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Today is November 21, 2017

Signs of the Times

By Debbie Stringer

Signs of the Times

Southern Pine Electric Power Association members Ronnie and Dianne Sanford built a backyard village to house their collection of antiques and memorabilia.

It takes a village to house the eclectic collections of Ronnie and Dianne Sanford—a village the couple built themselves.

The Sanfords are avid collectors of memorabilia, artifacts, ephemera and signs, mostly from original sources in Mississippi. Starting with a small backyard cabin they erected some 30 years ago, their Sanford Village has grown to include 15 wood structures, each one housing items arranged by theme.

There’s an early-1900s Pure Oil gas station, a one-chair barbershop sharing space with a rural post office, a church with seating for 60, a 1950s-style diner and a tree house for grown-ups, among others.

All but two of the buildings are recreations: The kitchen outbuilding was moved from an 1890s home site not far from the Sanfords’ own home in Covington County. And the building they call Miss Gracie’s Store is actually an old rural house they disassembled and moved to the site.

The Sanfords built the remaining structures with wood they salvaged from old barns and other empty structures.

Each building is a mini museum packed with the result of decades spent bringing home “other people’s trash,” as Ronnie likes to joke.

Inside are vintage pedal cars and restored gas pumps, corn shuck brooms and electric butter churns, road signs and Coca-Cola memorabilia spanning decades.

The gas station features two vintage gasoline pumps: a 1938 Pure model and a 1920s gravity-feed pump, its clear cylinder topped by a globe light.

“People like to pull up here to the Pure pump with their cars, stick that nozzle in and take a picture,” Ronnie said.

Old metal advertising signs cover walls throughout the village. Bold and colorful, they tout brands of motor oil, gasoline, batteries, soft drinks, bread, tobacco, agricultural products, tonics and tires.

Pure, Texaco, Coca-Cola and Sinclair roadside signs hang over the gravel drive linking the buildings.

For visitors of a certain age, the scene conjures memories of simpler, long-ago times in rural Mississippi.

“Anything old from the South, people around here freak out over,” Ronnie said.

He and Dianne, members of Southern Pine Electric, built the village to preserve and display their growing collections, never intending to create a tourist attraction. Visitors are allowed, but by appointment only.

“It’s to the point where we can’t keep it a secret any longer,” Dianne said.

Ronnie was a boy growing up in the 60s and 70s when he pulled his first “piece of history” from a dump: a small, rusty “It’s the Real Thing” Coca-Cola sign.

His collecting kicked into high gear in the mid-1980s, shortly after his marriage to Dianne, his partner in collecting and village building. “We never had any children, so this became our hobby. We just invested all our time and efforts into it, but we didn’t intend for it to turn out like this,” Dianne said with a laugh.

The Sanfords have scoured attics, sheds, tumbledown barns and closed country stores, always with the owner’s permission (or by invitation).

They’ve shooed away rats and dodged snakes and trudged into woods. They’ve cruised the back roads, slamming on brakes when an old store pops into view.

“We really have to work hard to get what we’ve got,” Dianne said. “We very seldom buy anything from an antiques shop. We had rather dig out our stuff.”

Ronnie pulled two 1957 Texaco gasoline pumps, covered in rust and inhabited by snakes, from a wooded area near Mt. Olive. After a lot of sandblasting, priming and painting, he brought them back to a like-new appearance.

Trash dumps can yield treasures too. The Sanfords rescued an old wooden pulpit discarded by a church and a 1946 Bible being tossed in a dump. “Why people would throw things like that away is beyond me,” Dianne said.

The popularity of the TV reality show “American Pickers” seems to have made productive picking increasingly difficult, the Sanfords say. A few years ago, the show’s producer asked to shoot an episode at their village, but the Sanfords politely refused; their collectibles are not for sale.

The couple’s steadfast refusal to sell has helped grow the collection in an unexpected way, through donations and referrals from individuals who get what they’re doing. “People find out what we do here, and that we don’t sell or give away things. So occasionally we’ll have someone to donate something because they would love for it to be displayed,” Dianne said.

Reactions from visitors range from awe to joy to tears as they explore the village. The displays seem to reconnect many with personal memories of childhood, wartime or family life.

“It’s so much work to keep something like this up,” Dianne said. “And sometimes I wonder why we do all this. Then we’ll have visitors, especially older people, that just enjoy it so much, and I’ll say, that is why we do this. That is the reward right there.”

Despite decades of collecting, a few things remain on the Sanfords’ wish list. Dianne hopes to find a Mobil Oil Flying Red Horse (Pegasus) sign, the version without text, and an old farm wagon with wooden wheels.

“I’m looking for a Coca-Cola policeman too,” Ronnie said, referring to the die-cut “slow school zone” sign from the 1950s.

Yet the couple always keep an open mind when considering items to buy.

Ronnie sees no end to the hobby he has enjoyed since childhood. “I will quit when they lay me down,” he quipped.

Sanford Village is open to visitors by appointment only. Call Ronnie and Dianne Sanford at 601-722-4123.

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