Dillon Farm Museum

Bygone agricultural tools and practices can still be found at the Dillon farm museum.


Above: It is hard to imagine using a glass canning jar as a fuel tank, but that is exactly what this 1918 Maytag engine was designed for. Collector Chuck Stewart notes such pieces are particularly rare because they were made only a relatively short time before being recalled because of safety issues.

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In 1974, when life-long farmer L. Norman Dillon retired, he'd already witnessed substantial erosion of the agrarian way of life in eastern West Virginia's panhandle, especially his beloved Apple Pie Ridge of Berkeley County. Because he so valued his own experiences on the land, he felt compelled to plant a tender but generous seed to ensure that generations to come could share in the hard work and joy known by those who settled the ridge and turned it into a diversely productive area.

"Mr. Dillon's seed came in the form of a $10,000 gift to the school board," explains Dillon Farm Museum board member Tim Yates. "That money came with the stipulation that a volunteer advisory committee assist with planning and eventual implementation of an agricultural heritage museum." A shrewd businessman, Dillon also ensured that neither the funds, nor the income earned from their investment, would be used for anything but the museum project, which took over a decade to become a reality.

The L. Norman Dillon Farm Museum, formally dedicated in 1987, is situated on 8.3 leased acres of land once part of the original Dillon farm, but now owned by the Board of Education. The museum's mission is to pay tribute to this country's founding agriculturists, offer a portal for young and old to make that powerful connection with the land, and showcase how food was raised and processed in West Virginia's panhandle. "I think our biggest strength right now is in the diversity found in our collection," Tim says, "although our educational outreach and demonstration capabilities are also significant."

Panhandle prize

West Virginia's eastern panhandle was home to a diverse range of agricultural practices, including tree fruit, small grains, row crops, dairy, beef, sheep and timber. And though a number of working apple orchards remain, even more remnants of old orchards can be discovered among housing developments, where a few trees escaped the bulldozer. Gone with the old orchards are some of the tools and practices of the trade, but those things can still be found at the Dillon museum.

For example, a number of apple-centered artifacts are found in the museum's collection, including a beautifully preserved (and recently restored) apple grader. This hand-cranked device allowed the apple producer to quickly and relatively easily process boxes of fruit into three different size categories.

Close study of the grader reveals an intricate series of interlocking cast iron rings connected chain-like to form a perforated conveyor belt that transports larger fruit, allowing the smaller to pass through. The size-sorting device uses two such conveyors - one with larger diameter rings than the other. In operation, the smallest apples in the batch fall through the first perforated belt, the medium-size fruit fall through the second, and the largest fruit ride all the way to the collection hopper at the end, where they can be carefully collected without bruising.

The museum also is home to a pair of old orchard sprayers, cider presses, huge copper apple butter kettles and more. And in the fall, when the apples are ready, museum volunteers bring out the grader, cider presses and butter kettles for an old-time demonstration of how the fruit was once handled and processed on Apple Pie Ridge.

Because of the collection's diversity, even a slow, deliberate walk through the museum's 40-by-100-foot main exhibit building can overwhelm visitors. In the center aisle are horse-drawn buggies, a beautifully refurbished Fordson tractor and a lever-operated drag saw. Along one wall, heavy freight wagons and prairie schooner-style covered wagons overshadow a large collection of smaller implements such as an International Harvester ground-driven mower, sickle bar grinders, hand rakes and leather-working tools. Along the opposite wall are smaller stationary barn implements such as a fanning mill bearing the label T.Y. Woolford, and a hand-cranked Montgomery Ward feed cutter.

Horse harness, eveners and trees are displayed high on one wall, while log chains, hand tools (carpenter and mechanic) adorn another. Overhead, a loft features scores of land plows in various configurations. The museum's dairy collection includes milking machines, cream separators, butter molds and more. Barn ventilators, poultry feeders and waterers, and even an old moonshine - or should we say tractor fuel? - distiller are other unusual items in the collection.

One of the most interesting farmstead tool displays features Stewart Ball Bearing No. 9 sheep shearing machines built by the Chicago Flexible Shaft Co. These devices utilize a stand-mounted gear head connected to a pair of power shears through a series of enclosed shafts. The shafts transfer power to one another through specially formed gears at either end that allow them to hinge with respect to one another by over 90 degrees - with no loss of power transmission. Later iterations of this same design took their power from overhead line shafts or small stationary engines and electric motors.

The Dillon museum's bounty is only partially contained in the main building. A quick look around the grounds reveals larger pieces of machinery, including sawmills, tractors, husker shredders and tillage machinery. And should you visit the museum during one of its two annual shows, much of that equipment is likely to be working. For example, the recently installed Frick sawmill was put to work last June to show how lumber is made from logs, and produced enough board feet to build a shelter for that recently restored machine. In a prior demonstration of woodworking power, the mill created enough lumber to complete the museum's newest facility, the blacksmith shop.

Anvils ringing on the ridge

Several times a year now, a once familiar ringing sound is heard echoing along Apple Pie Ridge. The sound, accompanied by curls of sulfurous smoke drifting down the valley, draws visitors to the Dillon Farm Museum as surely as dinner bells once pulled threshing crews to the table. "People usually start gathering as soon as they smell the smoke," says Martinsburg blacksmith Dave Merceruio as he tends to his recently lighted fire of green coal. "When the smoke dies down, the coking is completed and we can heat metal." In an age-old process, Dave burns the sulfur and other impurities from the pile of coal neatly situated in the museum's new brick side-draft forge to produce the pure carbon fuel known as coke.

Dave has been working metal for almost 18 years, but notes that he has only been smithing for the past 15. "What I like about the anvil and hammer is that you can make just about anything from just about anything," Dave says, taking a cherry-red bar of scrap steel out of the fire and laying it on the anvil. "I specialize in making period hardware." And with several deft blows of the hammer, Dave made the anvil ring at the Dillon Farm Museum as he tapered, twisted and shaped steel scrap into a beautiful coat hook, the likes of which you would expect to see serving duty in an 18th century New England public house.

"We made most of the hardware for this new shop," says smithy Mike Shade over the din of Dave's steady ringing. "It was a fun challenge, and it really gives the building a nice look." Though Mike's ancestors include a grandfather who was a wheelwright for the Auburn Wagon Co., and an uncle who was a welder, he learned the craft on his own. Like Dave, Mike's blacksmithing skills are broad, but he also specializes. "I really like to make knives, shovels and other tools," Mike says as he gives the forge's recently restored overhead two-chamber bellows several pumps, infusing a piece of steel with a brilliant glow.

At the anvil, Mike's first hammer strikes flatten the blank and a blade begins to take shape. After the next heat, the knife's tang emerges as the blade is refined. And after tossing the steel back into the fire a few more times, the knife is ready for its final shaping, which is accomplished with a few strokes from a file. "Shovels and other tools take a little longer," Mike says with a smile. "I usually spend more time on a knife, too, but we don't have all day here."

The Dillon Farm Museum's blacksmith shop is well equipped and makes a comfortable place to work, with plenty of space for onlookers to gather. And while it's easy to get mesmerized in that dimly lit space filled with the sound, smell and sight of hot metal being wrought, show days at the museum offer plenty of other distractions to draw visitors back outside.

Delightful distractions

The Dillon Farm Museum plays host to a pair of shows each year, in addition to offering a destination for area school children and casual weekend visitors. In the spring, the museum's antique tractor and gas engine show welcomes the season with a gathering that now draws exhibitors from many states and even Canada. This event, held last June 4-5, featured Case tractors and Maytag engines. The museum's Fall Festival was held Oct. 8-9 and featured Ford tractors and Fairbanks-Morse engines in addition to demonstrations.

The Dillon Farm Museum now includes several buildings but is not yet where the board wants it to be. "We'd like to create more of a homestead theme with our facilities," Tim says. A master plan created in 2002 includes a farmhouse, authentic regional barn and milking parlor. Someday, visitors will literally step back in time and experience Apple Pie Ridge's unique and diverse agricultural heritage. The seed L. Norman Dillon planted more than 30 years ago is beginning to bear premium fruit.

Subdivisions, a few farms and even fewer orchards now surround the Dillon Farm Museum. With Hedgesville's proximity to Martinsburg, W.Va., and the commuter rail lines there that lead to Baltimore and Washington, development pressure along Apple Pie Ridge continues to rise. "The orchard to the south of the museum was recently sold for development," Tim says while deftly navigating his pickup on the winding country roads around the museum. "But there are a few farms around that are in the preservation program." Tim, a restoration architect by trade, grew up on a farm just over the hill from where the museum is now situated. Like Dillon, he has a personal stake in the museum's success. "It won't be too many years before the kids that grow up around here won't even have friends on the farm," he says wistfully. "We have to keep our agricultural heritage alive."

- For more information:

The L. Norman Dillon Farm Museum, located at the intersection of Route 9 and Ridge Road across from Hedgesville High School, is open Saturday and Sunday afternoons April 1 to Oct. 31, and by appointment. Mailing address: P.O. Box 2731, Martinsburg, WV 25402; (304) 754-3845 (museum board member Chuck Stewart).

Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer and photographer. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu