Who turned these old doorknobs before me?

Who turned these old doorknobs before me?

By Randal B. Thatcher

Feb. 22, 2018


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 more recently 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.

This includes glass pieces from old bottles, silver hood ornaments and grill plates on rusted-out vehicles, along with rusting kitchen utensils, cans, spurs, hinges, pulleys and other miscellany.

He grabs up anything from those boomtown days of yore that could—were it able to speak—tell a spellbinding story of our country’s rough-and-tumble frontier times.

One day, as he was scouring the old abandoned mining town of Manhattan, Nev., 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). He photographed each one and then turned his imagination loose as he tried to picture the hands—long since moldering in their graves—that might’ve turned those knobs so many years ago.

He was hooked.

This hunt for old doorknobs became a passion.

His incessant quest has led him to other ghost towns and historic places so I knew it was only a matter of time before the lure of historic U.S. 89 and the old pioneer villages of Sanpete County would coax him down here.

Two weeks ago, his pickup truck finally rolled through Fairview and Mt. Pleasant, making frequent stops along the way to explore, examine and snap pictures of many weathered old doorknobs.

I hopped in with him as he came through Spring City and joined him in the hunt.

Of course, he deemed many rustic old doorknobs in this pioneer town 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 the hard-scrabble, 19th-century folks who’d lived on the other side 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 routines.

And now, I can’t help but look for old doorknobs myself as I go about my own (far less rigorous) daily routine.

Whenever I put my hand on a doorknob that looks authentically old now, I can’t help but wonder what unseen hands might’ve been upon it before my own.

And when I walk into an old pioneer home that still has the original flooring, I think about all those pairs of handmade leather shoes that trod the same rough-hewn planks over a 100 years before my own mass-produced Nikes came trundling over them.

My wife and I have learned some of the history and family details of the initial pioneer inhabitants (and builders) of our old Spring City house, since moving into it four years ago.

Yet I am much more inclined now to ponder more deeply upon these people and to try to feel their presence.

I will sometimes sit very still in the parlor or the bedroom and just think about them.

And if I am very quiet, I think I can hear them: their concerns about crops or the weather or the new calf or foal; their kind words and their arguments and even their most intimate whisperings.

I can’t, really, but it’s fun to sometimes make-believe I can.

Since going doorknob hunting with my cousin, such a historically minded view of our pioneer valley has grown more pronounced in my own mind.

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 or saunter slowly through an old pioneer barn or farmyard, looking for any rusted relic from the past.

And why not?

Every town in this Sanpete Valley is historic, sprinkled about with myriad reminders of those bygone days. They are virtually under our very noses, if we’ll simply attune ourselves to seeing them.

I don’t expect to hear the actual voices of our home’s original inhabitants, but if I ever do, I just hope they won’t harangue me too roundly for my wimpy insistence on indoor plumbing and a furnace!


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