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.

| March 2015

  • 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
  • Sickle bar blade sharpener
    Typical of Ronn's approach to display, this sickle bar blade sharpener is mounted on a section of a wheel from a horse-drawn mower, showing how the blade could be sharpened in the field.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Davis seed corn sign
    A sign for Davis Hybrid Seed Corn, St. Peter, MN. "That cardboard sign, to me, is more rare than a metal sign because it's more fragile," Ronn says.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Planter rope carrier
    An early planter rope carrier, complete with a section of rope.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Brick carrier
    This carrier made the bricklayer's work easier.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Wire doormat with marbles
    Clay marbles pressed into openings on this wire doormat freeze a moment in time — but the date's significance is lost to history. No matter: May 19 happens to be Ronn's birthday, so this piece was a perfect fit for his collection.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Corn storage implement
    Driven by foot pressure, this ingenious device weaves string around ears of seed corn for convenient storage.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Adjustable-height rafter drill
    When electrification came to the farm, barns made the leap into a new era. But installation of knob and tube wiring was no picnic. Ever wonder how those small holes were drilled into the rafters? This adjustable-height device, built in Springfield, OH, made a challenging job a bit easier.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Corn sheller demonstration
    Clear sides on Ronn's Keystone sheller allow full view of the interior while the unit is at work. "It's neat to see how it works," he says.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Key collection
    A set of keys from Ronn's collection, including a set of railroad keys on a brass ring.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Wire roller
    Likely used in a hardware store, this device was used to create rolls of planter wire or barbed wire. When the spool is removed, the arms collapse and the roll of wire is easily removed.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • German pocket ledger
    Rare on two counts: This 1886 pocket ledger is both very old and printed entirely in German.
    Photo by Leslie McManus
  • Field signs
    Field signs are easily collected today and add a bright touch to a shed wall.
    Photo by Leslie McManus

  • Ronn Dillavou's restoration workshop
  • Sickle bar blade sharpener
  • Davis seed corn sign
  • Planter rope carrier
  • Brick carrier
  • Wire doormat with marbles
  • Corn storage implement
  • Adjustable-height rafter drill
  • Corn sheller demonstration
  • Key collection
  • Wire roller
  • German pocket ledger
  • Field signs

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!”