Tahoe man’s collection spans 81 years and almost 350,000 keys
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Harley “Rowdy” Yates can’t quite recall why he started collecting keys 81 years ago. He just did.
Now, three months shy of his 90th birthday, the collection has grown to 349,316 keys, including 405 keys he received Wednesday during his monthly collection rounds though South Lake Tahoe. By the time this article is published, the collection will have grown, with additions from lost keys from last year’s skiers at Heavenly Mountain Resort and Sierra-at-Tahoe that he’s scheduled to pick up today.
“It’s exciting stuff,” said Yates, who retired as a security supervisor from Harveys Resort and Casino in 1984 after nearly 20 years. Four days after starting that job, his manager nicknamed him “Rowdy,” after Clint Eastwood’s “Rawhide” character Rowdy Yates.
“Not more than six people knew my name,” Yates said. “Everyone called me Rowdy.”
The sprawling key collection earned Yates a space in the “1986 Guinness Book of World Records.” Ripley’s Believe it or Not! wrote and asked if he would sell his collection to one of their new museums.
“I wrote them a nice letter saying I wasn’t going to sell them,” Yates said. “He didn’t say how much (Ripley’s would pay), but I didn’t care.”
His late wife Jacque didn’t mind the collection of keys that fill a storage shed in the backyard, another along the side yard and a quarter of the garage. Jacque would help him collect keys, but never counted them because she was afraid of losing count.
“We were married 62 years and one-and-a-half months,” he said. “She passed away the 31st of March last year. It gets a little lonesome.”
The key collection keeps him busy for up to eight hours a week, he figures. It takes him about four hours to complete his monthly collection rounds. Then there’s counting, sorting according to type and completing the log that tallies the 81-year-old collection. The keys are finally stored in warehouse store-sized plastic canisters used for selling nuts and jelly beans.
Every spring, he makes the 72-mile drive around the lake, stopping at ski resorts, hotels and property management companies to take home old keys from the lost-and-found. Yates said the resorts have to wait until the snow melts to find all the wayward keys dropped on the ski runs, then hold onto them for one year in case a guest returns. After one year, the keys go to Yates. Usually.
“Somebody at Alpine Meadows threw their darn keys away,” Yates said.
Wednesday’s key collecting mission through town garnered keys from former renters and homeowners at Deb Howard and Co. and Accommodation Station, among others. Others came from Meek’s and Ace Hardware.
“All contributions are welcome,” said Yates, whose collection includes hotel keys (including one featuring Barry Manilow from the Las Vegas Hilton), car keys, jewelry box keys, even keys from a Mexican jail.
His most prized key came from Dean Shelton, the city’s former chief of police.
“He says, ‘Come here, Rowdy. Here’s a key to the first jail of the city of South Lake Tahoe,'” Yates said.
Another favorite is from a fellow World War II veteran, Henry Pond, who tracked down Yates 42 years after the men left the Air Force, then called the Army Air Corps. Pond gave him a lock and key from his workshop that was from Pond’s 37-year career with the Alabama Power Company.
Although Yates isn’t interested in selling his collection, he will give some away. A neighbor had a cabinet that was missing the key and asked if Yates could help. Yates took home the entire lock and matched it up with keys from the Eagle Lock Company. He found four keys that opened the lock.
“I gave him two and kept two because he’s going to lose his,” Yates said with a laugh. “I don’t mind giving keys away if they’re going to help someone else.”
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