The old piece of paper turned out to be an ancient McDonald County $100 bond, marked "payable to bearer" and issued in 1871 to help pay for the new county courthouse. (The old one had burned down.) At first Foster felt the bond was just a historical curiosity; then a thought struck him. If it had never been redeemed, then it had been compounding interest at the rate of 10 percent a year for 110 years. Foster calculated that it might be worth something like $4 million.
The innkeeper raced six miles to the current county courthouse, which is in Pineville (the one his bond helped pay for is now a museum). But news travels fast in the Ozarks, and county clerk Lou Harmon, 39, was waiting for Foster when he arrived. Harmon looked the certificate over, then sat down with his adding machine to compute the interest. When he had finished, he had a tally sheet 22 feet long. He led Foster to the offices of the three county judges—Missouri talk for county commissioners—where Judge Fayette Crosby, 77, a retired grocer, eyed the document skeptically and asked, "Just what is this here bond worth?" Lou Harmon gave him the bad news: $3,574,636.84. "Those three ol'judges were as nervous as a whore in church," chuckled one local.
After consulting the prosecuting attorney, Benjamin A. Hormel, 47, Their Honors decided to postpone a decision "to research the matter." Said Foster: "Take your time, fellas. It's only costing you $1,000 a day in interest."
The news of Foster's find touched off another fool's gold rush in McDonald County. When the judges convened an emergency meeting a week later, the courtroom swarmed with gawking onlookers and reporters from as far away as Joplin (40 miles). As for the judges, they were gussied up in their soberest suits with hair slicked down. "At least I helped you fellas clean up some," Foster cracked.
The hearing was brief. Lou Harmon advised the judges that the county was $5,000 in debt and its budget was less than one-third the value of Foster's bond. The condition for redemption of the bond was stated as "at the pleasure of the county court." Plainly, the judges were feeling anything but pleasure.
Several other people have discovered bonds since Foster came forth. "We are refusing payment of any sum on any of these bonds," says Hormel, "including Mr. Foster's." Though he is still demanding payment, Foster won't press his case yet. "I really don't want to file suit," he says. "I know good and well there's no money in this county. To me it would be like suing my mother. Why in the hell didn't I find a stock certificate that said American Telephone and Telegraph, or Standard Oil of New Jersey, or something good? Anything but McDonald County, U.S.A."
Nobody has raised such a ruckus in Ginger Blue, Mo. since Mathias Splitlog started a rush for what proved to be fool's gold in the late 1800s and a bunch of the local gentry went flat broke. The sensation now sweeping the little (pop. 55) Ozark mountain town is over a yellowed document George W. Foster discovered in the attic of the Ginger Blue Resort, which he owns. Foster and some of his employees were going through the attic flotsam one day last June, looking for enough junk to stage an auction, when George spotted an old wooden cabinet under the eaves. His bartender pried it open and announced, "Just an old piece of paper here."