Sue Bowman Rural Ramblings

We take many little things in life for granted. Locks and their keys are two of them. A recent episode made me more aware of the importance of keys in our daily life.

Dennis and I both have the bad habit of misplacing our keys. That scenario invariably causes a panicked search for the missing item — usually a whole ring of keys that holds ways to start our various vehicles, unlock the only key-operated exterior door to our farmhouse, and even open the gates around our farm. Losing one’s keys is almost as bad as mislaying one’s cellphone.

In preparation for writing this column, I did some online research on the history of keys at According to that website, the first keys originated in ancient Egypt about 4,000 years ago. They were large, cumbersome items made from wood. The Romans improved on keys by making them from metal and, as recently as 1861, Linus Yale Jr. patented improved pin and tumbler locks and the keys to open them.

Of course, there are still combination locks and new electronic locks that can be unlocked remotely using one’s cellphone or computer. Nowadays, some keys don’t even look like the keys of yesteryear. There are card key systems that use a wallet-size card to open a door. There are also key “fobs” — little plastic tabs with a computer chip inside them that can be scanned to open a compatible door; their biggest advantage is that, if lost, they can be deprogrammed so no one else could use the fob if found.

The keys that operate the interior doors at my vintage farmhouse are works of art — relatively large metal keys with a loop on one end and thick teeth of various sizes on the other end. They’re the kind of keys that call to mind jailers of old having a big ring filled with them to open prison cells. Our home has passed through many owners and occupants over the past century or two, so it’s not surprising that many of our door keys have gone missing along the way.

I’ve counted 17 interior doors with keyways in our house, and there are a few more in storage up in the attic. If that sounds like a lot, remember that this is a big old farmhouse and every original interior door — even doors to stairwells and closets — have locks. As for keys, I have a total of three, only one of which I’ve been successful in matching up to a lock.

In the process of renovations several years ago, three new pre-hung doors were installed in our home when one big old room was divided into a bathroom, an office and a closet. These new doors have four panels, just like the original ones, and when painted to match, don’t look noticeably different than their older counterparts. However, as I recently discovered, there is one big difference. They have pushbutton locks, but no keys.

I learned this the hard way. Company was coming, and since my office was in disarray, I decided it would be best to close its door in hopes that no one would look inside on their way to the nearby powder room.

All was well until the visitor left and I tried to enter my office. At first, I thought the door was just stuck, but I soon realized it was locked from the inside. Apparently, I’d unknowingly bumped the doorknob’s button. This sent me into a panic. I type my Rural Ramblings columns on my home office’s computer and submit them to Lancaster Farming electronically. My column was due, but I had no way to access it.

I knew I didn’t have a key to this newer door, because it had no place to insert a key. All I saw at first glance was a solid, shiny doorknob facing me. Dennis was watching television in his man cave below. I didn’t want to disturb him; I also wasn’t eager to confess I’d foolishly locked myself out, so I wanted to try to open the door on my own.

I used a knife blade to try and push the doorknob’s plunger back into the latch. The knife blade was too thick, so I switched to a credit card. That might work on television, but not for me. Then I figured that if I could take out the hinge pins, I could jiggle the door enough to unlock it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even unscrew the hinge pins.

That’s when I did an internet search using my cellphone. It led me to look for a tiny hole in the center of the doorknob and insert a straightened-out paper clip into that hole to release the lock. I tried repeatedly, but had no luck; the paper clip just bent.

I knew it was time to swallow my pride and disturb Dennis. He tried a heavier paper clip, to no avail. Then, just as I was breaking into tears, he appeared with a slender but sturdy metal rod. He inserted it and — voila! — the door unlocked.

What was this key to success? The smooth end of a drill bit.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.