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Woman finds century old note in a bottle

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By Lisa King

When the Shelby County Court House was built 95 years ago, a worker stashed a note in an empty whiskey bottle and hid it inside a stairwell. How do we know this?

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Because an employee at the Circuit Court Clerk's office found it by accident.

"I was coming downstairs from the attic, and I noticed that the column post at the end of the staircase was crooked," Donna Cantrill said.

"So I put my hand on it, and it was really loose. I got maintenance to take this front panel off before it fell off and hurt someone," she said, pointing to the gaping hole in the newel post.

But when the panel was removed, Cantrill made an astounding discovery.

"There was something in there; I could see it," she said. "So I reached in an got it, and it was a bottle with a letter in it."

Cantrill took the bottle and showed it to Circuit Court Clerk Kathy Nichols, who was also amazed that the note had been in that stairwell for 95 years.

"And another eerie thing is the date on the note," Nichols said, pointing to the paper, which was in surprisingly good condition.

"It says, 'April 30, 1914,' and this is April 29 when we found it," she said. "That is really a weird coincidence."

The note was apparently penned by men putting the finishing touches on the courthouse, as construction began on the edifice in 1912 and was completed in 1914. The note bears two names, Charles Fontana, "setter and contractor," and George Henry, "helper."

Other than the names and the date, the note bears no other information, save for this message: "Whiskey drinker, all so and shooting the can by george."

The whiskey bottle containing the note was engraved with the words, "100 proof," and had a glass stopper.

The artifact was the topic of conversation around the court house on Wednesday when it was found, and most employees stopped by the clerk's office to take a look at it.

"Too bad there's no whiskey in it," said Baliff George Poulter, sniffing the bottle. "Those fellows didn't leave a drop in it before they hid it in the staircase."

"I don't much blame them; I wouldn't have either," said another guy, examining the stopper.

The present court house, which will soon be supplemented by a new judicial center, isn't the first court house building to grace the county, but it is the latest in a series of many. The first was a log courthouse built in 1793 by contractor William Shannon for 15 pounds.

The second --- a two-story brick structure -- was built in 1796 by Josiah and Winfield Bullock, who were the low bidders at 1076 pounds. The 36-by-42-foot building had a spire and pediment over the entrance.

The third court house, built in 1814, was a brick structure of the foursquare form covered by a hip roof with a cupola in the center. In 1841, this building was declared unsafe, and construction began on a fourth building in 1844 and was completed in 1847. This $11,150, three-story brick structure featured a Doric order portico with a spire over the roof. It was dismantled in 1911 to make way for the current structure, which is a two-story, stone building fronted by a Corinthian order portico. The Shelby County Court House was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978.

Nichols said she intends to have local historian Gail Reed look at the antique bottle.

"I guess maybe we should continue this tradition and leave something like this in the new court house for somebody to find a hundred years from now," she said, turning the bottle over in her hands. "It's like holding a little piece of history."