ON OPENING DAY of the Arkansas rifle deer season Ashley Rogers of Huntsville, Arkansas, was deer hunting with her father, Brandon.
They were hunting on a large island of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property landlocked by the Arkansas River near Ft. Smith. 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,” Brandon said. “This particular one is horseshoe shaped, about 3/4 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.”
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 spooked and ran away. Her father was pretty sure she missed, but went to look for blood anyway.
What they found instead was a relic from the past. Brandon 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,” he 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.”
“Look daddy, it’s a bottle….. and there’s note in it,” Ashley said.
Closer inspection revealed there was indeed a piece of paper inside, and that the bottle was not manufactured in modern times. 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,” Brandon said. “It looked like a medicine bottle of some sort, probably 6 1/2 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, he 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 1 1/2 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 Brandon discovered when he cracked open the bottle sounds like something out of a shipwreck flick. Someone stranded at sea stuffs an SOS note into a bottle and sets it adrift in hope that someone might find it and come to their rescue.
However, the note doesn’t show signs of distress, but it is intriguing, just the same.
“I put this boddle (sic) in a big flood April 25, 1944. Whoever finds it write and tell me.” Victor Elliott, Box 875, Fairfax, Okla.
Naturally, the mysterious note got Brandon’s imaginative juices flowing. It sent him on a modern day wild goose chase to find out 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 when Elliott said bon voyage to the old bottle. It was launched roughly 300 miles upstream from where his 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,” Brandon said. “The river passes through Oklahoma and comes pretty close to Fairfax, where Victor Elliott 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,” Brandon 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.”
Brandon is a machinist and co-owner of Sportsman Innovations in Huntsville, Arkansas, 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 — www.findagrave.com. 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, Oklahoma on May 5, 1930. According to the website, Elliott died on December 4, 1986 and is buried at Hillcrest Cemetery in Temple, Texas.
The website has pictures of Elliott’s headstone, which also 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 whether we were barking up the right tree or not, but I went ahead and sent George a message anyway,” Brandon said. “I heard back from him the same night.”
Turns out Robbins is Elliott’s nephew and lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona. He provided Brandon 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, Texas. near Temple.
“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.”
One of the phone numbers Brandon called with no answer was that of Elliott’s widow, who still has a landline listed in the phone directory alongside a Temple address. “I dialed the phone number just for grins,” he said.”
Elliott’s wife of 35 years answered on the third try.
Not surprisingly, Mrs. Elliott, now 88, was shocked when Brandon passed on 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, Oklahoma address written in the note remains a vivid memory in her mind.
“That’s it – oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “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 might have pulled the bus off the road and threw the bottle in the river.”
That, too, will forever remain a mystery.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS