Whether it’s raising kids in his blended family with his wife, building any kind of structure from wood, or writing songs for a Nashville producer, Philip Natale does not back down from any challenge and he’s never afraid of hard work.
“Even if it’s something a little out of my comfort zone or out of my wheelhouse, I’m going to give it a shot,” Natale said. “It’s all about working hard and doing the right thing and that’s what I tried to teach our kids.”
Natale owns MiniFarm BARNS in Wiggins and he builds enclosed pole barns, cabins, shops, garages, gazebos, sheds, and anything else anyone can think of, including a raptor aviary for Wild At Heart Rescue in Vancleave.
“They needed something built to rehabilitate birds of prey,” he said. “And I said I’ll give it my best shot just let me know what you need.”
When he arrived in Vancleave to assess the project site, he discovered there had been a few attempts to build the structure but with very little progress.
“I knew this was something the rescue really needed and just thought, yeah this needs to be done,” he said and he quickly volunteered for the project. “I told them it could be done but it’s going to be a lot of work.”
Missy Dubuisson, founder and director of the wildlife refuge, recruited students from Vancleave High School to help and a few months later the animal rescue had a massive 100-foot long, 20-foot wide, and 16-foot tall facility, which is the only raptor flight training aviary in the Magnolia State. Natale used his expertise to suggest building tweaks that included ways to keep the birds from escaping and a small enclosed room at the aviary entrance so that when the door is opened, trainers are not standing openly in the main part of the enclosure and can enter safely. He also suggested an additional small corner room where animals could be given medications, snacks, assessed, or prepared for flight training.
“I was just kind of shooting from the hip because I’d never built anything like that before,” Natale said. “I built some shorebird aviaries for a wildlife rehabilitation and nature preservation society way back in the 90s, but nothing like this. Missy believed in me. We got out there and we got it built and I enjoyed building it.”
And engineering and building structures seem to have always been Natale’s calling. In 1992, he was in the U.S. Army training to be an engineer. When he separated from the military he remained in the National Guard and began working for engineering firms that helped transformed Biloxi into the casino empire it is now and built the Turtle Creek Mall in Hattiesburg.
“The Turtle Creek Mall was my big-name claim to fame as a young man,” he said. “I was the civil engineer on site and everything went through me, but it was too many hours and I was spending a lot of my life there. I’m more of an outside kind of guy. After the mall was done I went back to college and got another engineering degree.”
Soon he had a multitude of job offers, including premiere positions at Georgia-Pacific and Scott Paper Towels.
“But, I didn’t want to test toilet paper fibers all day,” he said. “I wanted to work outside. My uncle had a little shed-building business in Gulfport and I just started working with him building sheds and garages and whatever else.”
Eventually, his uncle closed his shed business so Natale took a few contractor classes in Ocean Springs and started his first building company. He was living in Pass Christian and things were going well for him until Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005.
“That kind of changed my plans,” he said adding Katrina, unfortunately, changed everyone’s plans. So he headed to Nashville with his truck loaded down with tools, a TV and a fishing boat, which was all the storm of the century left him. In Nashville, he met songwriter and manager Michael Penn Huffman who penned and arranged songs for Kenny Chesney, George Straight, the Oak Ridge Boys, George Jones, Glen Campbell, Conway Twitty, and many others. Huffman liked Natale’s Mississippi-boy writing style and offered him a songwriting publishing deal.
“I stayed in Nashville for a few years,” he said. “And I still have some songs out there, but I just thought, this isn’t my town. I chased a small dream and I caught the tail end of it. I got a publishing deal but that doesn’t mean I’m some famous songwriter. It just means somebody thought I was good enough with my work to hire me as a writer and then I thought, well I can go home. I still have my contacts in Nashville if I ever want to pursue songwriting again but I don’t want to be in Nashville.”
Since the Coast was beginning to rebuild following Katrina, Natale thought it was the perfect time to return home. He reconnected with a high school friend who is now his wife and the pair built the MiniFarm BARNS from the ground up while raising a blended family of six children. He laughed as he recalled at one point they were simultaneously raising four teenage girls, which he called an adventure.
These days, Natale and his wife share 10 grandchildren and have two more on the way. He takes being a grandpa very seriously. He proudly added all of their children are successful and a couple of them are living abroad in the military.
“I’m never going to be rich doing this, especially not with all the grandchildren, but I just really enjoy building things,” he said. “And I do love Mississippi. I kept coming home for that reason. I was in the Army for 12 years and went to seven countries and nothing compares to home.”
His passion for building has also led him to create smaller structures such as crawfish tables, picnic tables, and tiki bars. He’s currently creating a second business MissiTiki Outdoor Design, which he plans to debut at the Jeepn’ the Coast event that’s set for May 31 to June 4.
Photos are courtesy of Philip Natale and Missy Dubuisson.