I have a cousin who has always been interested in very old things. An inveterate rock-hound and arrowhead-seeker, he is continually on the hunt for that rare item of hidden beauty, or historical significance.
Such expeditions have led him into several old abandoned mining towns, and ghost-towns, of our Western United States, opening up a whole new treasure-trove of forgotten Americana for him to comb through: glass pieces from old bottles; silver hood-ornaments and grill-plates on rusted-out vehicles; decaying kitchen utensils, cans, spurs, hinges, pulleys and other scattered miscellany. Anything from those boom-town days of yore, that could—were they able to speak—tell a spell-binding story of our Mountain West’s rough-and-tumble frontier times.
One day, as he was scouring the old, abandoned mining town in Nevada, he happened to spy a particularly eye-catching doorknob on one of the old miner shacks. “My mind began to wander,” he told me, “and to wonder about who might’ve lived in that 100-year-old shack.”
These musings prompted him to seek out other doorknobs (those on the town’s old chapel were especially striking), to photograph each one, and then turn his imagination loose, as he tried to picture the hands—long since stilled and buried—that might’ve turned those knobs over a century ago.
He was hooked. This hunt for old doorknobs became a near-obsession for him.
Such an incessant quest led him to other ghost-towns and historic places, so I knew it was just a matter of time before the lure of Historic Highway 89, and these old pioneer villages of Sanpete County, would eventually entice him down our way.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before his old jalopy pickup came cruising slowly through the streets of Fairview and Mt. Pleasant, making frequent stops along the way, to explore, examine and snap pictures of many weathered old doorknobs.
I hopped in as he rolled through Spring City, joining him in the hunt. There were, of course, old doorknobs aplenty, in this pioneer town, too, many of which he deemed worthy of adding to his photographic trophy-case.
Whatever I’d initially thought of his Great Doorknob Hunt, his enthusiasm became infectious, and I found myself ruminating, right along with him, about those intrepid and hard-scrabble 18th Century settlers, who’d lived—and died—on the opposite sides of all those weather-beaten doors.
It took me instantly back 150 years, as I tried to picture them in my mind’s eye, and to envision them, as they went about the rigors of their daily duties.
The experience has changed me: I can no longer help but look for old doorknobs, as I go knocking about in this historic town and valley.
And, whenever I chance to put my hand upon a doorknob that looks authentically old, I cannot help but wonder about those calloused hands that grasped it so many years before, before my own.
And when I walk into an old pioneer home that still has its original plank flooring, I now think about all those many pairs of handmade leather shoes that surely trod those same rough-hewn planks over a hundred years before my own mass-produced Reebok sneakers came trundling over them.
My wife and I have learned a few of the details about the family of original Danish pioneer settlers who built and inhabited our own Spring City limestone home, since we moved into it eight years ago. But now, after my cousin’s influence, I am much more inclined to ponder upon them more deeply—attempting to feel, if I can, their actual presence. And if I will sit very still, in the any one of the rooms in this old house, I can almost hear them: voicing concerns about the crops, or the weather, or the new calf or foal; the loving words they shared, and the harsher ones, and even their most intimate whisperings.
Since that fateful day of doorknob hunting with my cousin, I’ve felt a more historically curious view of our pioneer valley and its storied past growing steadily within me.
I cannot actually see the ghosts of those original settlers, but I am inclined, now, to stop by an old Sanpete cemetery and wander among the headstones, reading the inscriptions; or to saunter slowly through an old pioneer barn or farmyard, looking out for any rusted relics from the past.
And why not? Every town in this Sanpete Valley is historic, sprinkled about with so many and myriad reminders of those bygone days. They are there, under our very noses, if we’ll simply attune ourselves to seeing them.
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