Woodworker Steven Barrett specializes in nativity stables
Steven Barrett arranges statues in a Nativity creche he made in his workshop at his home in Hadley Tuesday. Purchase photo reprints »
Steven Barrett sells his handcrafted Nativity creches to customers from around the country. Purchase photo reprints »
Steven Barrett in his basement workshop. He sells creches and birdhouse models of historic buildings to customers from around the U.S. Purchase photo reprints »
A Nativity creche made by Steven Barrett of Hadley. This one is about 23 inches wide. Purchase photo reprints »
Barrett also makes birdhouses, often modeled after historic homes. This one is based on the Samuel Porter House on West Street in Hadley. Purchase photo reprints »
Steven Barrett stands beside birdhouses of historic buildings he made at his home workshop in Hadley Tuesday. They are, from left, the Samuel Porter house, Conkey Tavern, the Old Constitution House and John Quincy Adams birthplace. Purchase photo reprints »
HADLEY — Years ago, when his daughter received a gift of Nativity figurines and was in need of a stable to complete the scene, Steven Barrett decided he could help. The crèche he crafted for her turned out to be the beginning of a cottage industry.
Working from a basement workshop in his home on Cemetery Road, Barrett has made, and sold, dozens of Nativity stables over the past decade, to customers from around the United States. He also makes elaborate birdhouses.
Barrett’s crèches typically range from under $100 to almost $300; the birdhouses are in the upper end of that range. He has a website, www.naturesheirlooms.com, but said that most customers find him through word of mouth. Some ask him to create custom crèches. Last year, for instance, a woman in Kentucky commissioned a 6-foot-wide crèche to sit in her window year-round.
While he had some woodworking experience, Barrett said he learned most of what he knows through trial and error. He makes his stables and birdhouses from wood, assembling them with glue, which he believes is stronger and less obvious than staples and nails. He decorates the finished structures with moss and other natural accents.
“Use as much as you can from nature. Use what God’s given you,” he said. “Everything’s all there. It’s just a matter of applying yourself and your imagination.”
While he makes many styles of crèches — including one that evokes long-ago Bethlehem and another that looks like it belongs on a New England beach — most of his crèches are done in traditional Bavarian style.
As a child, Barrett lived in Germany for several years when his father, who was in the military, was stationed there, and he still remembers the Nativity scenes he saw during that time. A crèche that his parents brought back from Germany for his grandmother sits in the hallway of his home.
Barrett said he would like to see more people making crèches, so that the holiday tradition of displaying Nativity scenes continues.
“Not many people do what I do nationally,” he said. “Why aren’t more women and men doing this and passing this on?”
Barrett, who says that his political views once tended toward the hawkishly conservative, said making crèches has led him to contemplate how he could reconcile his political views with his Christian faith.
“It really opened my eyes,” said Barrett. “It got me to realize there was a great contradiction in my life.” Over the years, he says, he has become more of a pacifist.
Before he began making crèches and birdhouses, Barrett enjoyed crafting model ships for his children. He and his wife, Ruth, have four grown children and became grandparents in June.
Birdhouses with history
Barrett’s birdhouses — which are primarily designed to be indoor decorations — are detailed renditions of New England homes. Some are fanciful depictions of beach houses, complete with sandy lawns and seashells, while others are replicas of real houses.
An avid amateur historian, Barrett said he is particularly drawn to creating replicas of houses with historical significance. He once built a birdhouse version of the home where John Quincy Adams was born. As a graduation gift for his daughter, he built a birdhouse version of the family’s former home in South Amherst — a Colonial, built in 1861 by the Dickinsons, which had been in his wife’s family for decades.
Barrett, 61, retired due to disabilities in 2003, and began making crèches soon after. Over his life he was employed in a range of fields, from reporting to working for the courts to driving a bus. He got his crèche-making business off the ground with a grant from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.
While most of Barrett’s birdhouses look historically accurate, there is one notable exception. His replica of the Old Constitution House — where the Vermont Constitutional Convention was held — includes the ramp that was added to the front of the structure to make it handicapped-accessible. Barrett said he decided to add the ramp because of his belief that historical sites should be available to everyone.