If Harley Yates’ friends and neighbors in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (pop. 23,609), ever lose a key to a file cabinet or a Model T Ford, he’s got a replacement. Since Yates took a shine to keys 81 years ago, he’s accumulated more than 350,000 of them.
“I collect all kinds of keys, anything that goes into a lock except a paper clip or a bobby pin,” says Yates, 90, as he fishes a key from his pocket and unlocks a backyard tool shed packed with part of his colossal collection.
Since 1929, Yates has amassed more than 6 tons of keys for boats, cars, clocks, diaries, handcuffs, hotels, jail cells, jewelry boxes, lawnmowers, motorcycles, padlocks, safes, skates, suitcases, tractors, vending machines and anything else that can be turned on or locked up.
Stored in hundreds of plastic canisters, the bulk of Yates’ keys were designed to open doors or to start automobiles, though his collection includes keys of various ages, sizes, shapes and materials. His oldest is a large, rusty skeleton-style key to the front door of the 1829 Hacienda Carlos Morales in Paso Robles, Calif. (pop. 24,297), and his newest are 784 plastic hotel key cards.
Among his favorites are a rare barrel-shaped Nix-Pix key for a 1930s vending machine and three 5-inch-long cast-iron keys used to hold prisoners in a Mexican jail. One of Yates’ keys, which previously opened a door at the Ashland (N.C.) Hotel, is stamped: “Drop in any post office box and 2-cent postage will be paid.”
“I fiddle with them every day,” says Yates, who began saving keys as a boy and stringing them on a wire coat hanger. By the time he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, Yates’ heavy-metal necklace jangled with 150 keys and he asked his mother to keep them safe until he returned.
Once a month, Yates visits local banks, casinos, hardware stores, locksmiths, property rental agencies and restaurants to pick up discarded and forgotten keys that are saved for him. In the summer, he visits area ski resorts to collect keys that reveal themselves after the snow melts.
When contacting new businesses, Yates often shows them a copy of the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records with its reference to his world-record collection—a mere 34,556 keys at the time.
“I’ll say, ‘I save keys’ and show them the book,” says Yates, who retired in 1984 as security supervisor at Harveys Lake Tahoe resort casino in Stateline, Nev. (pop. 1,215). “Some people say, ‘I throw keys away’ and I say, ‘Why not throw them my way?’”
His monthly rounds typically add 400 to 500 keys to his collection. Out-of-town friends and family members mail him keys, and some folks deliver them to his doorstep.
Sam Chapple, 39, owner of Best Locksmith of Tahoe, stopped by Yates’ home in June to drop off a small box overflowing with keys. “Some locksmiths recycle their keys,” Chapple says, “but I just give mine to Harley. He’s got everything—Jaguar, Ford, Bronco keys. It’s impressive.”
Whenever Yates accumulates a pile of keys, he cleans, counts and records them on a yellow legal tablet. With thumbs whose nails are grooved from prying open key rings, Yates flips through 27 pages filled with the names of 1,119 key manufacturing companies represented in his collection, along with the number of keys he owns from each.
“I don’t sell keys, but I give away keys if somebody needs them to open something,” Yates says.
When his neighbors, Mike and Jean Turle, inherited an antique gun cabinet several years ago, they needed a key and on a whim asked Yates if he might have one among his massive collection. Once Yates determined that the cabinet had an Eagle lock, he searched his pile of Eagle keys.
“Lo and behold, Harley gave us four keys to try and one worked really well,” says Jean, 72. “We were really surprised.”
Actually, says Yates, he has two more keys that fit the Turles’ cabinet.
“I kept those two keys in case they lose theirs,” he says.