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35 Year Old Message in a Bottle Found in Alabama River

The year was 1982. Ronald Reagan was President. John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” was on the radio. Everyone was still enthralled with Stephen Spielberg’s latest movie, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. In late autumn, Julie Watson, a third grade student at Eura Brown Elementary School in Gadsden, Alabama, tossed a message in a bottle into the Coosa River out behind her school, according to The Gadsden Times. When she threw that bottle in the river, she thought “the message might be found a few feet away from where she put it in the river, in a month or two,” and soon forgot all about it.

But then, in March of 2018, Shea Shaneyfelt of Glencoe, Alabama, was out looking for driftwood and flotsam for her store, Little Brown Cows Embroidery & Vinyl Shop in Glencoe. As the Gadsden Times reports, Shea “spotted a glass Diet Sunkist bottle with something rolled up and tucked inside. A closer looked revealed a sheet of paper sealed inside, with some handwriting visible”. That handwriting included a date: Oct. 14, 1982.

Shea Shaneyfelt on Coosa River 35 year old message in a bottle

Shea Shaneyfelt on the Coosa River where she found a 35 year old message in a bottle. Photo: Dustin Fox / The Gadsden Times

This was the message Julie Watson had written and forgotten about all those years ago…

Shea was hooked by the challenge of finding Julie, and launched a search for her on Facebook. Before long, Shea’s friends helped her zero in on a profile that looked promising. But the mystery would not be truly solved until Julie’s mom went to the dentist.

It’s a Small, Small World

Today, Julie Watson is Julie Menk, and the story of how Shea Shaneyfelt found her boggles my mind.

Imagine this insane scene: Julie’s mom walks into the dentist’s office in Alabama. Maybe she’s getting a cleaning or a filling or whatever. But, from her perspective, if she’s anything like me, it’s basically a normal, dreaded visit to the dentist’s torture chamber.

Out of nowhere, someone who works in the dentist’s office (a friend of Shea’s, it turns out), recognizes Julie’s mom’s last name (Watson). He asks her if she knows anything about this letter signed by Julie Watson. I like to imagine this happening when the dentist is up to his elbows in her mouth, so all she can say is something like “Gah hah!” We’ve all been there, right?

Well, when she finally got to look at the photos of the message Shea had posted online, Julie’s mother immediately recognized her daughter’s handwriting, according to the Gadsden Times. She called Julie right away to let her know.

Julie Watson's 35 year old message in a bottle

Julie Watson’s 35 year old message in a bottle from 1982. Photo: Dustin Fox / The Gadsden Times

Gadsden, Ala. 35901

October 14, 1982

Four hundred eighty-nine years ago Columbus, sent a bottle message to the king and queen of Spain. Today, October 14, 1982, the third grade class at Eura Brown School  is sending a bottle message. We read the story about Columbus. We are sending our message on the Coosa River. If you find it, please answer.

Thank you,

Julie Watson

“I was really shocked,” Menk told the Gadsden Times. “It’s amazing to me that after 35 years it would still be intact and the letter would be legible…It’s just unbelievable that someone would find it and it would be intact. I figured the bottle would have gotten broken on a limb or debris or something.”

Message in a Bottle Didn’t Travel Far, but Traveled Long

Personally, I think it’s extremely cool when a message in a bottle travels “further” in terms of time than distance…

Shea found Julie’s message in a bottle just a few miles from where it was launched 35 years before. To me, that makes it all the more surprising and wonderful. How on earth could it sit there in plain sight for decades without anyone finding it? Plus, the mere fact that it was found at all is basically magic. Shea’s find has given Julie the chance to reunite with the third grade version of herself, and that it is a precious gift regardless of how far the bottle traveled. Furthermore, Shea and Julie are now friends on Facebook, and hope to get together to reunite Julie with her message, which I think is lovely.

The branch of the Coosa River where Shea Shaneyfelt found Julie Watson's 35 year old message in a bottle.

The branch of the Coosa River where Shea Shaneyfelt found Julie Watson’s 35 year old message in a bottle. Photo: Dustin Fox / The Gadsden Times

For the record–I believe this is the first message in a bottle to ever be solved in a dentist’s office. I used to dread the dentist–but in light of the possibility of solving a message in a bottle during my next visit, I think I’ll get scheduled today!

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