Bluebird

LUCI WELDON/The Warren Record

Eastern Bluebird Rescue Group members, from the left, Anthony Steed, Gary Gilbertson, Johnny Steed (Anthony’s father) and Zack Varnadore work at the “Bluebird Factory.”

Eastern Bluebird Rescue Group founder Frank Newell credits volunteers, better known as the “Friends of Frank,” with the success of the organization’s efforts to construct bluebird houses for distribution throughout the United States and to several foreign countries.

Officially founded in 1996 by Newell, daughter Kristye Newell Steed and son-in-law Anthony Steed, the group grew from humble beginnings in the 1970s when volunteers gathered at a workshop on the Newell family farm near Warrenton, N.C., to help Frank build bluebird houses to bring the Eastern Bluebird back from near extinction.

Among those early volunteers were Robert Wilson and Bill Donoughue, who reside in the local area, and Bob Billet, who has moved out of Warren County.

In the mid-1990s, members of the Lake Gaston Striper Club rounded up volunteers from the lake to help out, said Frank DeJesu of Lake Gaston, who joined the Eastern Bluebird Rescue Group in 2006. 

At that time, bluebird house construction meant sawing wood by hand, and using a hammer and nails to put everything together. Volunteers could complete between 300 and 600 bluebird houses at a time.

Now, construction is handled in a warehouse on Warrenton’s Ridgeway Street known as the “Bluebird Factory,” where power tools enable volunteers to assemble an average of 1,800 bluebird houses on the third Monday of each month. The record is 2,000 in a single day.

As of June 17, the “Friends of Frank” had constructed 346,717 bluebird houses.

Wilson continues to be active with the group in his early 80s.

Gary Gilbertson of Lake Gaston, who served with the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, has been a volunteer since 2011 after retiring from the U.S. Department of Defense, where he worked for 27 years.

He is part of a group of volunteers who gather on a regular basis to prepare components of bluebird houses for final assembly. 

Gilbertson doesn’t want to focus on what he brings to bluebird house-making efforts. Instead, he praises the volunteers in general, who bring their experience in various fields of work and, often, military service to form an assembly line, where they work together as a unit. 

Tom and Paula Fahnestock have traveled from Youngsville for many years to construct bluebird houses. Other volunteers come from as far away as the South Boston, Va., area.

Gary Beyer, who earned the nickname of “MacGyver” after the television character who could assemble items at hand to build almost anything, is known among the group for his ability to fix the machines at the “Bluebird Factory.”

Mike Johnson, formerly of the N.C. Forest Service’s Warren County office, is the group’s hauler, delivering completed bluebird houses to locations across North Carolina.

These are just a few of the 12-20 “Friends of Frank” who gather at the “Bluebird Factory” on a regular basis to do their part in an effort to achieve Frank Newell’s dream of making Warren County the Bluebird Capital of the World.

To volunteer, contact Frank DeJesu at 252-813-2993.

Luci Weldon is asst. editor at The Warren Record in Warrenton, N.C.