Feeders offer food for birds, feast for eyes

By Tracy Hobson Lehmann

Home & Garden Editor | San Antonio Express-News

September 12, 2014 Updated:   September 12, 2014 11:35pm

KERRVILLE — September brings ruby-throated hummingbirds through the area as they
migrate from their summer habitats in the Northeast to warmer winter digs in southern
Mexico and Central America.

As they pass through, many are likely to drink from feeders that have a long history in
the Hill Country.

For more than a half-century, a cottage industry has produced the glass and metal
hummingbird feeders.

Now in the hands of Valero retiree Marion Lewis, Tejas Hummingbird Feeders uses
the same simple components and basic machinery it did in its infancy in the 1950s.

Lewis has no aspirations to grow the small business, just to keep feeding hummingbirds
and entertaining the people who love watching the little birds.

Thinking it would be a good retirement enterprise, Lewis and his wife, Harriet, bought
the business in 1995. It migrated back here in 2012 after a journey west to Leakey and
Rio Frio for a few decades.

He didn't retire until 2010, but the couple started making feeders right away.

As the hummingbird flies, Lewis' hilltop workshop sits about 2 miles from where the
glass-bottle feeders were first made.

The Tejas feeders still look almost identical to the ones post office employee Prentiss
Swayze pieced together about 60 years ago from IV bottles and metal tape canisters.

Lewis, 66, has tweaked the design — now using pint and quart vinegar bottles and
aluminum cosmetic tins for the base — but the basic concept varies little from
Swayze's creation.

Today, they sell about 200 feeders a year through their website, TejasHummer.com,
for $29.50 each. Selling any more would make it work, Lewis said.

In eight hours, he can make about 88 feeders. That means he puts in less than a full
work week over the course of a year, leaving him plenty of time to golf and volunteer
at the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center.

“We are a staff of two,” he said.

Since they moved here from Rio Frio in 2012, his wife's role has diminished and he's
more of a one-man show, stamping out the metal bases and assembling feeders as
he watches classic movies on the television in the corner of his workshop.

“It's entertainment,” he said. “I like coming down here in the morning and opening
up the shop. This is a getaway.”

When they first bought the business, the Lewises sold about 1,000 feeders a year
to retailers. That kept them busy every weekend in the winter. Now, they prefer to
keep the business small, though he did enter into a wholesale agreement last week
with Gibson's Discount Center here.

Assembling a feeder is a 12-step process. Lewis starts at a foot press he bought
from a blacksmith shop in Utopia. There, he stamps the lid, adds feeding ports and
inserts the brass grommet — his innovation — to attach the bottle cap to the base.

On the originals, he said, the cap was soldered to the base and broke off if twisted
too tight.

From the press, he moves to a workbench and the machines Swayze used when he
stepped up from hand-crafting to automated production.

Harriet Lewis describes the machines as “Rube Goldberg contraptions.”

“Really, they're hammers run by solenoids,” Marion Lewis said.

He pulled a lever and, with a loud crash, the machine bent heavy-duty staples to
attach the wire perch to the lid of the feeder base.

He moves through four stations with similar-looking gadgets.

Once the aluminum bases are assembled, he finishes them with Dupont "shiny red
powder coating". The powder coating, he said, is also his innovation and is a more
lasting finish than the previous enamel spray paint.

Swayze's brother, Francis “Fuzzy” Swayze, who's 95 and a resident at an
assisted-living facility here, remembers his older brother making about 300 feeders a
year in his workshop before selling the business in the early 1970s. Prentiss Swayze
died in 1976 at age 77.

His brother said he began tinkering with building feeders as early as the 1940s. He
sold them via direct mail and word of mouth. “It was more or less a college fund for
his son,” he said. The younger Swayze remembers the feeders selling for $1.75,
including postage, and, he said, they shipped across the U.S.

Prentiss Swayze sold the business — really his mailing list of about 1,600 customers
to his friend Samuel Chiodo of Leakey. It was Chiodo, who was branch manager of
Bandera Electric Co-op and a Real County justice of the peace, who helped Swayze
automate the process. Chiodo enlisted the help of another Leakey man, mechanical
master Freddie Franks, to create the machines.

Like Lewis, Chiodo saw the hummingbird business as a hobby in retirement, said his
daughter, Beverly Chiodo, a business communications professor at Texas State
University. She recalled her parents taking long road trips to sell hummingbird
feeders to stores as far away as California. “My mother could sell anything,” she said.
“They'd put them in the little old hippie van, and they'd take off and sell them.”

Beth Marshall, a former Leakey resident who now lives in Kerrville, said she and her
husband, Chub, taught the Lewises to make the feeders. They helped Chiodo assemble
feeders at his home in Leakey, and in the mid-'80s, they sold feeders by the case on
road trips to the Dallas area and to Colorado. They would leave with 25 cases and
return with only a couple, she said. “That was a little vacation for us,” said Marshall, 86.
“We didn't make a whole lot of money, but we sure did have a whole lot of fun.”

Like the Marshalls, the Lewises find making the feeders fun. “I'm in the entertainment
business,” Marion Lewis said. “I entertain hummingbird people.”


Tracy Hobson Lehmann

Home & Garden Editor | San Antonio Express-News