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The 12-room Baldplate Inn never set out to house the largest key collection in the world. In fact, after the Inn opened outside of Estes Park, Colorado in 1917, the owners gave a key away to every guest.

The key-gifting tradition arose from the inn’s namesake, the mystery novel Seven Keys to Baldplate. In the book, written by Earl Derr Biggers, each of the seven guests of the fictitious Baldplate believes he or she has the only key to the remote hotel. The real Baldplate Inn’s owners kept with the storyline and always gave their guests their own key to keep.

World War I put an end to that tradition (as the price of metal became prohibitively high), but another began. The inn’s guests, who would return for summer holidays year after year, decided to bring keys back to the Baldplate instead. This started a heated competition among guests vying to retrieve the most exotic pieces from across the globe.

Continuing for more than 90 years (and to this day), the ritual has resulted in a collection of more than 30,000 keys. The collection, displayed in a dedicated Key Room, includes keys to cruise liner ships, airplanes, submarines, keys shaped like donkeys and turkeys, and even keys reported to be from Buckingham Palace, the Pentagon and Mozart’s wine cellar. 

American History Savers, an archival organization, is working to document and verify the stories behind the mountain retreat’s impressive set, though the job may never end as eager visitors keep their lock on a longstanding tradition.

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