You might drive by the longtime birdseed and garden center and not even know it's there.
An old truck with a sign advertising pumpkins sits in front of a privacy fence, veiling the property from traffic whizzing by on Palmer Park Boulevard. But once you walk through the front gate, it's like you've been transported inside a real-life autumn snow globe.
"I can tell when it’s people’s first time — they’re looking all around," owner Ron Perry said. "I have people come in here who live six or eight houses up, and it’s a surprise to them."
Fall is a particularly dazzling time to visit the store, mostly known for catering to bird lovers but also those who appreciate whimsical yard art, fountains, statues and antiques. The trees drip with jeweled leaves. Bright mums fill planters along the pathways.
For the past 25 Octobers, This Place is for the Birds has morphed into a pumpkin patch thanks to the folks at Hanagan Farms in Swink who drop off thousands of their prized goods. Perry turns around and sells them for $5.55 — six bucks with tax — cheaper than many grocery or chain stores.
"I’ve always tried to keep things reasonably priced for families," said Perry, who turns 80 on Halloween. "At a lot of places you buy by the pound, and when you have two or three kids, that's 85 bucks for pumpkins."
Scott Dikun is a happy customer, as he and his wife are the new owners of three perfectly shaped orange orbs.
"I hate buying them from (grocery stores)," Dikun said. "Buying a pumpkin is an experience. Picking them out of a bin takes away from the whole thing."
People might come for the pumpkins and barrels of sunflower chips, but they stay for the history. Perry and his daughter Sarah, who helps run the store, love to whip out the old black and white photos of the property in the early 20th century. The farmhouse where Ron lives today, and its chicken coops, one of which is now the store, were truly in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighbor was the Cragmor Sanatorium 3 miles to the north, which eventually became University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Property records reveal the skeleton of a juicy tale. A Mr. Wood first purchased the land and built the farmhouse in 1909. It passed through seven owners until 1935, when Katie Veen, a Frenchwoman, staked her claim on what was about a dozen acres by that point, and lived there for the next 55 years.
"Two cars a week used to pass when she bought it," Ron said. "It's gone from 125 cars a year to 5.5 million and that was 10 years ago."
In 1990, Veen put the farm up for sale. She was 90, and caring for the farm had become too much.
Ron saw it was up for grabs and snagged a meeting with her, eventually becoming the latest caretaker of the property, which now sprawls over close to 2 acres.
Sarah was 10 when she met Veen, and the older woman would take her around the property, showing her what she'd planted.
"My favorite book at that time was 'The Secret Garden' and that’s what that place felt like," Sarah said. "A magical secret garden that was all mine."
After Ron helped Veen move into a retirement community, the two developed a friendship that lasted until she died in 1999.
"She was an interesting lady," he said. "I feel lucky I got to know her. After she passed away, her attorney gave me a letter she’d typed up, and she said, 'Ron, you’re the best friend I've ever had.' It choked me up."
Who was Veen?
The 5-foot woman arrived in the U.S. in 1919 and worked as a nanny in New England for a few years before moving to New York City and then Colorado. She lived a vibrant life. Ron has an old photo of her dressed in the costume she wore in the 1927 silent Western film "The Cactus Kid," what was likely her first and last movie role.
Veen also worked on the B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II and, when the owner of a restored B-17 brought his plane to Colorado Springs for a tour, Ron took Veen and his kids to see it. She showed up wearing her Rosie the Riveter button, he said, and was miffed when the plane's owner tried to charge her a few bucks for the tour.
"She said, 'You’ve got a lot of nerve charging me to go through this plane, as many of these we kept up in the air for you during the war,'" he recalled.
But mostly, Veen was a French teacher, who earned her masters in 1939 from the University of Arkansas, an unusual accomplishment for a woman in those days. She ended her decades-long career by teaching for a dozen years at the Colorado Springs School, finally retiring at 84.
She never married or had children.
When Ron bought the property, he was in the music business, developing a line of concessions for The Bobs, a San Francisco Bay Area a cappella group, and ISO, a New York dance troupe.
It was only after reconnecting with a friend outside Colorado that the idea of a bird-related business fluttered into his mind. The friend was making a good living building bird houses and selling them to chain bird feed stores, which Ron found surprising, but a visit to the two national chain bird stores in town — Wild Birds Unlimited and Wild Bird Center — proved his friend right.
"The whole time I was in there (Wild Bird Unlimited), the cash register never stopped ringing," Ron said. "It was all birdseed, which is like groceries. People buy it and when it's gone they buy more."
Going the independent route appealed to him, and he pointed his pickup in an easterly direction to find farms where he could buy sunflower and other seeds. The store officially opened around 1996, when he started selling his formulated mixes for 35% to 40% less than the chain stores.
"Of all the businesses I’ve ever had over the years or been involved in, I've never had one that had as nice of people who come in as this one does," Ron said. "It’s just real laid-back. Something about the place has that type of feeling. Most people that come here feel that."