There are two types of collectors, says Dennis Rehn. “One doesn’t want you to know what he has,” he says, “and the other one can’t wait to tell you about the new thing he found.”
Dennis, who lives near Kirkland, Illinois, puts himself firmly in the second camp. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than talking about this stuff,” he says.
“This stuff” is Dennis’ description of a collection that takes in everything from corn collectibles to wagons to signs to hog ringers. And it all started with higher education. Dennis has been an active collector for 20 years, dating to the time his kids left home for college.
“Our daughters went to college in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and Jacksonville, Illinois,” he explains. “We wouldn’t let them have cars on campus until after their first two years, so we made a lot of trips to pick them up and bring them home. At some point, I figured if I was going to make those trips, I’d take a day for me and hit the antique shops along the way.”
It started innocently enough. “Twenty years ago, money was short, but seed corn bags sold for $5 or $10 each,” he says. “I could pick up a bag and be happy.” Seven hundred bags later, he has a good representation of the galaxy. “I don’t have many duplicates,” he admits.
The bags paved the way to a major category in what would become an all-encompassing passion for corn collectibles. Corn planters, shellers, seed corn dryers, germination trays, a smut destroyer, signs and more dominate the collection.
Hand-held shellers are Dennis’ favorites. His collection includes a Hero No. 18 manufactured by Dellinger Mfg. Co., Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a Mountville two-hole sheller, also from Lancaster. A rare Eagle hand sheller is compact enough to fit in a pocket. “That Hero sheller, the mechanization and balance in that are amazing,” he says. “But everything in here, when it was made, it was going to better than anything they had before.”
As he became an active member of the Corn Items Collectors Assn., Dennis began hosting meetings in his shop-now-museum. “I even built a room designed to look like an old corn crib for all the corn items,” he says. “I thought it would be the answer to all my space problems.”
Then came the offer he couldn’t turn down: barn siding to cover an interior wall of his shop. “We took 250 signs off the wall so we could put up the siding,” Dennis says. Among them: a rare Funk’s sign dating to 1941, celebrating the hybrid seed producer’s 25th anniversary.
Based in Bloomington, Illinois, Funk’s is an important name among collectors of corn items. The DeKalb company – located practically in Dennis’ backyard – is another, as is the Eckhardt Seed House named for William G. Eckhardt, a pioneer in DeKalb County’s leading role in agricultural innovation. “There’s just such rich history of agriculture in this area,” Dennis says.
And Dennis has been fortunate to scoop up stray bits of it… like the 16-foot AgriGold seed corn salesman that routinely causes visitors’ mouths to drop open as they enter the shop. Towering over the collection like a benevolent giant, the sign acts as a sort of North Star, helping visitors get their bearings as they roam through the collection.
Joining pieces like a hand-crank Champion horse-hair picker (horse hair was once used as a mattress stuffing, and during World War II, German soldiers in American prisoner of war camps used a device like this locally to strip hemp), an “Expert Smut Destroyer” and a collapsible voting booth, the AgriGold sign was clearly destined to join the collection as soon as Dennis set eyes on it. “If I haven’t seen one like it before,” he admits, “it’s probably coming home with me.”
Pieces of local history are at the heart of Dennis’ collection. A wagon with original pinstriping is a good example. The triple-box wagon was probably used as a delivery wagon in Irene, Illinois, not far from Dennis’ hometown of Kirkland. “My dad called it a road wagon because of its high, thin wheels,” Dennis says. “I just can’t imagine going on those old roads in a wagon with those high wheels pulled by two or four horses,” Dennis says.
When he saw an ornate whip holder (which was manufactured in Galva, Illinois), Dennis knew he had to have it. “It took me right back to the Chicago International Livestock Show tack rooms,” he says. “All the things I saw there were just amazing to a kid with patches on his blue jeans.”
His “local” collection also includes a cook stove mover produced by Arcade Mfg. Co., Freeport, Illinois; a commercial seed corn dryer that he uses as a display rack; an O.K. butter worker that once belonged to the William Kirk family (Kirkland’s namesake); an International Harvester germination tray; and a hand-cranked postmark machine from a local post office.
Dennis is no fan of horses (“I don’t like horses even little bit,” he readily admits) but he’s kept his granddad’s horse collar and displays it on an antique harness holder “that tripped my trigger.” It’s all part of a collection that honors the history of Dennis’ farm.
As his collection expanded, Dennis sought advice from the local historical society. People there suggested that he arrange the collection by category, which he did: Automotive, dairy, poultry, seed bags, general store, cobbler, toys, pedal tractors, signs, primitives, seed corn, shellers, corn crib, planters, markers and graders.
Even then, some pieces just have to find their own way. Baggers and sack holders; a blacksmith’s forge with an anvil, vise and drill press all in one; a unique level used by railroad engineers to set the pitch of curves; hog ringers that used horseshoe nails – every bit of it and more has found a home in Dennis’ museum, and there it will stay.
“I’m not going to let any of it go,” he says. “This is my family’s heritage, and someday it will be their inheritance.” FC
For more information: Dennis Rehn, P.O. Box 567, Kirkland, IL 60146; phone (815) 751-4122. Visitors are welcome, but should call in advance – and Dennis would like it known that he does not text!