Back September 10, 2020
Travel Blog

Untouched by Time | The Dillon Home

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A pre-Civil War era home of historical significance in Sterling 

The home was originally built in 1858 for Civil War Brigadier General, Edward Needles Kirk. The Kirks had plans to raise a large family in the home, but when Edward died from a wound sustained at the Battle of Stone’s River, his wife Eliza returned to Pennsylvania.

After going through several owners, the home was purchased in 1882 by Washington Dillon. The Dillons were the owners and founders of Northwestern Steel & Wire in Sterling, a company that produced barbed wire, bale ties, drawn wire, and nails. 

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The home is a work of Italianate architecture and European furnishings

Built in 1858, this Italianate Architecture-style home has gone through a few changes and several owners, but is still filled with original treasures that are virtually untouched by time. When it comes to local history, this is a must-see. The exterior of the home is impressive with large windows and fenced grounds. The inside of the home is remarkable. The Dillons were avid collectors of beautiful and eclectic pieces from around the world including chandeliers, furniture, and art. The home retains all of the original belongings and furnishings of the family. It was given to the Sterling Park District after P.W.’s passing in 1980.

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The home is full of unique treasures imported from around the world.  Some of the pieces found throughout the home include light fixtures that date back to the 1920s, a grandfather clock in the sitting room dates to 1730, a Baccarat Crystal Chandelier that came out of a castle in Europe, and eccentric wallpaper from New York. The first thing you see when entering the front doors is the grand suspended staircase. It is the heart of the home. The beautiful solid mahogany banister was likely one of the largest financial investments when building the home. 

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Walking through the home, you can envision what life with the Dillons was like in the 1880s. The original furnishings are still in the same place they were arranged, untouched by time. The entire home is decorated in wallpaper, as that was considered a proof of wealth at that time. The formal West Parlor is found as you turn the corner. Filled with Italian silk drapes, feminine furniture, and muted pink accents, this room was Mrs. Dillon’s pride and joy. The oversized, stunning chandelier is marked Baccarat Crystal which came out of a castle in Europe. Both fireplace mantels are carved from Italian marble. Nearly everything in the parlor was imported from France or Europe as Mrs. Dillon loved Paris. 

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The Little Engine that did

In 1936, Washington Dillon’s son, P.W. Dillon installed two electric furnaces and rolling machines in the barbed wire factory in order to make low carbon steel.  The systems and furnaces were successively upgraded in the ensuing years. During World War II, to keep up with escalating demand, two 50-ton electric furnaces were installed. By 1950, 150-ton furnaces were in use. Throughout the years, as production increased, larger furnaces became the norm.

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Northwestern Steel’s steam engines were among the last to operate in the United States. The Dillons used steam locomotives to move scrap metal to the furnaces to transfer hot ingots to the rolling machines, long after the era of steam engines was bygone in the broader culture. The engine, No. 73, outlived many of it’s working companions and now sits on the Dillon property. Built in 1929, No. 73 was one of 1,400 steam engines bought for scrap to feed the furnaces of the steel mill shortly after World War II. Though it was not economical to run the steam locomotive, P.W. was reluctant to give up using them because of his true passion for them.  

No. 73 was lifted via four cranes to its final resting place behind the Dillon Home as a memorial to P.W. Dillon, the man who kept the idea of steam engines alive for more than twenty years. No. 73 was the last working steam locomotive to be used in an industrial application in the United States.

A tourism mecca — both locally and abroad

While Erin Thompson, the curator of the Dillon Home, gave me a tour, I asked about tourists visiting the home and was told, “We get a lot of local/regional people coming through the house. They always remark that they drive by this house every day and decided to stop and check it out. It’s very typical to not notice a tourist attraction if it’s in your own back yard. All of the local folks are so glad they took the tour and tell me how great it is to learn all the history about the steel mill, the Dillon family, and our community. On the other hand, I’ve had people from Germany, France, Mexico, and all over the United States come to visit.”

Trip Advisor has been a great tool in helping promote the home as well. It gives people passing through the area a list of popular attractions – The Dillon Home is ranked #1. The Dillon Home is also the number one attraction for the area on Google.

The Dillon Home typically has a Haunted Train Walk in October and a Christmas Walk the first weekend of December. Due to COVID-19, those events are canceled this year, but hopefully next year they will be back in full swing.

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L-R: 1922. Martin, Crete, daughter Crete, Jane, and P.W. Dillon

Authentic Experience 

As a blogger, I always like to make the blogs personal and learn more about the people behind the business so I always like to ask what it is they want people to know about the business from an insider view and this is how Erin responded:

“It is very special that the home retains all of the original furnishings. Nothing has been approximated or simulated, this is exactly how the Dillon family lived, and so the tour through the home is a completely authentic experience. P.W.’s grandson, Pete Dillon, drops by on occasion and we’ll sit in the kitchen talking for hours. He loves telling me about the steel mill and about his family. I get to then pass these wonderful stories onto our guests, and sharing this history with people means the world to me. I want visitors to the Dillon Home to feel like they are a part of this house and this history.” 

Tours and Information – social distancing required

The Dillon Home is available for weddings and other events. The manicured and spacious grounds, fountains, and two-story enclosed porch is the perfect setting to any occasion. Each tour is limited to six guests to ensure proper social distancing while going through the home. There are only five tours a day. It is recommended to call in advance to book a time. Masks must be worn at all times while inside the home. If you do not have a mask, one will be provided at no cost. 

Guided tours are on the hour during regular business hours, or by private group reservation. 

Contact information

The Dillon Home
1005 East Third Street, Sterling, IL 61081
(The Historical Society is located in the Carriage house)

Erin Thompson, Curator
Phone: (815) 622-6202

Sterling Rock Falls Historical Society: (815) 622-6215
Guided Tours
10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. & 3:00 p.m.
Admission Fees
5 & under: Free
Age 6 through Adult: $5.00
Senior (60+): $4.00

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