ESTES PARK • There was a break-in the other day at the Baldpate Inn.
Nothing major, owner Lois Smith says. “They were only on the property eight minutes. The alarm scared ‘em off.”
And the alarm goes off now as Smith opens the doors she otherwise keeps closed in the winter off-season. The electronic ringing feels totally out of place. Anything electronic feels out of place here, the floors and walls held by the same timber tied and nailed together more than 100 years ago.
“Everything’s original, even the dust,” the silver-haired innkeeper partially jokes.
It’s a wonder the inn has survived so many winters, what with the threats of elements and conniving trespassers veiled by the night and thick woods. They didn’t get anything this time.
At least, not as far as Smith can tell. Nothing? The cops asked. “Well ...” she replied.
In a room with tens of thousands of keys, it can be tough to know for sure.
They dangle from every crossbeam on the ceiling, cover every inch of the four walls. Some are stocked in display cases, those being the more historically significant ones, all with varying degrees of validity.
This one is said to have belonged to the U.S. Capitol building. This one to Buckingham Palace. This one to Westminster Abbey. That one to Hitler’s old desk, that one to Dracula’s castle and that one to the pope’s quarters.
Keys to towns and cities. Keys to prisons, fire stations, offices. Keys to frats and sororities and keys to cars, planes, trains and submarines. “Who ever thought of a submarine key?” Smith remarks.
Then there are those without tags or letters attached, no explanations. They are as curious as scribbles and scratches in the registry dating back to 1917 — history Smith still finds herself uncovering after three decades living in this fantasy place. “We do know the crown prince of Norway stayed here ...”
The inn opened with Gordon and Ethel Mace giving keys to their guests, souvenirs by which to remember the Baldpate, so named for Earl Derr Biggers’ book that came out four years prior. “The Seven Keys to Baldpate” was about a man who thought he had the only key to the closed-for-winter inn. But then he found six others in his company, setting in motion the mystery.
When the Maces could no longer afford the keys, visitors flipped the tradition. They left their own keys starting sometime after World War I. (Was it the author, Biggers, who left the first? Or was it the lawyer Clarence Darrow? No one knows for sure.) Summer regulars took it a step further to find the most impressive key out there.
And so began the collection that makes the Baldpate Inn, however hidden in the mountains, stand out near a town famous for its overnight accommodations. Everyone knows the Stanley, the hilltop symbol of elegance.
“I don’t like to compare myself to other places, but there is a big, white hotel in Estes Park,” Smith says, “and I always say they’re the city mouse, and we’re the country mouse.”
Here, 12 rooms are upstairs, none much bigger than the other, each with its own sink for pampering, though the bathtub is shared down the creaking, narrow hallway.
The ghosts of the Maces linger, paranormal teams have concluded. “I prefer to think we don’t have ghosts,” Smith says. “That we are instead enchanted.”
Keeping the charm has been her goal all along while representing the inn’s second owning family. After three generation of Maces, Smith came from the Midwest in 1986.
At the time, all she and her husband knew was that they wanted a business in Colorado.
“I’m sure they didn’t realize how much work it was gonna be,” says daughter Jen Macakanja.
She was 13 alongside her younger brother, MacKenzie, doing whatever needed to be done: refinishing, repainting, rewiring, re-plumping.
“I always joke, (the inn) was the little brother my sister and I never wanted that got all the money and all the attention,” MacKenize says.
The kids would sit on the deck with the magnificent view until a car came down the dirt drive. Then they’d take their places, welcoming guests and showing them to the dining room, which still serves all-you-can-eat soup, salad, bread and pie, and where black-and-white photographs still hang. The Hall of Fame, Smith calls it.
It includes presidents and military generals. Folk heroes and movie stars. Writers, dancers, musicians and athletes. Many of the portraits were taken by Charles Mace, who’d head to Denver with his camera whenever someone significant was to arrive by train.
The photos, like the keys, were integral to the Baldpate, Smith and her husband felt. Then, 10 years later, it seemed they would leave it all behind after their divorce.
He left. She stayed.
For another 20 years, the maintenance has been taxing. “You get one thing fixed, and something else falls apart,” Smith says.
But the stories have been rewarding, touching. She wanted to cry with the man who came by wanting to revisit the key he left decades ago — the luggage key from his honeymoon with his since-passed wife.
Another time a mother came by with the key to her son’s motorcycle. He had died in a crash, and she wanted the key preserved here.
Another time, Smith laughed when little Timmy came to return a key he confessed to stealing 60 years ago.
And the stories keep coming, and the history keeps emerging with every turn of the registry. But Smith says it’s time for her to move on.
The Baldpate is for sale. MacKenzie says they’ve heard proposals to level the inn and reconstruct, to expand on this prime real estate near Rocky Mountain National Park’s Lily Lake, to do away with the key room. “We’ve shied away from those type of offers,” he says.
Smith hopes for a history-minded family. Someone who cares.
“I kind of hope they don’t know everything about it,” she says, smiling. “It’s better if you don’t.”
Better to let the mystery unravel.