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In his 40 years of scuba diving, John Edwards has ran across some unbelievable finds.
But he’s never found anything as strange as what he and his wife Rosa discovered in late January, washed up on one of their private islands on the mouth of the Withlacoochee River near Yankeetown.
The pair were cleaning up the damage wrought by Hurricane Hermine when, among all of the unremarkable items and driftwood littered along the shore of their coastal retreat, an old bottle caught Mr. Edwards’ eye.
When the retired surveyor – known as “Gator” for his decades of diving for fossils in rivers – thought he saw a loose piece of paper lodged inside the bottle, his initial hunch that it was a message in a bottle seemed even too far-fetched for someone trained at uncovering exotic natural treasures.
From there, it only got more incredible.
The bottle was stamped with a 1970 manufacturing date, further sparking the couple’s curiosity about its contents.
Naturally, prying open the metal screw top was a chore. Thankfully, that meant there was nary a drip of water that made its way into the bottle.
Inside was a pay stub, also dated 1970, from Dura-Stress Inc., a still-existing concrete company in Lakeland that was founded in 1949. The disintegrating brown-scarred paper added to its authenticity, and it was falling apart upon handling. If it was some kind of prank, it was flawlessly executed.
“I used two chop sticks to carefully roll it up like a straw and pull it out,” Mrs. Edwards said. “We just couldn’t believe it when we saw the date. We thought, ‘This is definitely real.’ That tells the story right there, especially how fragile it is.”
The back of the stub revealed it was true – the couple had stumbled upon a message in a bottle delivered nearly half a century ago.
Deciphering that written message took some additional detective work by the couple. Mrs. Edwards snapped a photo on her phone and enlarged it, then broke out a magnifying glass for further clarity.
The name with the message matched the employee name on the check – Jerry. It included a money box address for Leesburg, and a short note to any potential finders, the first of which “Jerry” probably assumed would come along much sooner than 47 years.
It read, “If found please sign and date and put into water.”
The couple’s initial attempt to contact the company in hopes of gaining some clue towards finding the sender didn’t yield any results. The paycheck was for $2 an hour for 40 hours – totaling $80. In 1970, $80 would have similar purchasing power to $500 in 2017.
“It would be kind of cool to see where he put it in the water and how far it went,” Mr. Edwards said. “I’m sure it moved from island to island, marsh to marsh for a long time.”
The Edwards applied tape to the seams to preserve the document. The instinctively private couple didn’t know how to proceed at first, but decided the story needed to be told.
A storm that only seemed to be a curse to those with property on the coast, including the Edwards, whose massive dock was lashed into pieces in four different directions, managed to help deliver an improbably mystery from the past. It also inspired a DIY upgrade from the recovered pieces.
“We weren’t very happy that she (Hermine) swept our dock away,” Mrs. Edwards said. “But it made us rebuild, and we like this one better. We made sure this one is stronger.
“We had a lot of cleanup to do, mostly John trying to salvage what he could of the docks.”
The island that snared the bottle is one of five that Edwards has purchased over the years, and serves as an undisclosed weekend retreat for the semi-retired couple who’ve been married for 17 years. They own a hay farm up the road in Chiefland, where they’ve lived for 25 years.
Mr. Edwards has been visiting and working in the coastal area where the bottle was found for 40 years. He first worked the area as a surveyor in the late 1970s, leading to his first purchase of an island for a few thousand dollars. He’s been retired from surveying for 30 years, and has since converted from weekend diver to full-time underwater explorer, as he churns out annual reports for the state detailing fossils he’s uncovered. He’s required to leave the artifacts alone.
Edwards has dove up and down the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers. Most of the unusual finds are from the natural world. He found half of an elephant’s jaw last summer.
His most stunning find, however, turned out to be man-made; intentionally released to be found.
“I’ve found a lot of stuff you wouldn’t believe,” Edwards said, “but I’ve never found a message in a bottle. The guys know I find cool stuff, and they know I’m not kidding around.”
The Edwards like to stay low key when it comes to their island life. “It’s very inviting, but we don’t invite anybody out,” Mrs. Edwards explained.
They resist the urge to show off the hard work they put into the upkeep, leaving only the occasional shrimping boat crew to admire the spot.
That is until Jerry’s message, also uninvited, made its fate on their shore, innocuously revealing itself after decades of hiding from the world.