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In this episode, Dan Holohan ponders the things we collect and the intriguing stories behind them.


Episode Transcript

When I knocked on the doctor’s front door, a dog on the other side went nuts. And this being my one and only visit to the doctor’s house, I took a healthy step back.

A full minute later, the door opened and I met both the good doctor and his snarling pooch.

“Hello, Joe,” the doctor said.

“Hello,” I said. “And it’s Dan.”

He was holding the black dog by its collar and telling him that Joe was okay and that he should be quiet. So I decided to be Joe. What the heck.

“We used to have a cocker spaniel,” I said.

“Oh, this is not a cocker spaniel,” he said. “This is a field spaniel. They’re a very friendly breed.” The dog growled and barked. I held out my hand. He barked again. The doctor dragged him into the kitchen and shoved him into his cage. “He’ll calm down in a minute,” he said. “That’s how he is.” I nodded. He then explained the difference between cocker spaniels and field spaniels, and how most people make the mistake I had made. It was understandable, though.

He then went into even greater doggie detail. I listened carefully. So did the dog. The doctor nodded, smiled, and opened the cage. The pooch padded out and stuck his snout into my crotch. I passed the sniff test and we were all good.

I was visiting because the doctor is a collector of old keys and locks. He was making a donation to the Mossman Lock Collection, which is a part of The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, founded in 1785. I am The Society’s current president, and I was there to pick up the treasures.

Some of the things he was giving me went back to the 14th Century, so this was a big deal. You know how you and I can get excited about old heating stuff? Well, there are a lot of people on our planet who get that way about old locks and keys.

The Mossman Collection is the largest and most-famous gathering of bank and vault locks in the world. We even have an Egyptian lock that’s 4,000 years old and made of wood. Locksmiths and collectors drool over this stuff, which just goes to show you that there is absolutely nothing in this world that can’t be made fascinating if it comes with a good story. And all those locks and keys come with great stories.

“Look at this one,” the elderly doctor said. “It’s a key, but it’s also a single-shot firearm.” I gulped and looked at it, trying to imagine how many people it had damaged since who knows when.

“I suppose it would be good to have that in a neighborhood where there were push-in burglaries,” I said, and then realized that this was probably not the best thing for “Joe” to be saying to the elderly doctor. I mean, me being a stranger and all.

“Yes, I suppose so,” the doctor said, smiling at the key and not at me.

I spent an hour looking at the keys in his packed cabinets and listening to his stories. Near the end of my visit, and after I watched him carefully pack the items he was donating to us, I asked him why he collected the keys and the locks in the first place.

“Because they’re beautiful,” he said, touching one.

“Are you interested in the technology of how they work?” I asked.

“Not really. I just love their beauty. There are two types of collectors when it comes to locks and keys. I am passionate about beautiful things.”

“I love people who are passionate about anything,” I said.

“My wife says it’s an obsession,” he said.

“My wife has similar thoughts about me,” I replied.


“Do you think you collected all of this to take your mind off of medicine?” I asked.

He paused for a long moment and said, “I’ve never considered that. Perhaps that’s why I did it. Hmm. I’ll have to think about that now.”

I should mention that this particular M.D. also has a PhD in medicine, teaches at several famous universities and has been instrumental in designing many of the drugs we’ve been taking for most of our lives.

And he collects locks and keys. Because they’re beautiful. That’s reason enough.

I have contractor friends who collect old boiler nameplates. I ask them why and they say they do it because those nameplates are beautiful. So there you go. They clean, polish and hang them in their office. Then they just sit back and look at them.

And when did they start doing this? When they were young. And what got them started? The stories.

They wondered about who made the boiler that bore that nameplate. They wondered what happened to the boiler company that no longer exists. Who worked in that factory, that foundry? Who built these boilers that so many ignored until they didn’t work anymore? Who made those nameplates? How many nameplates could a person collect in a lifetime? Did I have any I’d like to share with them?

When I traveled for a living doing seminars, I collected plastic, hotel-room keys because each represented one or more nights away from my family. I ended with a very large collection. I gave those to a brilliant artist I know and asked her to make something of them. She did, and it is beautiful. So is she. Her name is Genesis. And isn’t that a wonderful name?

A long time ago, a contractor who was old enough to be my father gave me an original Thrush circulator. He had taken it off an old boiler in Brooklyn, New York, and replaced it with something more modern. Someone added that original circulator to a gravity hot-water system, probably when his father was still a boy. It was a vertical unit with the motor sitting nearly two feet atop the pump body. It has 2-inch flanges to accommodate the large return piping of a gravity system. It had a packing gland that the installer would set to drip at a certain rate to a floor drain because mechanical seals on pumps were still years in the future.

I marveled at this beautiful beast that he had given me. And because it made me curious, I wondered about its story. I learned that Homer Thrush had come up with the idea. He was the first person in America to invent a circulator that would increase flow in a hydronic system. That pump was the first item in my collection of old heating stuff. I shared it all with people who were interested in where we came from, and how we got to where we are.

I collected old heating oddities and books for many years. I had gorgeous radiators, air vents that looked nothing like today’s air vents, steam-vapor devices that did marvelous things, thermostats filled with mercury and other heating delicacies that had me scratching my head until I was able to find the right book in the right used-book store somewhere in America. The books revealed the secrets and told me their stories. I loved those days.

As I prepared to retire a few years back, I gave away all of those beautiful objects and books. I gave them to people who were much younger than I am so they could continue to wonder about all of it, and, hopefully, pass the knowledge on to others.

None of us owns history. We are simply its current custodians. We, too, shall pass, but the objects that defined our work live on in the cubbies of the collectors. Some people collect medieval locks and keys because they are beautiful. Others collect old circulators and Victorian radiators because they help us to understand things. Each object comes with a story. Sit with it. Hold it. Be quiet with it and think. Listen to it. Search for the right books and read about it.

Larry Weingarten, my dear friend from Monterey, California, added decades of life to his customers’ water heaters by caring for anode rods, and keeping those heaters out of America’s landfills. Larry has also collected an exquisite amount of antique water heaters, all of which he has lovingly restored, and some of which he has donated to The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Larry donated them so that the current and future HVAC students in our Mechanics Institute will be able to learn about the past.

The Mechanics Institute, founded in 1820, is tuition-free and the oldest technical school in America. Larry’s gift will allow those who study in our school long after we’re gone to consider the beautiful technology of heating water. Such a simple thing, but done in so many wonderful ways over time.

Larry’s gift is one of joy and wonder. None of us live forever, but these things that inspired us, these things we collected, they can live on.

And I think that’s beautiful.

If you liked that story, please share it with your friends and please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you and I appreciate you so much for being here.

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