early Saugatuck


Carl Bird atwork ca 1960


You will be surprised andshocked to get this letter surprisedto get one from me at all and shocked, and probably delighted, to know thatyour great-grandpa's desk is now as near like it was in 1870, when he made it,as it is ever likely to be.

Now, as I approach some of these restoration jobs, after over thirtyyears of thinking about them, they begin to tell stories that are not soevident to most people.


CarlBird caning a canoe seat

When I build boats or any other structure I first build it in bed sothat I know every detail and just what it will look like when complete.

I imagine this desk is one of grandpa's first ventures in cabinet making and that he did not know just wherehe would wind up. I think he felt it out and "built it as he went along"so that it is to a certain extent what I call "cob-house." One evidence is the door at the end of the knee hole. Thisgives access to the greater part of the storage space and can only be reachedby getting dawn on one's hands and knees. But, the most conclusive evidence ofno design is the end door, which was an after thought, to retrieve and makeavailable some of this space.

I think this piece was early in his experience because I have restoredother pieces of his and the engineering was better. As far as that is concernedI have found many more pretentious builders of this period who seemed tounderstand little about furniture design. Chairs are more liable than otherfurniture to be off in some respect.

You see, when one builds a boat or anything else he builds to certainspecifications of which there may be six and it is only possible to work to twoat the same time. You or anybody can understand that if you work for beauty andspeed you might not have the most comfort and seaworthiness. I have had chairsas beautiful as a picture but upon examination I wondered how they stayedtogether.

Now, I have dragged your great-grandpa over the coals long enuf. No one knows better than I what a great craftsman hewas and you may know it too when you see his exquisite dovetailing which I havecome across before and which you will find at the corners of the rail and thedrawer fronts.

The angles of the front were embellished by plastic lionsheads one of which the worms have left us. Some people think that plastics arenew, but this molded plastic was probably made of glue and sawdust and theworms evidently like the glue. These heads were only at the top and, aftertrying every source without success I made turnings for top and bottom. I alsoturned medallions for the front doors which were full face lions.

The fabric on the desk top seemed to be a heavy muslin or light canvas paintedblack and extended from the front to the back rail where there was a moulding in the corner. I used the mouldingto repair the doors and drawers and put in its place the one unauthentic piece-for the ink bottle and pen and pencil channel. Then, the rest of the top insidethe walnut trim is maroon, woolen desk felt.

This desk was in the old Brittain House whichwas the O. R. Johnson House in lumbering days, O.R. being one of the lumber barons. He afterward built the Park House along theriver below Moore's Creek which was big enuf to have a "deer park." My closest contact with that period was this incident: A man once toldme he went to cross this park to the river but it happened to be the "rutting season" and a big buck put him up a tree where he stayedfor several hours.

The house on the hill where we lived and your ma was born was the SamJohnson House, a cousin of O.R. and also a lumber baron.

When Julia Brittain sold the house andcontents, the first object was the desk for which I paid $5.00. "Cappy" [Captain Leonard S. Brittain] says that his father, the old captain[Captain R. C. Brittain], said that the desk cost hima thousand dollars. Grandpa built the desk for H. D. Moore, Moore owed Brittaina thousand dollars, went thru bankruptcy and the desk was all that Brittain recovered.

Harry Moore was my grand uncle, your great grand uncle. I do notremember him, but I remember Aunt Kate, a petite, charming little lady as Iever knew, not at all like grandma who, to my notion, was tall and ungainly.Her name, too, was not Kate and not Katrinka either,but some unusual Dutch name which was charmingly quaint. [Her name was Katurah]

They were Dutchwomen- Van Housens. The family must have been of somesubstance because the girls attended a school where they wore "backboards" and, what surprises me, they seemed to do the trick - grandma was straight as an arrow until she died at86.

Grandpa was born June 11, 1817, and came by ox team from Canadaigua, Ontario County NY, to the Ann Arbor, Mich section so that he could marry grandma at 15, which hecould not do in NY. His grandfather furnished a yoke of oxen and helped buildthe breastworks on Breed's-BunkerHill and worked all thru the Revolution on fortifications.

Henry Bird ca 1890

The most surprising thing about the whole business is that grandmamarried before most girls know anything, raised a fine family, was a good cook,but also had a home institution that was as near self sustaining as it possiblycould be. I have seen her flailing out bears with flail and blanket on the barnfloor. There was the ash-barrel on a platform which took a pail of water nowand then to leach the lye, not only for soap but also for hominy i.e. hulledcorn.

My cousin Edith, bless her dear soul, was the only one interested enuf to dig into the family tree and, until she died, Imaintained she was off on the wrong foot. Somehow or other she got some kind ofa lead (I think it pleased her fancy) to hook us up with the silk stockings ofVirginia- Tom, Dick and Harry Byrd. I am confident our family came thru Boston as the Bunker Hillincident would show and also they are still around there. Charles Sumner Birdran for governor and Bird & Sons Roofing. Also we are a bunch of roughnecksand belong to the Horse Thief and Highway Robbery Line.

I am glad the desk is now up to you. You can figure out how you will transport it and you can leave it hereas long as you wish. If you should want itcrated or if there is anything else I can do to please you, command me. Youare still one of my best gals, you know.

I am not asking you to read this all at once- you can take the balanceof the winter to figure out what I am trying tosay in this "damned crampedpiece of penmanship.

Love to all,

P.S. I forgot to say that besides the lion gargoyle in the drawer is ahome made lure, partially done. It is hollow for a weight, had fins to make itswim by jerking a line on a stick. When the big fish came he was socked with aspear thru the ice inside a shanty.

* * *

As Carl Bird points out he remembers little firsthand about the O. R. Johnson family. The Park House, which stillstands as the Park House Bed & Breakfast was built by H. D. Moore althoughJohnson may have furnished the lumber or had some other connection with itSamuel Johnson was a brother to the original O.R. Johnson. It was his house, built to the same specifications as the Johnson/Brittain house in town, that Carl's parents, Hattie andCharles E. Bird occupied for many years. The Johnson/Bird house,still stands on Allegan Streetand served for several years as the Frolic Resort. It is large and square butlacks the cupola that many remember as a feature ofthe Brittain house downtown.