A keyhole into the past
Family-run lock museum houses private collection spanning centuries
It is safe to say that many longtime residents of Mountain View have walked by the tiny Jehnings Family Lock Museum on Castro Street and never gone inside.
Perhaps it is because Northern California's largest collection of locks and safes requires a bit of explanation to make any sense. Fortunately, three days a week, the elder member of the family that founded the locksmith business next door, Al Jehning, provides a tour of modern history's relentless quest to secure private property.
Among what's on display is a huge collection of padlocks from as far back as the 1600s, including one made for Wells Fargo when it was in the railroad business. There's a set of shackles used in the African slave trade. There's a lock that would wrap around the wheel of an early automobile so if stolen, it would leave marks in the road, making a trail to the thief.
The collection has apparently been a bit of an obsession. Al once made a harrowing trip to retrieve the two "cannonball safes" on display, "the most fascinating thing we have, in my opinion," says his wife Audrey Jehning. Al Jehning bought the pair, weighing two to three tons combined, and towed them home using an old International Scout, an arrangement precarious enough that Jehning was compelled to slow to 15 miles per hour when coming down a mountain pass where semi trucks go 35.
"I wanted to buy the third one but we just didn't have any more money," Al Jehning recalled. "My son says, 'Dad, I'm glad you didn't have any more money.'"
The cannonball safes are nearly solid hunks of metal about the size of a large washing machine. They were used by Lockheed Martin in Burbank as payroll safes. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when employers paid in cash and there were no paychecks. These are "burglar-proof, bullet-proof, everything-proof," Audrey said.
One was retired because of fears that a a clever thief could fill a cavity in the door with nitroglycerin and blow it off. But Al says such violent measures would not be necessary now — he knows how to break into it.
Recently Audrey and Al toured a pair of homes in New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and zeroed in on the door locks, which Audrey says were beautiful. Al and his wife Audrey are the type to go to conventions for antique door knobs.
"It is really an art to make beautiful door knobs," Audrey Jehning said. So it follows that there is a huge collection of door knobs in the museum . "(They) are my very favorites because I think they are so beautiful," Audrey says.
One of the most prized pieces of the collection is a refrigerator-sized Diebold safe that has the quality of a piece of jewelry, with intricate engravings on the inside of its surprisingly heavy door.
"Look at the beauty of it," Al Jehning said. "They just don't do that kind of work anymore."
It took 35 years for Jehning to add the Diebold safe to his collection. He was outbid on it by another local locksmith that had it outside for three decades. "It is just a shame to put something like that outside," Jehning said. "If I had it, I'd have the kids hug it every night, it's so beautiful."
Family locksmith business
It all began when Al Jehning, laid off from Varian in Palo Alto, saw that a locksmith business was for sale in the newspaper.
Audrey recalled saying to him, "I think the important thing is you like what you do because you spend most of your life there. We ended up buying it. We knew nothing about locksmithing. We just went in it blind."
That was in 1972. Employees of the former business stayed and passed on their skills to the Jehnings, who raised six kids while running the business. One of their children runs the shop today. Al and Audrey rent him the building.
After buying it in 1996, the Jehnings restored the building to its original appearance. The first owner, professor Daniel T. Ames, who rebuilt much of the building after the 1906 earthquake, is the subject of a display in the museum which includes his written works on the topics of evolution and forgery.
"Because his dad has owned it for many years, he wants to keep it," Audrey said of her son. "We've had many offers on the building." One potential buyer said, "'I'll pay you cash and you can go around the world the rest of your life.' But that isn't our purpose. We really love what we do."
"We just want to share this information and keep history alive," Al Jehning said.
The museum is open on Wednesdays from noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit jehninglockmuseum.org.
Email Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com