Raider of the Lock Ark

Don't try to tell Dixie about the Freudian symbology of a lock and a key. She isn't buying.

Instead, the northern Arizona widow is selling--or at least attempting to sell--her late husband's padlock collection, a lifetime obsession that eventually filled an entire backyard travel trailer with thousands of locks and keys.

"Jim just liked padlocks, that's all," says Dixie, who--for security's sake--requests that her last name not be used. "Any padlock. I think he'd have traded one of his own grandkids for a lock."

On the face of it, Dixie's late husband would appear to have had a lock on locks. He was less a formal collector than an obsessive hoarder, and his trove includes everything from historic U.S. Cavalry and Western Union padlocks to a Mickey Mouse lock produced less than five years ago. While many of his treasures (like a padlock that fit around the spokes of a Ford Model T) date back nearly 100 years, duplicates of other less-remarkable finds can still be readily found at any hardware store.

The collection is currently housed inside a specially built shed outside Dixie's double-wide mobile home in Mayer, an hour north of Phoenix. Peg-board walls are blanketed in security devices, each lock neatly mated to its key. On the floor are boxes filled with hundreds more mismatched locks and keys, mysteries the retired furniture finisher had yet to unlock at the time of his death in late 1994.

"None of these locks had keys when he'd buy them," explains Dixie, who frequently accompanied her husband to estate sales and swap meets. "I think that might have been part of the fascination. He'd buy a lock, then spend years waiting to find the key that fit it. He'd spend hours out here, going through all the old locksmith code books, playing with his locks. I guess it was like a big puzzle to him."

Plagued by health problems that will soon require relocating to Phoenix, Dixie faces a big puzzle herself: What to do with the many-keyed millstone figuratively hanging from her neck?

"I have no idea what all this is worth," says Dixie as she eyeballs the lock-strewn lair. "In fact, I can't even tell you exactly how many locks are out here. I've tried to count them several times, but, for some reason, I can't focus and I always seem to lose track. I do know it's in the thousands, though."

Strangely enough, Dixie may have far less trouble marketing her husband's oddball obsession than most people would ever guess.

"Padlocks, Levi's, whatever--if anything's been manufactured long enough, someone's collecting it," says a Phoenix dealer specializing in vintage collectibles. "These lock guys are really into their locks. It's the same sort of mechanical mindset that you'd see when some people used to be into hi-fi equipment or the way you see computer nerds today."

Other observers agree that there will probably be no shortage of takers--if Dixie's price is right.

"Hell, there are probably thousands of people out there collecting this stuff," claims Phoenix-based lock aficionado Don Stewart. "People like locks because they're pretty and they're attractive."

Former editor of Key Collector Journal, as well as the author/editor of several nationally recognized price guides and newsletters (Padlock Quarterly, Chain Gang), Stewart says failing health prompted him to dispose of his own 7,000-item collection during a lock auction last year. A collector for 45 years, Stewart reports that one of the auction's biggest bids went for an old railroad-switch key that sold for $2,400.

Still, others stress that an extensive lock collection is not necessarily the same as a key to Fort Knox.

"There are a lot of really old locks that aren't worth anything," warns Michigan patent attorney and padlock enthusiast Charles Chandler, head of the 300-member American Lock Collectors Association. "Some of those old companies turned out zillions of locks." Still, says Chandler, "there are some locks that are very rare. It really depends on what she's got."

According to experts, Dixie's best bet will be to catalogue her husband's collection, preferably on videotape, prior to contacting a dealer or collector.

"I really don't know where to begin," responds Dixie. "I've collected a lot of crap myself"--carnival glass, Blakely tumblers, old Clorox bottles--"but nothing like this. I just want to get a fair price--whatever that is."

One thing that definitely won't go up on the auction block is a wind chime made out of old car keys, a gag gift that now hangs inside Dixie's mobile home.

"My daughter hung that out on the porch over his chair for a surprise," Dixie says with a smile. "Well, Jim went racing out there with his oxygen tank and his walker and took it down immediately. 'You're not leaving this out here! Someone will steal my keys!'" Dixie says, laughing. "That's how bad he was.

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Dewey Webb