1979 Message in a Bottle Unmasks Georgia’s Intriguing James H. Fort
43 years ago in the foggy past, on September 22nd, 1979, James H. Fort embarked in his sailboat from Columbus, Georgia and tossed an enchanting message in a bottle into the Chattahoochee River. Incredibly, Sting and the Police had just released “Message in a Bottle” on September 7th, just two weeks earlier. I doubt it was playing over the radio as Fort tossed his bottle overboard since it didn’t become popular in the USA until a bit later, but still, that’s a nice little coincidence, don’t you think?
Anyway, after 39 years, James H. Fort’s message was found by the Bland family of Georgetown, Georgia in 2018. Sadly, Georgia’s WRBL, who first reported the story, and the Blands themselves were unable to find James H. Fort, or even any information on him. This has bothered me every day since then. I don’t like admitting defeat, just because a message in a bottle is old…
A little while after the Bland family’s incredible find, I reported on a 50 year old message in a bottle, also from a Georgia author, that my dad found. Amazingly, we connected with the author of that 1970 message in a bottle. This all got me thinking recently that I should dive back into this story to see if I could help. Who was James H. Fort anyway? And why did he send this message in a bottle? Could social media come to the rescue and help us find the sender of this message in a bottle?
Social Media and Newspaper Archives Help Solve Bottled Mystery
I recently re-shared my story about James H. Fort’s bottled message on Facebook. This time, it caught the eye of Georgia’s Dixon Olive, who recognized the author’s name immediately! When Dixon Olive was a kid in the 1960s and 70s, James H. Fort was his neighbor in Columbus, GA! Mr. Olive remembered that sending messages in bottles was a favorite pastime of Mr Fort’s. “He would take friends and neighbors with him and make a big event out of it,” Mr. Olive said. “Also,” he added, “You might want to check Columbus Ledger Enquirer archives. I remember articles about him.”
What’s that you say? There’s an old, unsolved message in a bottle, requiring many hours of unpaid work, researching in newspaper archives?
Put me in, coach! I’ll go down that rabbit hole!
As with finding others behind messages in bottles, I was amazed at what I learned about James H. Fort from old news clippings. He was an interesting person – smart, funny, hard working, whimsical. Exactly the kind of person I always hope to find a message in a bottle from myself.
Without further ado, let’s meet Georgia’s message in a bottle extraordinaire, James H. Fort.
Mr. & Mrs. James H. Fort on Law, Politics, Hooked Rugs, Cats, & Orange Trees
James H. Fort lived a public life, from his role as attorney, to secretary for a US representative, to Assistant District Attorney, to professional message in a bottle sender. He appeared in Georgia news frequently from the 1930s to the 1980s, and then off-and-on right up to the present day. Digging through history, he just keeps popping up in the life of Macon, Columbus, and the surrounding area – so much so that he reminded me of a guy named Carl Ott from a different city.
Carl left a message in a bottle inside the wall of his Indianapolis dry cleaning business in the 1930s. When it was found 87 years later, I was able to help deliver it to his granddaughter. That was only possible because Carl, before and after leaving his bottled note, appeared in the news constantly, much like James H. Fort, including his professional work, political activities (including a run for mayor of Indianapolis), saving someone from a car crash with a train, then getting into a car crash with a train himself shortly thereafter. I have a feeling Carl and James would have gotten along!
Anyway, James H. Fort first pops up in the news around the time he passes the bar and becomes a full-fledged attorney, in July of 1937.
Incredibly, in this first news appearance, one of the great mysteries of the message in a bottle the Bland family found on the Georgia side of the Chattahoochee is solved right off the bat: the unusual name of James H. Fort’s sailing vessel, “Squirene”. You may recall that he describes himself in that message as the “Captain of the vessel Squirene”. I wondered the moment I read it – what kind of name is that? And what could it mean? Well, check out this 1937 snippet and you’ll see it right away!
SQUIRE! Squire was James H. Fort’s nickname! Squire Fort! So, not a huge leap to get from there to “Squirene” as the feminized form of his nickname, which he bestowed upon his boat.
Now, I pause to ask you a question. What is rarer: Nailing a hole-in-one on the golf course? Or hearing back from a message in a bottle? Squire Fort didn’t have to choose! We’ll make a quick stop in 1938 to witness young Mr. Fort drain a 210 yard hole-in-one 🙂
As time rolls on, James H. Fort appears in the news frequently as just a name attached to this or that court case. I’ll skip most of those, and try to give you a broader and richer picture of the man behind the message.
Squire Fort’s early news appearances are mainly concerned with his professional work and life in Georgia, not his message in a bottle hobby. More on that below!
So our next stop is 1939, when the Macon News notes that Fort and his wife are moving to Leesburg to “open a law office.” The article goes on to note that he and Mrs. Fort “take an outstanding part in the civic, social, and religious affairs of Americus,” implying that they will do the same in Leesburg.
Noted. Onward to 1940!
In October of this year, the Macon News announces that James H. Fort has been appointed as a secretary to US Representative Stephen Pace. Bit of a promotion, hey!
Just the next year (1941), demonstrating his ongoing leadership development and his ability to win the respect of his peers, James H. Fort is elected Vice President of the Congressional Secretaries club. Chosen from among hundreds, that’s quite an honor.
You may be able to guess what’s coming next. When WWII breaks out, James H. Fort volunteers. No news articles mention him again until 1946, when he is sworn in as an “assistant district attorney for the U.S. District Court here [Macon].”
As noted by The Macon News, James H. Fort spent his war years in the Navy, where he took part in “extensive anti-submarine work in the Atlantic, and in the Normandy invasion. He attained the rank of Lieutenant, senior grade in the Navy.”
The day after the above article, The Macon News gives us one of the only decent pictures we have of James H. Fort as a young man, in a condensed announcement.
I wonder… Did James H. Fort’s time at sea in the Navy spark his love of being on the water? Is this why he took up sailing and sending messages in bottles once he was back in Georgia? Did he send any bottled messages during the war, like Frank Hayostek and others? We may never know. Or, maybe we will…
Around this time in the late 1940s, we also get a glimpse into Fort’s domestic life. His wife, Irene, seems to have been a master of hand-making hooked rugs. According to this April 1947 article from The Macon Telegraph and News (and several others), Mrs. Fort, “pretty, talented wife of Assistant U.S. District Attorney James H. [Squire] Fort, [planned] to convert part of her home at 341 Mary Drive into a studio where she [would] teach the difficult art of hooking rugs.” The article notes in the photo caption that Mrs. Fort’s mother (on the right in the photo) is “one of the south’s foremost hooked rug experts.”
Looking at all these articles together, it sure seems like Mr. and Mrs. Fort shared a pleasant and cozy life.
But later in 1947, something came between them. A cat!
I often find that people who work in the most “serious” fields (law, medicine, etc.) have the most robust senses of humor. I just wonder if James H. Fort’s more serious work, from litigation to serving a US representative, to acting as an assistant DA, had anything to do with the lighter side of him that we begin to see in news articles around this time? For example, contrast the hard-working, steely-eyed lawyer you’ve probably been imagining, with the downright goofy fellow depicted in this December 1947 article about the fate of a cat, named Felix, which defies explanation. You just have to read it, and keep an eye out for the dry humor of the 1940s.
The ending kills me!
Now don’t worry about little Felix… Before we solved this kind of problem on social media, we used the local news. And sure enough, here is the happy ending to Felix’s story from the very next day. Thanks to Fort’s publicity efforts, Felix found a home!
From here, James H. Fort continues popping up in the standard, more “serious” way – giving speeches and so on, as in this article from 1948.
But we see his whimsical side more and more as time goes on. This 1951 article describes what strikes me as a charming obsession with growing his own oranges in Macon, Georgia. I bet he was the kind of person who, when told something wasn’t possible, did it anyway! That would certainly be in keeping with his sending of bottled messages.
After the orange tree article, Fort’s next major appearance in the news is in the announcement that he’s joining a law firm, moving to Columbus, and resigning as assistant DA in 1952.
According to Wikipedia, here’s the Downtown Columbus, Georgia of the 1950s that Fort would have known. I dig those 1940s cars 🙂
Following this announcement, for many years Fort mostly appears again in the more serious types of articles about legal proceedings he is involved with.
Georgia’s Greatest Message in a Bottle Sender
Finally, decades later, we get to the heart of the matter of James H. Fort’s message in a bottle on February 1st, 1986. This great article from the Columbus Ledger Enquirer captures the fun and whimsy of James H. Fort’s hobby of sending bottled messages, and how much he enjoyed meeting people this way.
The article tells of a particular bottle found in France during Jan. 1986, about 10 years after Fort “tossed it into St. George Sound of Apalachicola, Florida on October 31st, 1976.”
A Halloween message in a bottle! Based on what Dixon Olive told me–that Mr. Fort loved to make a “big deal” of sending these bottled notes–I bet the connection to Halloween would have been significant to him.
The finders – a French father and son – were delighted with their decade-old find, and fascinated by Mr. Fort.
Sadly, James H. Fort died in June of 1983, and never got to learn of this particular message. “He did receive messages from bottles found in the Bahamas, Texas and Bermuda, but non were returned during his lifetime that had crossed the ocean,” the article explains.
I have no doubt that Squire Fort would be tickled pink to know that, out of all his messages in bottles that navigated rivers, crossed oceans, and washed ashore in distant lands, the one that survived the longest was found in his own back yard. Can’t you just hear him laughing about this?
This 1986 Ledger Enquirer article about Fort and his hobby spans two pages. It starts on the front page right next to news of the president commemorating the lost astronauts of Challenger. I left this intact to emphasize the significance of this story in the area of Columbus, Georgia at the time.
James H. Fort, Back in the News After 30 Year Hiatus
As best I can tell, no one ran any news stories about James H. Fort and his message in a bottle hobby between this one in 1986, and WRBL’s story in 2018. Well, he’s back in the news now, with all his trademark charm and whimsy! It’s clear that he loved sending messages in bottles – as you can see from the tone of his message below – but I do wish we could ask him why he sent messages in bottles.
James H. Fort’s fantastic, whimsical message in a bottle found in Georgia on the Chattahoochee by the Bland family in 2018 reads:
KINGDOM of NEPTUNE
Land of the Briny Deep
Know All Men By These Presents:
That in the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy nine, and the day of September 22nd, His Majesty’s Servant, James H. Fort, Captain of the vessel [Squirene], [late] out of the port of Columbus, Georgia, did with proper pomp and circumstance launch this bottle in the waters of Chattahoochee River near Lake Point state park in Eufaula, Alabama.
Under the law of the realm the finder of this message shall have SEVEN YEARS GOOD LUCK. — Amen.
You are hereby commanded to return the information requested. Fail not under penalty of forty lashes. Finis Unius Diei Est Principium.
BY COMMAND OF HIS MAJESTY, NEPTUNE
Google translates that Latin line as “The end of one day is beginning.” It is a shortened version of a more well-known saying in Latin, “Finis unius diei est principium alterius” which means “The end of one day is the beginning of another”.
Georgia Message in a Bottle Author, James H. Fort, Leaves Legacy of Joy
I never knew Squire Fort, as he apparently was called. Sadly, the Bland family, who found the absolute treasure that is his message in a bottle, won’t know him either, except through the paper trail he has left us in his bottled messages and appearances in the news.
Most likely, since he was a mere human being, Squire Fort had his faults. The news articles don’t exactly delve into these, but doubtless they existed.
However, in all my digging through ten decades of news articles about Mr. Fort, a picture began to emerge for me. The picture is of a hard working, big-hearted man with both a dead serious side and a fun-loving whimsical side. There are simply too many news articles about him to include here. In one, he may be assisting underprivileged people with their legal difficulties; in another, he’s sharing obscure history about Georgia’s laws that have roots in English laws from 500 years ago. He was clearly a wealth of knowledge.
In one article from the 1950s, he publicly critiqued local law enforcement when they did not investigate the death of an 11 year old black child named Oscar Thomas at Fort Benning (which spurred them to investigate after all). But in another article, he sued to get financial support for local law enforcement after they were forced to work overtime during protests that resulted in destruction of government property. He was a patriot to the backbone, serving 3 years in the Navy during World War II, attacking subs in the Atlantic and participating in the Normandy invasion.
Let that sink in… Imagine finding, in 2018, a message in a bottle from someone who was in the Normandy invasion… It boggles my mind…
Georgia’s James H. “Squire” Fort can’t be summed up in a simple blog post like this. He strikes me as the kind of person that makes you want to say, with a sigh, “Well, they just don’t make ’em like that any more…”
And you might be right for saying that. Unless you, unless I, unless we all take a lesson from his life, and try to balance the serious with the fun, the public with the private. We should try to understand the things he understood – for example, that “patriotism” takes many forms. Sometimes it means serving in the military. Other times it means sticking up for a dead black child in the south. Sometimes it means supporting the law enforcement community, other times it means critiquing it. Making the world better requires all the above – or at least Squire Fort thought so.
Perhaps more than anything, James H. “Squire” Fort seems to have understood that small, friendly acts of magic like sending messages in bottles are actually necessary in our troubled world. We have to balance the darkness with light somehow, and we have to make the light ourselves.
James H. Fort did that, and I want to do it, too.
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