Combination of Jobs Led to Locksmithing Career for Randolph 82-Year-Old

  • Locksmith Daniel Boone, 82, of Randolph, right, laughs with John Hubble, facilities and maintenance man for the White River Valley Schools Bethel, Vt. Campus as they take apart a door lock in the school Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. The school is updating its door locks and Boone is helping determine how to convert existing doors to fit newer locks. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Locksmith Daniel Boone holds the key to the high security lock system he uses on his home and shop in Randolph, Vt., Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The shelves in Daniel Boone's Randolph, Vt., locksmith show hold hundreds of different key blank varieties so he can match the widest possible variety of keys customers ask him for. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • "People don't make appointments for their emergencies," said locksmith Daniel Boone. He keeps 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. office hours and advertises a 24 hour lockout service. Boone climbs out of his van, a mobile workshop, after an appoinment at the White River Valley Bethel Campus in Bethel, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Daniel Boone, originally from South Tunbridge, Vt., started locksmithing while serving in the Army in 1960. For roughly the last 50 years, he has run his shop from his home in Randolph, Vt., Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2018

Randolph — No one keeps a record on such things, but Daniel Boone could be Vermont’s oldest locksmith.

Perhaps the oldest locksmith in New England.

Maybe even the country.

But even if he’s not, Boone is one of a vanishing breed of tradesmen in the state whose craft is slowly giving way to key cards, microchips and gizmos on lanyards. The 82-year-old Randolph man who grew up working his family’s dairy farm in South Tunbridge has been installing locks and carving keys for 58 years.

Actually, the nearly six decades of locksmithing is Boone’s third occupation after a midlife career switch. Before training himself in the intricate inner workings of mechanical locks, Boone spent 20 years in the military as a private secretary to Army generals in Europe and stateside. Later, he ran his own HVAC business in Florida.

Today, Boone works out of his key-making shop, attached to the house where he lives with his wife, Carolyn, 83, outside downtown Randolph just south of Gifford Medical Center on South Main Street/Route 12.

The life of a locksmith is not an easy one, Boone explains, because by definition their services are frequently required when the rest of the world is off and locked out of their house or car at night. “Locksmithing is not like going to McDonald’s and working an eight-hour shift,” he said. “People don’t plan emergencies, and quite often they don’t happen between 8 and 5.”

Boone — who, when asked (everybody does), acknowledges he is a sixth-generation descendant of the 18th-century pioneer of the same name but averred that it’s “no big deal because there are 5,000 of us all named Daniel Boone” — holds shop hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week, not including nocturnal lock-out calls in the wee hours.

He took a couple-week vacation “five or six years ago” and last year made a short visit to his daughter and her family in San Diego. Boone and his wife have six children, “30 to 40” grandchildren and more than 30 great-grandchildren — he said he’s unsure of the exact numbers because “they just keep coming.”

Other than that, pin tumblers and deadbolts keep him busy.

Boone said he needs to keep working because his Social Security and military pension are in themselves not enough to cover expenses.

“I enjoy eating,” he said. “I enjoy a roof over my head. If I quit this, something drastic could happen.”

Of course, the job is about more than money in his pocket. Locksmithing, Boone assures, “is a lot better than sitting in a rocking chair, watching the world go by and drooling into a cup.”

Old Keys and New Tech

Boone’s cramped workshop is a combination of antiquarian emporium and advanced manufacturing plant — key blanks dating back to the 1800s and for 1920s automobiles share the space with computer-operated cutting machines to fashion ultra-high-security Israeli-made keys used by government contractors and medical research laboratories. Boone estimated that his stock of key blanks — the stamped metal that has not been cut to a specific bitting — runs into the “tens of thousands” and is the largest collection in New England.

Boxes of key blanks are stacked on shelves in his workshop, numbered and lettered to identify their make and model. A box full of blanks may be taken down from the shelf only once because keys, like snowflakes and DNA, may be close to each other but never identical.

“You can’t buy less than 50 of them at a time,” Boone said.

Boone didn’t know what he would be do for a living when he finished high school in South Royalton in the 1950s. “Once I graduated, I couldn’t get a job,” he recalled.

He bounced around for a bit, taking jobs like driving a man’s car from Tunbridge to Florida and, once down there, working as a bellhop at a Palm Beach hotel. When Boone returned to South Tunbridge after a season toting luggage, the family dairy farm was struggling and he still couldn’t find a job.

So, in 1956, he enlisted in the Army, a choice that would eventually lead him to his true calling.

In the Army

Boone signed up as an infantryman. “A ground pounder,” Boone explained. “That’s all Vermonters are good for, you know.”

But the Army decided he was good for more.

An IQ test revealed Boone had the highest one in his company — 139, he said (140 or more is considered genius-level).

“I didn’t think it was anything,” Boone said when he was informed about his unusually high IQ. “I always thought I was pretty dumb.”

Boone said he was pulled out of the infantry and sent to the adjutant general’s college in Indianapolis where he trained to become a personal secretary for the general staff. He did tours in Germany and at NATO in Italy, at times rotating back stateside.

Then, in 1960, while stationed at the Continental Army Command at Fort Monroe, Va., Boone cracked his first safe.

Technically, it wasn’t cracking the safe, Boone said, because he was the authorized personnel overseeing it. Every two weeks, the base’s technicians were supposed to show up to change the combinations on the file cabinets for security reasons. But after one two-month stretch — and repeated calls, he added — no one showed up, so Boone took it upon himself to change the lock combinations with his own two hands.

“I took one apart and I figured out how to change the combination,” Boone recalled. “Then I did it on every file cabinet in the office. They had quite a few.”

Boone still remembers the lock’s model: A Sargent & Greenleaf Combination Lock, a manufacturer that dates back to before the Civil War and was once favored by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

“I studied it and figured out how it worked and changed the combinations myself,” Boone said.

How does someone with no formal training in the mechanics of locks figure out how to reprogram their combinations?

“Every farm boy is mechanical,” Boone said. “If you broke your equipment, you fixed it yourself.”

(When department inspectors later were incensed that Boone had changed the combinations on the locks to the file cabinets himself, they threatened to court-martial him for “espionage,” he said. But the general for whom he worked, a graduate of Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., went to bat for Boone and sent the inspectors packing.)

By 1976, after 20 years in the service, Boone retired with the rank of sergeant first class.

Again, “there were no jobs available,” so Boone headed back down to Florida, at first taking a job pumping gas for $110 a week. He saved a little money and enrolled in school to become an air conditioning and refrigeration service technician — handy in the Sunshine State.

As a sideline, Boone plied his trade as a self-taught locksmith, although he said everyone in Florida seemed to be doing that.

Back to Vermont

After 11 years, with the Florida economy booming as the 1970s oil embargo drove people in northern states toward lower-cost warmer climates, Boone sold his HVAC business and moved back to Vermont to help care for his wife’s parents, who were getting on in years.

“Up here I had to look around about what I was going to do,” Boone said, “I thought about doing refrigeration again, but I was told ‘so-and-so’s doing that. Why do you want to take his business?’ ”

“So I went back into my locksmithing,” he said, and in 1985 he opened Boone’s Locksmith Shop in Randolph, where he has been to this day. “It was the only thing that was available. No jobs were available when I came back here.”

“You need a population of 35,000 to support one locksmith shop,” Boone said. “1,900 doesn’t do it. So I have to go all over the state and parts of New Hampshire and parts of New York State.”

Boone said there is a difference between what he does and the kind of key-while-you-wait cutting that is found at the local hardware store. He installs sophisticated lock systems for residences, businesses and institutions — his shop has 15 different key-cutting machines, from hand-operated to computer-operated.

“Computers have created such close tolerances that it’s getting impossible to pick a lock today,” Boone said. “That creates issues. You have to change the core or cylinder before you change out the whole lock, and to do that you have to know where to drill.”

Although digital technology and electronic chips are increasingly part of lock systems, requiring more than the traditional mechanical skills that comprised the trade for centuries, Boone said there is still a demand for a locksmith’s services — provided, of course, that the smith is willing to accept the reality that the job will often have him or her called out in the middle of the night.

“I’d love to have somebody come into the area and take over,” Boone said. “There is plenty of work for somebody that is ambitious and wants work. I’d sell them my business. I got a lot. I’m getting long in the tooth.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.