Message in a bottle

In early November, 10-year-old Ashley Rogers of Huntsville, Ark., was deer hunting with her father, Brandon, along the Arkansas River near Fort Smith when she discovered this old bottle that contained a hand-written note from the late Victor Floyd Elliott, dated April 25, 1944.

It will forever remain a mystery as to what may have lured the late Victor Elliott to the flood-swollen Arkansas River near Fairfax, Okla., on a spring day back in April 1944.

Perhaps he was running limb lines for catfish or poking around in the brush hoping to whack a rabbit or two to help feed his family. Or maybe he was just a 14-year-old kid on a leisurely stroll across the Oklahoma 18 bridge that linked his hometown to nearby Ralston since the late 1930s.

Brandon Rogers and his 10-year-old daughter, Ashley, of Huntsville, Ark., pondered such thoughts many times since the morning of Nov. 11. That’s the day a casual deer hunting trip near Fort Smith, Ark., led the father and daughter to a ghostly connection with Elliott — one that set sail in a tea-colored bottle nearly 74 years ago.

A deer hunting treasure

It was opening day of rifle season in Johnson County and Rogers and his daughter were hunting on a large island of U.S. Army Corp of Engineers property landlocked by the Arkansas River. The flood-prone island is open to the public, but many times the only way to access it is by boat.

 “There are several islands along the river that are open to the public,” Rogers said. “This particular one is horseshoe shaped, about three-quarters mile wide and a mile long. We hunt out there about a half dozen times a year. They still run deer with dogs on the mainland, so a lot of the deer will take refuge on the island once the dog pressure starts. It’s a pretty good spot. We usually kill a pretty good buck out there every year.”

Rogers said it was mid-morning when a young buck appeared about 40 yards away from their hunting spot on the ground. Ashley steadied for the shot, but just as she touched the trigger the deer got spooked and ran away. Rogers was pretty sure she missed, but went to look for blood anyway.

What they found instead was a relic from the past that is arguably among the oldest of its kind ever discovered in the United States.

Rogers called the find better than any monster buck.

 “As we walked up to the spot where the deer had been standing I noticed a vine hanging down with a bullet hole in it,” Rogers said. “I was showing the bullet hole to Ashley when she looked down on the ground and saw a bottle. It was in pretty plain view. “

A note in a bottle

“Look daddy, it’s a bottle … and there’s note in it,” she said.

Closer inspection revealed there was indeed a piece of paper inside, and that the bottle was not manufactured in modern times. Rogers said the numbers embossed on the heel of the bottle indicated a production date of 1934.

 “It was a brown-colored bottle made from really thick glass with a metal lid,” he said. “It looked like a medicine bottle of some sort — probably 6½ or 7 inches tall. You could tell it was pretty old, but it was in real good condition.”

Curious to learn more about the contents, Rogers removed the rusty lid and attempted to extract the paper inside.

 “The paper was really brittle,” he said. “It would crumble every time I touched it. At that point we thought the note would be more interesting than the bottle so we decided to bust it open, but I made Ashley wait 1½ hours until lunch before we did it. I wish now that we wouldn’t have broken the bottle, but at the time, we didn’t know of any other way to get to the note.”

What Rogers discovered when he cracked open the bottle sounds like something out of a shipwreck flick where someone stranded at sea stuffs an SOS note into a bottle and sends it adrift in hopes that someone might find it and come to their rescue.

The contents of note don’t show signs of distress, but it is intriguing just the same.

The note reads like this:

 “I put this boddle (sic) in a big flood April 25, 1944. Whoever finds it write and tell me.” The pencil-written note was signed by Victor Elliott, Box 875, Fairfax, Okla.

The mysterious note got Rogers’ imaginative juices flowing, ultimately sending him on a modern day treasure hunt aimed at finding out something about the note’s origin as well as the person who wrote it.

His first inclination was to check weather histories for the time frame at which Elliott said bon voyage to the old bottle roughly 300 miles upstream from where is daughter found it at rest in the woods, more than 73 years later.

 “There was a big flood on the Arkansas River up in Kansas between April 21-23,” he said. “The river passes through Oklahoma and comes pretty close to Fairfax, where he lived.”

There weren’t any locks or dams built along the Arkansas back then, but the snake-path downstream couldn’t have been smooth sailing for the little brown bottle.

 “There have been a bunch of huge floods since then,” Rogers said. “It’s amazing that the lid didn’t leak or that bottle didn’t get broken during all that time. My guess is it spent some long periods of time on dry land and just gradually got washed downstream. We had a big flood here last spring and the whole island was completely underwater. We’re thinking that it may have just been uncovered or washed in there from somewhere.”

Searching For Victor Elliott

Rogers is a machinist and co-owner of Sportsman Innovations in Huntsville, Ark., not a private investigator. But he learned the ropes of detective work pretty quick.

His first step in trying to solve the mystery took him to the internet to look for clues and to solicit any help in locating Victor Elliott or his family so he could return the note to the rightful owners.

 “We did Google searches, Facebook posts and posted to a couple of hunting forums,” he said. “We even called couple of phone numbers that we found or someone suggested we try, but didn’t have any luck with those.”

It was a Google search performed during the early stages of the investigation that ultimately turned up the most concrete lead of all — The free website keeps millions of grave records for nearly 500,000 cemeteries in 238 different countries.

The website’s search engine located a Victor Floyd Elliott who was born in Fairfax, Okla. on May 5, 1930. According to the website, Elliott died on Dec. 4, 1986, and is buried at Hillcrest Cemetery in Temple.

Interestingly, the website has pictures of Elliott’s headstone, which bears the name of his widow, Betty A. Elliott, along with the date the couple was married — June 2, 1951. It also lists a contact link for George Robbins II, the family historian.

 “We still didn’t know if we were barking up the right tree or not, but I went ahead and sent George a message anyway,” Rogers said. “I heard back from him the same night.”

Turns out Robbins is Elliott’s nephew and lives in Sierra Vista, Ariz. He provided Rogers with an extensive family history and even e-mailed some photos of his Uncle Vic holding him as a young boy in the 1950s.

Robbins explained that Elliott was the youngest of four children and was raised on a crop/cattle ranch known as the Tallchief farm near Fairfax. He served in the U.S. Air Force, got married in 1951 and eventually moved to Eddy in McLennan County.

 “I have many good memories of Vic,” Robbins wrote. “Vic never knew a stranger, always had a smile and a joke for you — just a really neat guy to be around. Us kids always called him ‘Hoss’ because he looked like and was built like Dan Blocker who played Hoss Cartwright on the TV show Bonanza.”

Contacting Mrs. Elliott

One of the phone numbers Rogers called with no answer was that of Elliott’s widow, who still had a Temple address. Elliott’s wife of 35 years answered on the third try.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Elliott, now 88, was shocked when she learned the news that a message in a bottle launched into the Arkansas River by her husband nearly 74 years ago had been found by a 10-year-old girl in Arkansas.

The Box 875, Fairfax, Okla., address written in the note remains a vivid memory in her mind.

 “That’s it — oh my goodness!” she said of the address. “That’s where he grew up. I wrote that address many times over the years, sending Christmas cards and such. What a great Christmas present this is to know somebody found a note from him after such a long, long time.

 “Vic was a such big, kind and wonderful man,” she added. “It doesn’t surprise me to find out he did something like that. They lived close to the water, but Vic also had special permission to drive a school bus when he was just 14 years old. Who knows? He may have pulled the bus off the road and threw the bottle in the river.”

That, too, will forever remain a mystery.