“Sometimes I’ll just come down here and not even turn the radio on. I’ll just listen to the clocks ticking and the fire crackling while I read the newspaper. If I see somebody stop down here to make themself at home, I won’t bother them. I’ve seen three and four carloads of people pull up and be afraid of what I’ll be missing when they leave, but nobody has ever taken anything,” said Ralph Dill, who built his own general store down the hill from his house after his collection of various pieces of yesterday got to be too much for his attic and outbuilding were slam packed.
In the six years since Dill built it, the general store has come to mirror something seen in a sepia photograph from the early 1900s. Some of the treasures inside mock the same time frame and hold a conversation about Monroe County history.
On one wall hangs an original poster from the 1956 concert featuring Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins at Amory’s National Guard Armory when Perkins stole the show with his hit, “Blue Suede Shoes,” a crossover hit that landed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in R&B, country and popular music charts that same year.
Across the way behind a countertop hang tags from Parham Gin Company and items from such businesses long gone like FS Reeves Lumber Company and Phelan Parrish Livestock Auction. Meshed in with other tidbits hangs a spoon that Bill himself used to spread mustard on hamburgers at Bill’s Hamburgers.
“I remember being 20 when he gave it to me. He told me business had been slow so he started putting onions on the burgers and the smell would bring people passing by right on in to buy hamburgers,” Dill said.
Dill really can’t say what the newest or oldest item on display is, but between rusty sheep shears and camouflage World War I attire to a tin “Dukes of Hazzard” lunch pail to a bow and arrow used as a prop in the “Last of the Mohicans,” the 20th century is well-represented.
Much like many of the 51 state license plates nailed to the side of the building, many of the items in Dill’s collection come from flea markets, yard sales and antique malls locally and through his and his wife, Rebecca’s, travels.
“I like collecting things people can relate to especially if it’s something from my childhood. Looking for things makes trips more interesting. An antique is only worth as much as people want to pay for it,” Dill said.
Sometimes Dill goes in with something particular in mind and sometimes he frequents the stores just to see what he can find.
“One time I was asking a lady at one of the stores how much she would sell a couple of cans of Billy Beer for and she grabbed a plastic bag and filled it up with all of them she had and said, ‘Fifty cents for all of it … yonder comes my pastor,’” Dill said.
From frequenting the tables and shelves of the stores and sales, Dill learned a cardinal rule in price negotiation.
“Usually antique malls stick with the price posted on the item, but at some of the other places, you can sometimes talk people down on the price. If you act too excited about something you like, they’re going to hold you to that price, but if you act casual about it, you can sometimes talk them down,” Dill said.
After friends and strangers stop by for a glimpse into Dill’s living history of Monroe County and beyond, some can’t help but return with old items of their own to donate to the cause. None of the items in Dill’s general store are for sale.
When building the general store, Dill didn’t have to resort to blueprints or Google searches; his inner-carpenter came out. Items aren’t the only thing he collects on trips; Dill also remembers sights to reproduce when he returns home.
A water wheel powered by hydroelectricity from a pump pulling water from the creek makes the gears turn on a wooden figure of a man sawing wood on the outside of the store. The scenes on the outside are just as interesting as the inside. A Volkswagen Bug, a whiskey still and an outhouse encompass the bare ground around the store.
Next on tap, Dill plans on adding on to the shed to make room for more collectibles and set up an anvil and an operational forge for his grandchildren to see firsthand how metal twists and can be turned into art. He also plans to add to a small collection of mule-drawn farming equipment just across the creek.