Safe's prize is a Dix surprise

For years, the old safe was impenetrable; when finally opened, it yielded a 1907 deed to Dix Hill

Staff WriterDecember 2, 2006 

For kids in Kinston in the late 1960s, it was the neighborhood equivalent of buying a lottery ticket.

Take your bike to the Kilpatrick Country Store. Drink a soda and suck on a Mary Jane candy. Then go next door to the junkyard and spin the dial on the 6-foot-tall safe.

"Pretty much every kid in the neighborhood tried to turn that dial," Jeff Foyles recalls. "You'd say, 'I'm going to be the lucky kid today,' just joking around."

As an adult, Foyles finally got a chance to open the 140-year-old safe. Inside, he found a trove of historic documents related to the Dorothea Dix state hospital, slated to close by 2008.

The safe belonged to Albert Kilpatrick, owner of the country store and the junkyard. He liked to submit sealed bids to state auctions on old farm equipment and resell it around Kinston.

In 1967, the safe caught his eye. It's about the size of a double-wide refrigerator and is heavier than a car. Lettering on the front indicates it was owned by the hospital. Kilpatrick bid $112 for it.

Trouble was, no one knew the combination. At one point, Kilpatrick hired a safecracker who drilled a few holes in the 8-inch-thick steel doors, to no avail. So, the safe sat in the junkyard, year after year.

When Kilpatrick died in the mid-1980s, his family began selling off things. Foyles, who worked at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant, decided it would make a good safe for two shotguns and a rifle that belonged to his grandfather.

Foyles bought it -- he won't say exactly how much he paid -- and brought it a mile or so down N.C. 55 to his house with a Depression-era forklift that belongs to his brother, Nelson.

A few weeks later, Foyles found a safecracker who thought he could get it open. While Foyles and his brother drank bottles of Budweiser, the safecracker spun the dial, listened with a headset and consulted old manuals. About a half-hour later, he hit the front twice with a rubber mallet, and the door swung open.

"There was a bad smell inside that thing," Foyles recalls. "It was musty, like opening an old trunk, but three times as bad."

Inside: not much. Two old eyeglass cases and a bunch of cubbyholes set up like mail slots. Foyles shrugged. He hadn't thought there would be anything valuable in there.

But looking at it later, something about those cubbyholes didn't seem right. He got off his stool and wiggled them loose. Behind them were two small boxes filled with historical documents.

They included an official 1907 copy of the deed to Dix Hill and a related map, letters to and from hospital officials, uncashed checks from relatives of patients, even a prescription for a pint of whiskey for a patient.

Foyles filed them away and mostly forgot about them until a few months ago, when he heard a radio report about the planned closing of the hospital.

State archivist Dick Lankford says he does not know how the documents ended up in private hands. He says the deed and map copies are not valuable, but the letters and other documents could still be public records.

"We'd have to see the contents of the safe to know," he says.

That may not happen soon.

If they are still public records, Lankford says the state would begin the legal process to reclaim them. If they're not, the archives office would not be interested, he says.

Foyles says he'd like the documents to end up in a museum or the archives, but only for a fair price. He doesn't want to just hand them over for nothing.

After all, he spun the dial.

"It's just like someone buying a lottery ticket," he said.

Staff writer Ryan Teague Beckwith can be reached at 836-4944 or rbeckwit@newsobserver.com.

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