In 1977, Dell Conner was working on building a house in Gainesville when he noticed something in the ditch across the road. Upon closer investigation, Conner figured out that it was an old Coca-Cola sign, once used as a sled by the neighboring children and abandoned in the ditch for several years.
Conner asked the neighbor, who told him that if he wanted it he should take it. So Conner threw the sign in the bed of his truck, took it home and fixed it up, and so began his decades-long hobby of finding treasures in the trash.
“I went over and I had to dig it out cause it had silted up, and I went home and washed it off, shined it up real good and repainted it,” Conner said. “I’ve framed houses in like 37 different counties in the state, and after that, if I was down some pig trail anytime and I would see an old barn or something I’d go next door and tap on the door and ask if they wanted to sell it; about 50 percent of the time they’d sell and that’s how I acquired a lot of this stuff.”
Conner started collecting specifically with Coke memorabilia, from old signs to vending machines to buttons. His Coke collection grew and grew before he started adding different types of items to his collection.
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“I made an oath to myself that every day, whatever county I was in, I was gonna acquire at least one piece of Coca-Cola memorabilia,” Conner said. “It really mounded up over time; at one time I had probably around 10,000 pieces of Coca-Cola memorabilia, including 35 Coca-Cola machines and about 66 Coca-Cola buttons.”
Conner’s collection grew, and as he added more pieces to his collection he’d put it into his storage shed off of Highway 53 in Dawson County. Conner said he never thought about selling anything until the recession hit in 2008.
“I just collected and collected and never sold a thing,” Conner said. “Fast forward to 2008 when everything went haywire with the building and all, and I thought ‘you know what, I need to start getting rid of some of this stuff’, so I started hanging some pieces out here and it’s been kinda crazy how much I’ve sold.”
Conner turned his storage shed into his own store, selling the antique items he’d collected over time as well as his own handmade folk art.
“I sell the most coke machines, signs, old tools and then my folk art,” Conner said. “I draw out stuff on metal, cut it out and then paint them, and I’ll glue stakes to them and people put them out in their yards.”
Conner’s folk art includes metal cutouts of guinea fowl, bears, roosters and more. He also paints and sells canvases, inspired by Bob Ross, who Conner used to love watching as a kid. Conner said that he’s always loved art, drawing and painting, and that making money selling his creations is a huge blessing for him.
“I’ve always liked to doodle and everything and the folk art has done pretty good; I’ve actually sold over 500 pieces,” Conner said. “What’s funny is I’ll ride around or something and see my stuff in people’s yards which kinda tickles me. I keep track of my folk art — I don’t keep track of the stuff I’ve bought in the past, but anything that I’ve made I write that down.”
Conner was born and raised in Gainesville, and he’s lived in Dawson County since marrying his wife, Dawson County native and past homecoming queen Kay Long, in March of 1985. Conner said that he first met his wife when he was working in construction and she was working at Home Federal Savings and Loan, where he used to take his customers for financing on the homes they bought from him.
“The very first day that we met, I was covered in paint but I had a closing and I didn’t have a chance to get home and take a shower,” Conner said. “So I just went straight on to Home Federal and of course she was decked out to the nines and came walking out with her friend and I was so embarrassed.”
But Conner ended up marrying her, and the couple moved into a house in Dawson County. Conner said that he’s loved living in Dawson and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“Dawson is great,” Conner said. “I wouldn’t move away from here for anything.”
In addition to running his antique store in Dawson, Conner has found success in the music industry and has had the chance to be on television on several occasions.
“I’ve been in the music business and had success with a couple of my songs, like ‘Afghan Blues’ and ‘Running Shine Down Highway Nine’,” Conner said. “Roger Daltrey from The Who actually saw my video for ‘Running Shine’ playing at the Racing Hall of Fame and wanted to spotlight it for his show ‘Extreme History with Roger Daltrey’, so I was on that with him.”
Conner’s antique business has also been spotlighted on TV on the show “American Pickers” when he was picked as one of the very first businesses to be interviewed back when the show started in 2007.
“Right when the show first started in 2009, Linda Williams who used to be the president of the Chamber of Commerce left a hand-written note in my mailbox and said ‘there’s this show starting called American Pickers and would you like to participate,’” Conner said. “So my interview was set up like two months in advance and I got in on the ground floor before they even had the first show.”
The film crew was with Conner for an entire day, and his show ran soon after. But more recently, Conner’s business was unexpectedly featured again when he received a call from one of the officials from the show.
“They called me about 6 months ago and said ‘we had so much footage left over we’re thinking about creating another show with all the footage’,” Conner said.”It played that Monday and then the next Monday too.”
Conner said that being featured on American Pickers has helped his business a lot, both back when the show first aired and when it re-aired more recently.
“It’s just amazing how it picks my business up,” Conner said. “I wish they ran it every month or every two or three months, cause it just makes it go gangbusters.”
Conner said that he’s encouraged by how many other antique stores are coming to Dawson County.
“I’m just really glad that I feel like on the square all these other antique stores are coming up; I really think that’s the start of a revival that’s generated some activity,” Conner said. “I’ve had some of those stores up there send me business and I try to send them business — I think it’s good for everybody to help one another; everybody is just trying to survive.”
For someone just starting into gathering their own collection of antiques or other memorabilia, Conner said that his best piece of advice would be not to get too set on one specific type of item.
“A word to the wise for any young person that’s gonna start out collecting is don’t pigeonhole yourself,” Conner said. “I pigeonholed myself cause I wouldn’t buy anything at first unless it was Coca-Cola and missed out on all the other stuff like Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper and even Amico, Gulf, or Shell signs until I finally saw the light and started diversifying my collection.”
And as for Conner, he doesn’t plan on quitting the antique and folk art business anytime soon.
“I’m not planning on stopping anytime soon, not unless I stop breathing,” Conner said. “I love it.”
To visit Dell Conner and support his antique and folk art business, you can go to the Dell Connor Construction building on Highway 53.