A lot of people don’t get the point of Roy Kohl’s obsession. After all, he collects pencils—plain, mundane, use-’em-and-lose-’em pencils. A retired grain farmer, now 82, Kohl squirreled away his first pencil at age 10 and has since amassed 25,000 of the damn things, plus close to 13,000 ballpoint pens. You can count them—they’re lining the walls and ceiling of his basement rec room in Lidgerwood, N.Dak., comprising what is surely one of the strangest collections in written history.
Born and raised near Claire City, S.Dak., Kohl received his first pencil—a reddish wood and graphite number, adorned with green Christmas wreaths—from a local butcher in 1915. The moment would have been long erased from the memory of the average person, but Kohl knew he’d found something to write home about. “I wasn’t interested in baseball cards and I wanted to be different,” he says. “Collecting pencils was like a fever.”
The fever raged. Kohl gathered pencils from around the world, pencils shaped like guitars, pistols and alligators and one that holds aspirin tablets. Still, that first pencil is his favorite. Marriage in 1938 to Ruth Krause, who died six years ago, did nothing to cramp his stylus passion. He continued filling cigar boxes and dresser drawers with his collection, cataloging it in what now amounts to nine loose-leaf notebooks, ensuring that no duplicates slipped in. In 1976, when he and Ruth moved from their farm near Claire City to Lidgerwood, Roy decided to get the lead out and put it on display in his 12-foot by 62-foot rec room. The result is now a small-town attraction. “I even had one couple from as far away as Indiana,” Roy says proudly.
While the collection isn’t worth a fortune—it’s insured for $16,000—it comes in handy for Kohl’s family. Finding a gift for him, says his daughter, Shirley Orthun of Minneapolis, is no Bic deal. “I give him pencils.”