Illinois Man's Collection Captures the Essence of Farm Heritage

Ronn Dillavou's collection of "junk" is anything but. The items covering the walls and filling the shelves and cabinets of his corncrib tell stories of our farming heritage.

Ronn Dillavou's restoration workshop

Hay carriers, lanterns, scales, tools, toys, memorabilia, signs and more, surround a small workshop where Ronn does some of his restoration work.

Photo by Leslie McManus

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Ronn Dillavou has no illusions about his collection of antique farm relics. Covering the walls, floor and ceiling of a restored corncrib on his Aledo, Illinois, farm, the treasures speak more of a deep affection for the past than they do of great rarity or monetary value. But to a collector, in some ways, they’re priceless.

“If you take down all this stuff and put it in a pile,” he says, surveying the corncrib’s interior draped with antiques, “it’s a pile of junk. When you hang it up, people think it’s neat. There are a lot of common things in here but they add character.”

The collectibles – locks and keys, corn shellers and planters, signs, cans, barn tools and implements – give a glimpse into a way of life long since past. The collection spans some 70 years, roughly from the 1880s to the 1950s. “I love the stuff that people don’t see every day,” Ronn admits. “That’s what I watch for, but the supply is starting to dry up. And I like things that tell a story, like this old chopping block. We all grew up killing chickens; what happened to all that stuff?”

Unlocking a hobby

Ronn’s collection can be traced to a simple key – or more accurately, hundreds of keys. “I started collecting keys when I was in junior high,” he says. “I had a huge bucket of common keys. I was always fascinated by the fact that they locked up stuff.”

In 1967, he took a correspondence course from the Locksmith Institute of Little Falls, New Jersey. “I even learned how to pick locks,” he admits with a grin. “I used to say, ‘nothing stays locked if no one’s around.’”

Later he’d tackle a major challenge: building a complete master set of Ford Model T ignition keys, plus another 25 in a numbered sequence. The keys cost little more than pocket change, Ronn says. The trick is in gathering a series of them. “I had a lot of fun doing it,” he says. “What a feeling it was to complete that set!”

Over the years, he’s collected everything from lightning rods to corn relics. His collection today includes pedal-operated implements, calf weaners, green bean slicer, raisin seeder, grain probes, ice harvest tools, signs and much, much more. Visitors view the collection, shake their heads and invariably ask, “How do you find this stuff?” Ronn’s answer is deceptively simple. “I look for it,” he says.

Building connections

When he’s on the prowl, Ronn hits all the regular haunts: garage sales, auctions and swap meets. “Antique malls are okay,” he says, “but be prepared to pay more.” But like any seasoned collector, he has other sources as well.

A local men’s social club, the Fall Creek Rangers, meets twice a month in his corncrib. “It started in the 1950s as a gun club,” he says. “They set dues at 50 cents a year when they started and that hasn’t changed. The dues today are still 50 cents.” Each meeting includes an auction featuring items brought by club members. “That’s one way I pick up things,” Ronn says.

When people know you’re a collector, treasures come out of nowhere. “A lot of these things were given to me,” Ronn says. He also enjoys buying the occasional unknown item. “Then you have to solve the mystery,” he says, “but that’s part of the fun.” He confesses to a special fondness for the unusual. “Like the tool they used to put buttons on those old high button shoes,” he says, “or the rim driver they used to put rims on barrels or a lead pipe stretcher.”

He’s not afraid to buy a piece in bad condition; repair and restoration is part of the fun for Ronn. And more is almost always better. His collection, for instance, includes some three dozen soldering irons. “My dad had a box of old soldering irons,” he recalls. “When he had his sale, he sold them. Later he regretted that. He didn’t know I bought them! If you see one or two of these in a collection, it doesn’t really mean much. But when you see variety like this, it’s really interesting.”

Providing the proper context

Eager for others to appreciate relics from the past, Ronn gives particular attention to the ways in which he displays pieces from his collection, whether it’s in his corncrib or at a show. “I want to help people understand how these things were used,” he says, “and that’s easier when they can see how they worked.” A corn sheller manufactured by Keystone Mfg. Co., Rock Falls, Illinois, is a good example. Restored by Ronn’s father (since deceased), the piece dates to the 1870s. “Dad built a new oak frame for it and pinned and pegged it like the original,” Ronn says. Then Ronn suggested he put plexiglass on the sides instead of wood. “We all know what a sheller does,” he says, “but it’s neat to see how it works.” He demonstrates the sheller, a corn grinder and a bone grinder at an antique tractor show or two every year.

Work and hobby overlap

A district sales manager for Moews Seed Co., Ronn has a natural preference for corn collectibles. Over the years, he’s had a lot of corn-related signs. “They were a way of advertising in a very visible, very colorful manner before TV,” he says. Metal signs for seed corn dealers can be hard to find and costly, he says; field signs might be a better fit for the new collector. “But you’ve got to keep field signs inside,” he says. “If you have an old shed, they’re perfect.”

Collectors might focus on a specific brand and hunt for variations, look for signs from companies no longer in business or build an inexpensive collection of common signs from companies that are still in business. “You just need to know your budget and don’t buy something just because it’s there,” he says, “especially if it’s over-priced. You’re not going to own them all anyway; collect smart.”

He also has some unusual hand corn planters (or jobbers). One features a fertilizer compartment apparently designed for use with sheep manure; small, round openings would release manure with the seed. Another has a compartment for pumpkin seeds. “They used to plant pumpkins at the end of the rows,” he says. A 2-row hand planter nearly 100 years old would nearly halve the time it took to plant corn.

Local favorites

Ronn has a passion for pieces of local significance, including local advertising items. “I have a lot of competition there,” he admits. Calendars, ashtrays, matchbooks or any old item representing a local business are among his favorites, many of which he shares with a local historical museum.

An 1886 pocket ledger from nearby Monmouth, Illinois, is a very good example of a piece with local interest. Published for Weir Plow Co., Monmouth, the booklet is printed entirely in German, presumably for distribution to German emigrant farmers. He’s also gathered a few hay carriers salvaged from local barns.

Ronn defines his collection as “very fluid.” Pieces come; pieces go. “I’ve bought things I thought were neat or unusual,” he admits wryly, “gotten home and found the same thing already hanging on the wall. I don’t have a lot of money wrapped up in this stuff, but I have as much fun as anybody.” FC

For more information:

— Contact Ronn Dillavou at ronndvou@hotmail.com.


Leslie McManus, editor of Farm Collector, has a few collectibles herself. Among her favorites: a 100-year-old typewriter, a Planet Jr. wrench and a handmade model of an Aultman-Taylor steam engine. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.