Stephen Mills insists he didn’t have a strategy when attempting to open the locked safe in the Vermilion Heritage Museum, which museum staff had been unable to open for over 40 years.
“I just took his took the numbers out of thin air and said OK let’s do 20, 60, 40,” he told Global News in an interview.
Mills and his family are regular campers. Over the Victoria Day long weekend, he, his wife and two kids, his brother in law and his two kids, as well as his in laws, ventured up to Vermilion, Alta., for a camping trip.
“Wherever we go camping in Alberta or B.C., typically we learn that like every small town [has] something that’s of interest, right?” he said.
After a quick Google search, the Vermilion Heritage Museum came up, and on the second day of their stay in the town, the group decided to pay it a visit.
Upon arriving at the museum, however, they found that it was closed. After calling the city, they passed along one of the museum’s volunteers, Tom Kibblewhite. Kibblewhite, who went to school in the building on the Vermilion Museum property, wound up giving the family a private tour of the estate.
“It was almost an honour to have somebody, an older gentleman, give that tour. He knows all the ins and outs of that town, he’s lived his whole life great.” Mills explained.
Eventually, the safe was donated to the Vermilion Museum, at which point the staff pursued several avenues to finally unlock it. After contacting a locksmith and the original manufacturer of the safe, they gave up. It’s been locked for over 40 years.
Mills, 36, joked that the safe had been locked longer than he’s been alive — until one fateful day in 2019.
“I just knelt down and listened to it and I could hear it moving inside,” Mills said. “I said, let’s do 20, 40, 60. Just like a typical combination lock, three times to the right, two times to the left, and sure enough spun the handle and it cracked open.”
“I stood up and I’m like, ‘I’m buying a lottery ticket,’” he said.
In the background, he could hear his kids shouting with excitement.
“‘We beat it?’” they asked repeatedly. To which Mills responded enthusiastically, “‘Yeah, we beat it.’”
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Inside the safe was no more than a couple of receipts, a waitress pad and an old cheque, but that didn’t dampen the moment.
The story, which was originally published by the Vermilion Standard, has been picked up by outlets around the world including CNN, The Washington Post and The Guardian in London.
However, none of that compares to the news Mills received from the president of the museum’s board of directors, Jean Murie, Thursday evening on his drive home from work, he said. While the museum was on the verge of closing down, the newfound publicity from his visit may give the heritage building a boost.
“I got a call from the president of the board of directors for Vermilion, at the museum thanking me…because their museum was on the brink of not being able to make it,” Mills said. “She said this is gonna give them the boost to get it back going.”
The family plans to visit the museum and the town of Vermilion this coming July, but this time with Mills’ parents as well.