Message in a bottle mission leads to Maggie

By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | Dec 06, 2013
Photo by: Donated photo Clint Buffington holds up a message in a bottle he found in Turks and Caicos in 2011.

Clint Buffington was about to give up for the day after combing a beach in the Turks and Caicos Islands for hours.

He was looking for something meaningful buried in the sand but all he found were water bottles full of trash, cigarette butts, shoes, light bulbs and other garbage. He was quickly losing hope.

“This is ridiculous. I am looking for some beauty and some human connection among all this wreckage and the sun is cooking my brain and all that’s here is sorrow and severed mannequin heads,” he wrote in his blog.

And that is when he saw it — a message in a bottle. Others may comb the beach for money or valuables, but Buffington has been searching for these drifting messages lost in time since 2007. He tries to track down the people who sent them and chronicles the experiences on his blog “Message in a Bottle Hunter.” He was able to trace this particular bottle back to a family in Maggie Valley.

Buffington said the heat that day fogged the bottle and the card inside was plastered to the glass. He held the bottle up to the sun to try to make out the words on the old and weathered card inside. The card belonged to John E. Freeland, Associate of Cypress Gardens Realty & Insurance located in Winter Haven, Florida.

“To anyone finding this card: Mail it to me and retrieve by return mail an American dollar. John E. Freeland,” the back of the card read.

Lucky for Buffington, the card contained his work and home number.

“No website, no fax, not even a cell phone number,” Buffington said. “I know from the moment I read the card and examine the bottle that this is not someone I will find on Facebook. This message is old.”

But the challenge is half the fun for Buffington. The bottle is a great find —but it is only the beginning of the bottle’s journey. He knew he would have to get on the phone to track down Freeland. The first number he called on the card was out of service.

Buffington used YouTube to try to identify the era the bottle was made. After watching several vintage commercials, he finally found a match — a 1970s Canada Dry bottle. He decided to pull out an old trick his dad taught him and contacted a newspaper near the sender’s address to ask for help.

A reporter at the News Chief near Cypress Gardens was able to help Buffington in his search, but it wasn’t good news. Freeland had died in 1996 at the age of 84, which was 15 years before the bottle was found.

“It took the air out of my lungs. I mean, I always know that there is a chance — especially with older messages — that the sender may have died before I could find them,” he said. “But knowing this possibility doesn’t make it any less sad when it really happens.”

The good news was the reporter was able to locate Freeland’s son, 69-year-old Phillip Freeland, in Maggie Valley. Phil said he was definitely surprised to receive the call from Buffington in July 2011.

“It was very strange because I really didn’t know that my father had done this,” he said.

After speaking to his 96-year-old mother, Mary Freeland, in Mars Hill, Phil found out that his father sent many of these bottles during their travels. The Freelands probably visited more than 100 countries in 30 years and John would throw out a bottle on each trip. Many of the bottles were found all over the world but none had been adrift as long as the one Buffington discovered.

Phil said his father had even become pen pals with several of the finders who wrote to him. He found all the letters and maps in his father’s files after he passed away. John made connections with people in Sri Lanka, India, South America and Korea.

“On a cruise earlier this year, I didn’t even think about doing that,” Phil said. “But dad liked to travel and meet new people all over the world. He would write to them about his trips and send them a dollar or two as promised.”

The more Buffington and Phil spoke, the more connections they found between them. Their lives intertwined through many of the same places — Chicago, Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven and Western North Carolina. After their initial conversation, Buffington knew he had to meet Phil in person. He wanted to comb through John Freeland’s letters and maps to determine where the bottle he found was dropped. He has now visited Phil in Maggie Valley twice and they keep in regular contact.

During one visit, Phil said Buffington brought along the bottle with his father’s note still inside as well as two other message bottles he found recently.

“Clint is very thorough – it’s not a causal thing for him. He spends the time to find out about the people,” Phil said.

Buffington’s motivation is simple — he wants to know why people still send messages in a bottle. He said his family had always had a knack for seeking out unusual things.

“So, when I found that first message — one of a million pieces of garbage on a desolate beach — something strangely familiar clicked for me, and finding messages in bottles became the latest manifestation of that instinct,” he said.

Phil said he knows there are more of his father’s bottles out there, “but I don’t know if this will ever happen again — it’s been 15 to 20 years since his last cruise.”

To read more about Buffington’s message in a bottle search, visit

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