Note: It is with sadness that I’ve learned Bill Larkin passed away July 2022. His obituary can be read here.
On one man’s property in a small Indiana town, birdhouses of every color number in the thousands, spanning a woodsy back yard and the inside of a domed house.
The man behind all of it is Bill Larkin, a tall, older gentleman with large dark glasses, gray hair, a wide grin, and a loud, infectious laugh. Wearing a turquoise shirt, orange, baggy shorts, long black socks, and tennis shoes, he’s like the crazy uncle you wish you had. Every day he welcomes visitors, and his story has been featured on websites and newscasts, and in paper publications.
When I call a few days before, he tells me to come on by with ease as if I were a neighbor from down the street. On a Friday afternoon I pull into his gravel driveway and find the front door open. He welcomes me in to his unique abode which on the outside looks like half of an eggshell.
Inside, birdhouses hang from the ceiling and the walls along with string lights. They are also on a couch, the floor, and tables. Outside, they line shelves made out of logs and sit atop fences along with garden ornaments. Bill has also painted rocks and created animals and faces on many of the trees in the hilly, mostly shaded yard, which also features shallow ravines, wooden bridges, a well, and a mailbox with the words “BIRDS LIVE HERE.” It is indeed a paradise – for birds, kids-at-heart, and fans of roadside attractions.
Thoroughly impressed, I’m happy to sit down with Bill in his living room. We each sit in a comfy tan armchair, and he extends the foot rest and leans back.
“I wish my body was in better shape,” he says. “But you get in your seventies and things go downhill.”
He’s got a Band-Aid on his forehead and frequently complains about non-cooperative legs. But he takes it all in good humor. Recently a local Amish man and his two children came over to help tidy up the yard.
“They mowed, and he blew some of the leaves away because I can’t do that. He was having more fun blowing leaves!”
Larkin worked at a naval base, called Crane, nearby. “The Navy wanted a place they could make bombs that neither Japanese nor German planes could reach. When I was hired in the mid-60’s it had become kind of an engineering center. Although the bombs are still up there in storage and during Vietnam, they surely did ship a bunch of bombs out of there. I just did computer work.”
When Larkin moved into his current home in 1996, he built flowerboxes and planted flowers, renewing a practice he’d had in his previous home. After retiring in 2003, he augmented his flower displays with more boxes, and with shelves that had hanging baskets attached. But with nothing on the top shelf, he says, they looked “stupid.” He bought birdhouses to go on top, but they deteriorated.
“So I went to the lumber company and said ‘Do you have any birdhouses?’ They said ‘No, but we got lots of lumber you can build birdhouses out of.’ So I decided to build a few and oh my God, I was awful at it.”
At around 2011, a drought put a damper on the flowers, and Larkin became more determined to improve his birdhouses; he built a thousand that winter. In the Spring he added painted rocks to his repertoire.
“I never had an art class in college or anything,” he says. “It’s just something that just came along. I just sit around here and people come here. The first group was Connecticut, they were working on phone lines. They wanted birdhouses for their grandkids.”
Now, he estimates the number of birdhouses to be well over 6,000, but admits “I ain’t countin’ them, that don’t interest me.”
Tourists flock to Larkin’s home, thanks in part to roadsideamerica.com and various other media sources, as well as by word of mouth.
“People put me on Facebook to their friends or whatever…I was on a few TV stations, and that was really kind of nice.”
He credits one station from Indianapolis in particular for increasing foot traffic, for a show called Around Indiana. After it aired the Wednesday before Labor Day, he says with a laugh, “Labor Day weekend I had so many cars here I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
He’s also appeared in National Geographic and in a book called Oddball Indiana, the latter of which derived from his entry on Roadside America.
“I have people here all the time that say we’re doin’ something or whatever. I don’t pay any attention, I say you come, you look, you do whatever you want to do.”
The flowers originally drew the tourists, even before Larkin added a sign to the corner to help direct them. He hasn’t figured out why locals are far less privy to checking out the place.
“A lot of people from around here wouldn’t stop if I gave them money,” he says.
But on the flip side is all the interesting people he’s met as a result of his passion.
“Two people from the East Coast…wanted to drive across this country on Highway 50 only,” he remarks. “They were using Roadside America. And they both found this place which blew my mind because I didn’t know anybody was doing that. One group was in a camper and they had trouble trying to park here because they wanted to park over there and there’s such a slant they were afraid it was going to tip over.”
Larkin doesn’t travel much himself. He has grandkids in Kansas (as well as Indianapolis), but he’s not a fan of flying. About once a week he goes 50 minutes north to Bloomington for supplies. “But that is an old, curvy little road, oh my God. I don’t know if it saves all that much time but it’s just so frustrating. All these cars pulling in and out.
“I went to Mardi Gras twice in the 60’s when it was fun and not so dangerous. I couldn’t believe what went on, with all the parades. I met people from Milwaukee which I went up and visited and they showed me around Milwaukee. But they were going from…I think the Houston dome was just built, and they were going from Mardi Gras to there. They brought a car for their people and a car for their beer (laughs). It’s hard to miss people carrying a case of beer in New Orleans, you know the streets. You know you can’t carry a beer around Indiana in town for anything, you can get arrested or reprimanded, but down there, oh gosh.”
Nowadays, Larkin laughs about his adventures right at home.
“I go to the grocery store and sometimes there’s paint all over me and one day last year I was going through radiation on my face and the guy who took me back there said ‘You know you got green paint all over your face’. Well I was paintin’ before I came over here, I wasn’t paying attention, I never look at my face.”
He entertains some 5,000 visitors a year, he guesses. His son, who “won’t allow (him) to go up a ladder,” had arranged to bring his Boy Scout troop down to help along with their parents.
“He mentioned [a donation] and I said I don’t care, I can’t do it, so it’s either that or try to get some Amish. They’re selling popcorn this year, and the Boy Scouts are raising the popcorn to $22 and he said, ‘No one wants to buy popcorn for $22, Dad.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t bother me if you can come down here and get somethin’ done, that’d be great.’”
He again mentions his replaced knee and yearning to do more work outside. He recalls years ago raking leaves for a neighbor after she’d fed the birds for him.
The house has a backstory all its own.
It is a dome home that came in a kit, invented, he says, by acclaimed architect Buckminster Fuller.
“It’s a puzzle to put together because all the triangles are kinda different. They’ve got to go in a certain place.”
Two families had lived in it before him, but when he bought it in ’96 it had been vacant for some time.
“I got the windows downstairs replaced because they were a mess. Finally replaced this front door. Got the house re-sided and everything else.”
It features a narrow, twisting staircase from the main floor – which consists of a living room and a kitchen – to the ground floor – which has several bedrooms.
Larkin is just as friendly to me as to the two couples who come by during my visit. Like me, they are offered a free birdhouse as well as any photos from a stack on a table. According to Roadside America, all he’ll take in compensation is cheap beer. I offer an apology for not remembering this token.
“Oh I don’t care,” he says. “They sell beer at IGA [a grocery store] so cheap…people spend more on a 6-pack than I do on a 30-pack, so I think it’s kind of silly.”
We talk more about my cross-country adventure, which started in California and by that point had encompassed 13 states. Recently, he’d met another man doing a cross-country trip, only in the other direction.
“Well you have the best adventure of your life, okay? People don’t understand, there’s so many things in this country to look at. You don’t have to go abroad to see things. I watch Rick Steves’ Europe, or one of those other travel shows and that’s about all I want to do.”
I come away with parting gifts – a little birdhouse, a photo of the yard, and a couple of Florida license plates for my collection. He’d received the plates from a guest with the notion of making them into birdhouses, but he doesn’t make those much anymore.
But the best gift of all is an unforgettable stop on my road trip, and a great conversation with a man who is friend to many in this world: family, neighbors, tourists, and birds alike.