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Sunday, April 15, 2012

NH town solves mystery of old safe’s contents

MILTON – Milton is a small New Hampshire town that knows how to safeguard its secrets – namely by losing the combination to one very large safe.

No one’s quite sure when the safe was last opened, but the town’s administrator and selectmen were determined to end the mystery of its contents.

So they hired a safecracker, Seacoast Lock and Safe owner Paul Letourneau. Letourneau says it took him three hours Thursday to drill through and reset the combination of the safe.

“On a scale of 1-10, it was probably a seven,” Letourneau said.

The safe was immediately closed and relocked so its contents could be unveiled and inventoried publicly Saturday morning.

Administrator Tony Mincu says he could see that the safe was chock-full but resisted the temptation to riffle its contents.

“I didn’t want to ruin it for myself or anybody else, but it was tempting,” Mincu said Friday.

The mystery of the safe’s contents has been the source of much speculation. The town’s Boston Post Cane – a gold-tipped cane from The Boston Post newspaper given each year to the town’s oldest resident – has been missing for decades.

“It might be in there,” mused Selectman Tom Gray. “There’s talk around town that it’s in there.”

When about a dozen local officials and residents gathered Saturday and the safe was finally opened, there was no Boston Post Cane, but a host of historical records were found: mortgage records dating back to 1858, when some properties sold for less than $100; old town meeting minutes; records of local soldiers sent to fight in World War I; papers in which “intentions of marriage” were recorded.

Gray was hoping to find a pot of gold to underwrite the new fire station the town covets.

There was no pot of gold; instead on the financial front, there was a 1959 budget ledger showing town spending that year at $205,000. It’s $3.2 million now.

Mincu suspects the trove is priceless.

“What price do you put on history?” he asked. “It’s living history.”

Milton is a town of 4,500 people in southeastern New Hampshire, along the Maine state line.

The safe is stored in the “townhouse” – an old church built in 1815 and donated to the town for town business in 1855. Under the pulpit of the church is a time capsule placed there in 1978 with an opening date of 2076. The last town meeting was held in the building in 1979.

Volunteers are working to restore it bit by bit, but its walls remain blemished floor-to-tin-ceiling with peeling paint.

Mincu said he wasn’t motivated so much by a burning desire to solve the mystery of the safe’s contents, but by an obligation to the town’s history.

“We’re talking historic records that may or may not be in peril,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of condition they’re in.”

He said that when Letourneau finally opened the vault, the musty odor was almost overwhelming.

“This has been sealed for some time,” Mincu said.

Apparently the town’s current officials aren’t the first to be faced with a safe they couldn’t unlock.

Two other very large safes reside in the townhouse as well. One was unlocked and empty; the other is missing its outer doors.

“I don’t know what board decided they wanted to get into it but they broke the doors off,” Selectman Bob Bridges said.

The mystery of the safe begs another question: how the three safes got into the townhouse in the first place.

Bridges said he has measured all the doors and windows in the building and none is large enough to fit the safes.

Asked to speculate on how they got there, Bridges replied, “I have no idea.”