Safe, at home: A piece of local history returns to Brookhaven

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, February 7, 2024

A piece of Brookhaven’s history has come full circle. An antique safe, once at home on Cherokee Street, has returned fully restored to a new owner and a new home in the Home Seekers Paradise.

Brothers Clark and David Calcote, co-owners of Farmbelt Equipment Inc. in Brookhaven, found the safe in a downtown building they purchased. Clark contacted safe restoration specialist Chris Tull to see if he could restore the safe to its former, vintage glory.

“He had me come look at it, and I gave him an estimate at the dealership,” Tull said. “Then a short time after that he brought it to me.”

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Tull is owner of Tullson’s Hands of Time Safe & Vault Restorations. The Illinois native moved to Southwest Mississippi in 2018 with his wife and three children, to a city they had never visited — Brookhaven. He also brought his safe restoration business with him to a rented space on Hwy. 51 N, having started it in 2005 with a background in auto work, welding and woodworking.

Tull is one of only two people in the United States who completely restores antique safes, and has had customers in each of the 48 contiguous states and at least four other countries.

“As far as putting the artwork back on them as the original, I don’t know of anybody else that does it the way I do it,” he said. “The one other guy that pinstripes and paints safes does hotrod-style work, but doesn’t focus on putting the original artwork back on.”

The Calcote project was one of the last safes Tull got before relocating to Hattiesburg. Though they enjoyed their time in Lincoln County, Tull’s wife was transferred with her government job to Hattiesburg, so he moved his restoration business there.

The craftsman started work on the safe August 2023, about two years after he’d taken it on. Work took four months.

“I’m booked out still by almost two years,” Tull said.

One interesting aspect of redoing this particular safe was the discovery of theft deterrent — two glass vials of teargas by the locking mechanism.

“I didn’t know if it had teargas in it,” Tull said. “Sometimes they weren’t booby-trapped, but I’m careful with all of them just in case. I ended up having to crack it by manipulation. I’m glad we didn’t haven’t to drill it because it was booby trapped.”

If Tull or his assistant Joe Pittman had tripped the mechanism, a metal pin would have shattered the two vials. Depending on the strength and type of liquid in them, when they vaporized the resulting effects on anyone nearby could range from nausea to quick and painful death.

Booby traps like this were not installed by the factory, but were added later on by others as safe-cracking and burglaries became more prevalent.

“This safe was originally made by Hall’s Safe and Lock Company out of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1880s,” Tull said. “It was then purchased by a furniture dealer in New Orleans, who painted over the original artwork on the front and put their name on it.”

“Afterward, Mr. Barge purchased it for his store in Brookhaven about 1910 and installed it there, where it remained until either it was moved down the street or the store closed,” said Tull.

Mr. Barge was Thomas Cicero “T.C.” Barge, owner of a general mercantile store he opened in 1910, having lived in New Orleans and Hammond, Louisiana, prior to moving to Brookhaven. A member of First Baptist Church and a leader in the Masonic Lodge, Barge died in 1940 at age 74.

When Tull began working on the safe, the original fire-retardant material in the doors was gone, and had been replaced by concrete. The concrete had to be broken out, the doors fabricated and fixed — along with their hinges — rehung, locks reinstalled, and new fireproofing material poured in.

“All the woodwork got stripped out — and we documented where everything was located inside — and new woodwork was made, with wood inlays on the edge grain,” said Tull. “Then we finished the bodywork on the outside, refined it, painted it, and painted all the artwork back on it.”

All safes built by Hall’s Safe came from the factory with decorative paintings on them, each one unique.

“None came from the factory plain. When I stripped it down, there were the remnants of the old artwork,” Tull said. “What I was able to recover, I put back on where it would have been when it came from the factory.”

Tull said the artwork was probably the most difficult part of this safe restoration.

“It’s very time-consuming, making sure it’s all laid out properly and applied properly,” he said. “Also the bodywork on the outside. It would have been originally ground with stone grinders, so the metal was not smooth. It requires a lot of filler and a lot of metalwork to make them look straight again. I’m teaching Joe how to do the bodywork — making sure everything flows together with the body of the safe.”

Tull enjoys every project, but thinks it’s great that the Barge safe project brings the item back to the city it once called home.

“I think it’s really cool that it’s historically tied to Brookhaven, and that Clark was willing to go back to the original and have the original family’s name put on it. It’s kind of a tribute to that family,” Tull said.

Tullson’s Hands of Time Safe & Vault Restoration can be reached at 217-520-7831 or