When John Thomas was a 6-year-old boy living in Houston in March of 1984, his mother and stepfather, Roger and Wilma Hearst, helped him put a message in a glass Dr. Pepper bottle and toss it into the Big Piney River at Dogs Bluff.
Now 41, Thomas is an officer with the Willow Springs Police Department. On Wednesday of last week, he received a surprising phone call from his wife, Krista.
“She said ‘hey, do you remember throwing a bottle with a note in it in the river at Dogs Bluff?’” Thomas said. “It took me back for a minute and I said, ‘why are you asking?’ She said, ‘somebody found it.’ I said, ‘no kidding!’”
The old bottle and its contents had been found by 12-year-old Jimmy Humphrey, who was staying with his father, Chris, in a trailer at Gascony Village on the Gasconade River, a few miles west of their home town of Hermann. To get there, the bottle had traveled close to 200 miles over a period of 36 years.
Jimmy was minding his own business and having fun riding around on his ATV on the river bottoms when he saw the bottle.
“I drove past it when it was in the dirt and I thought it had white sand in it,” he said. “So I picked it up and saw there was a note inside of it.”
Jimmy tried to open the bottle, but couldn’t get the lid off. He tried throwing it against a tree, but it wouldn’t break. He took took it back to camp and had his dad open it.
“It made a ‘ssssst’ sound when he twisted the lid off,” Jimmy said. “We got tweezers from the first aid kit to pull the note out. I thought it was amazing!”
It turned out to be a napkin bearing a hand-written message:
“To whom it may concern:
This bottle was thrown in at Dog’s Bluff! (Houston, MO)
If you find it, please reply to
712 N Grand
Houston, MO 65483
March 24, 1984
From its entry at Dogs Bluff (there’s actually no apostrophe in the name), the bottle traveled close to 80 miles north to where the Big Piney River flows into the Gasconade River northeast of St. Robert (just north of Interstate 44). It then drifted northward in the Gasconade for more than 100 miles, nearly reaching the Missouri River.
During the lengthy trek, the bottle miraculously endured numerous flooding events, including major incidents in 1993 and 2017.
“I’ve been down to Dogs Bluff when the water was lapping up at the bottom of the bridge,” Thomas said. “That much water just has so much force; I can’t believe that glass bottle survived all that.”
Jimmy, who is home-schooled, got a bit of a geography lesson out of the deal.
“We got the atlas out and found Houston, Mo., and traced the Gasconade River up to Hermann,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it traveled that far and for so many years!”
Chris said it’s common for Jimmy to bring home things he finds in the river bottoms.
“Last week he found a pogo stick, so at first I thought it was just another routine find,” Chris said. “It wasn’t until I looked and saw the note with ‘1984’ inside that I realized this was a real treasure.”
When Jimmy’s mother, Cristen Humphrey, posted information about her son’s amazing find on Facebook, it caught the attention of thousands of people. As of Tuesday (April 28), the post had racked up close to 17,000 shares, 10,500 likes and more than 1,600 comments.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Cristen said. “There’s a reason that little bottle wasn’t found for 36 years, and I think maybe it’s because we needed something wonderful like this to happen during this time when all the news seems bad.”
Cristen works at a nursing home in Hermann, and she and her family have been living apart for a few weeks as a protective measure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If it weren’t for the coronavirus, Chris and Jimmy would not have been living at our river camp,” she said. “If there had been internet services there, Jimmy would have been watching movies or playing video games. But instead he was outside playing on his four-wheeler and found the bottle. Everything happened the way it was supposed to.”
Chris and Cristen are both 48, so they were Jimmy’s age when Thomas dropped the bottle in the river.
As the story took off last week, lots of people in the Houston area wanted to know who lived at 712 N. Grand in 1984. Dozens called Texas County collector-treasurer Tammy Cantrell seeking the answer, and she confirmed with each caller that it was the Hearsts and the young John Thomas.
“I have talked to so many people about this,” Cantrell said. “It’s incredible.”
“My phone has been blowing up,” Thomas said. “I don’t know how many people have called me from Houston who are like, ‘is this you?’ Word is definitely getting around.”
Thomas is a native of Durant, Okla., who moved to Houston with his mother in the early 1980s after a divorce. He went on to graduate from Houston High School and spent about 18 years working for the local Cable America office. He also spent about three years as a corrections officer at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking before deciding to become a police officer.
“To be truthful, I had forgotten about the bottle,” Thomas said. “And when you’re a child, you don’t realize the gravity of something like that. You put a note in the bottle and throw it in, then you go on catching frogs or whatever and you forget about it.
“Then you get a phone call 36 years later.”
The bottle and note are prominently displayed on a shelf in the Humphreys’ living room. Thomas and the Humphreys have made contact via social media and intend to meet at some point, and both parties feel like the story became so big in part because it provided people an escape from the constant barrage of COVID-19 stories.
Thomas said the experience has given him an idea.
“I think we’re going to do the same thing with our 7-year-old son,” he said. “But we’ll probably use plastic instead of glass.”