By Billy Liggett
VASS — It was shortly after Patrick Milcendeau built the side porch at Dunrovin Country Store — a place where kids and grown ups alike could take the milkshake or candy they just bought inside and enjoy it outdoors — when he realized just how close everything was to a very busy (and very fast) U.S. 1 highway.
It was too close. With that in mind, Milcendeau decided his store needed something in the back — away from the passing cars — where kids could run around and be entertained. Perhaps even learn a thing or two in the process.
That’s how the idea of his tropical bird sanctuary was born. Two years later, Dunrovin’s aviary is an oasis of lush tropical plants, statues and giant cages housing more than 80 rescued birds — parrots, macaws, toucans, cockatoos and more. Guests can spend up to an hour getting up close to the birds and interacting with them while steel drum music permeates from hidden speakers throughout.
The aviary is free, there to attract guests, but also as a labor of love for Milcendeau, a tropical bird enthusiast who once raised blue and gold macaws.
“It’s an attraction for the kids, first and foremost,” he says. “But we’ve discovered in the last two years that it’s not just for kids. We probably get more adults back here than kids nowadays.”
The aviary has made Dunrovin — located roughly 20 minutes south of Sanford — more of a destination than a curiosity. The store’s been around for nearly 70 years, but it was struggling and in need of new life when Patrick and his wife Jo bought it and took over the day-to-day operations in 2012. Married just a year earlier, Patrick had spent 45 years in the restaurant business in the Northeast and eventually as owner of Country Kitchen House of Pancakes in Carthage. Jo was a retired elementary school teacher.
Their decision to buy Dunrovin goes all the way back to Patrick’s childhood, he says.
“When I was a kid in Massachusetts, my brother and I were about 12 and 14, and every Sunday, our parents would take us to this little country store in the western part of the state,” he says. “It was very tiny, and I remember it had the old-fashioned sausages and all of this candy. I loved that place — such good memories — and it’s always been in my head. I told my wife that someday, when I retired, I was going to have my own little country store. That was going to be my big achievement.”
Inside, Dunrovin is home to just about every item you’d expect to find in a country store — think the entrance of a Cracker Barrel times a million. Their most popular items are their Amish foods, their 26 flavors of fudge and 24 flavors of ice cream, their novelty gifts and natural home remedies.
But it’s the birds that set Dunrovin apart from just about any similar stop. Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, most of Milcendeau’s time and energy is now spent taking care of the aviary and, more importantly, taking care of the birds. Many come in after years of neglect, and some have been abused. He shares the story of one bird that spent four years as a “pet,” kept in a woman’s bathroom with no windows. Others were used for breeding or were unwanted.
“We don’t take in sick birds, out of the safety of the others,” he says. “And once we get them, we never rehome them. When they’re here, they’re here to stay. And what I tell everybody is that all of these people who stop by are doing these birds a tremendous favor. They’re interacting with them and entertaining them. I love seeing that.”
The aviary is becoming a popular draw, Milcendeau says. Most of his visitors over the past two years came for the store and then discovered the birds — more and more, people are coming for the birds and then checking out the store. But whether 200 people or 20 people visit him on a given day, Milcendeau says he’s living the dream.
“I employ seven or eight people, and I feel like I’m contributing by providing local jobs. But the truth is, this whole operation has nothing to do with money,” he says. “I’ve spent my whole like being too busy — I didn’t really get to see my kids or my grandkids grow up. And with this, I wanted to do something for the kids. We have schools that bring buses here; we have church groups visit; and we even have birthday parties and family celebrations here. I was in the restaurant business for 48 years, and I was never able to do these things for my family.
“This is my way of finally giving back.”