SPENCER, Ind. (AP) - It was while mushroom hunting two years ago on her family’s homeplace that Betty Blaker stumbled upon the 500-pound hunk of sandstone that will be the marker on her grave.
Its location there on Blaker’s 300 acres north of Spencer meant it likely had been a foundation stone for her grandfather’s house, where her mother, Rose Fern Livingston, was born. She called on brothers Steve and Lewis Fender, meat cutters and neighbors down the road, who showed up with their skid loader to haul the giant rock out of the woods.
“I knew the minute I saw it,” 88-year-old Blaker said, standing beside the stone. “It’s perfect for a green burial cemetery.” Steve Fender has since carved “Blaker” across the front, “Milo” on one side and “Betty” on the other. He was careful not to remove the moss coating the rock, to keep it as close to nature as possible.
Six years ago, against all odds, despite laws forbidding it and local officials who opposed her plan, the Owen County woman fought to make her husband’s final request a reality.
In the spring of 2010, during his last days on Earth, Milo Blaker told his wife of 50 years he wanted to be buried up on the long, wooded slope between their house and the road.
He wanted to spend eternity on their land, “up there on that hill by you.” She asked family friend Ed Tilford to come down and dig the hole. He did.
Milo Blaker was 88 when he passed away on a spring day in March. His widow arranged for a simple funeral and home burial, then discovered she could be charged with a felony if she buried Milo on ground that wasn’t a cemetery.
So she temporarily interred her husband, inside a hand-rubbed cherry wood coffin built by the Fender brothers and lined with blue satin, at Rose Cemetery, not far from their simple house. Then she set out to bring him back home for a legal burial.
After more than a year hounding Owen County’s three elected commissioners, Blaker got permission to establish a two-plot green burial site on a 20-by-22-foot parcel of land on the hillside, selling the property to the county for $1. On a Sunday afternoon in 2011, she drove Milo’s red Ford F-150 pickup down to the cemetery, where the Fenders had exhumed the casket. With Milo’s devoted dog, Sporty, along in the front seat, Blaker drove Milo back home and buried him, for good.
Ever since, she’s been trying to dedicate 10 acres of her family land for a green burial ground, Blaker Cemetery, a place where bodies can be laid to rest and simply decompose back to the earth. No embalming, no fancy casket, no fanfare. But the process is complicated by state regulations and financial roadblocks that make her dream just that, something she wants more than anything but cannot seem to make happen.
“You’d be surprised how many people are interested in this,” Blaker said. “I had a guy, he called me about it, said he wanted to be buried just in a shroud, and he wondered if we could do that, and I had to tell him no,” she said. “He lives here in Spencer, and he’s 90, older than I am. There isn’t a lot of time to waste here.”
‘She gets attached to things’
Betty Blaker lives alone, with two stray dogs and a few dozen cats who roam the woods around her wood-frame house. The area is littered with old cars and trucks dating back more than 60 years, vintage vehicles that had value before they rusted away - a 1946 Plymouth, a 1953 Ford sedan, a once-spectacular 1961 Ford Galaxie.
She is resourceful, frugal, tenacious, stubborn, savvy, self-sufficient. “Ornery” is the word Steve Fender uses to describe this sometimes eccentric woman he’s known most of his life and whom he now assists with big chores, such as burying livestock. The word “cantankerous” comes to mind as well. But she is softening around the edges as she nears nine decades of living.
“She’s usually pretty upbeat, but if you make her mad, she might just cuss you out,” Fender said. “You have to tell her what you think and if you don’t, she loses respect for you. She isn’t one for saying what people want to hear, that’s for sure. She is indescribable, hard to get a handle on.”
This is the first fall Blaker didn’t cut and split her own firewood; a bout with Lyme disease has sapped her strength. Fender hauled four dump trucks loaded with heavy log blocks from an Amish sawmill near Worthington to get her through the winter.
On a cold morning recently she stoked the stove with wood - she calls it “fixing the fire” - before heading off to feed her cows. Milo and Betty used to raise beef cattle, but after he died, she couldn’t bear to let the herd go. Seventy cows became pets, and she drives a half mile down the road twice a day to feed the three that remain. “Betty, she gets attached to things,” Fender said.
Blaker reckons the cows are 20 to 25 years old. “They get produce in the morning and bread of an evening,” she said. One, Bob - he has a bobbed tail - glared warily at a stranger as Blaker put out his breakfast. A red cow who has trouble getting around received a special treat with breakfast this day - a loaf of French bread atop compressed hay and a head of wilted romaine lettuce, long past its prime. “Come on, kiddo,” she said, tossing the meal over a wood-plank farm fence. “It’s time to eat.”
She cannot bear to see food go to waste, and makes regular rounds of area grocery stores in her truck - Babbs Supervalu, Sav-A-Lot, IGA - filling the bed with produce and bakery items tossed out as garbage. “They like their pie, especially fruit pies,” Blaker said of the cows.
She visits Bloomington’s Hoosier Hills Food Bank as well, often leaving with unwanted items that become unlikely cattle feed. Like the time she brought home thousands of stale ice cream cones. Her cows liked those, Blaker said, but are not fans of yeast doughnuts.
Always along with her on these scavenging trips: Nicky the hound - “found him just running down the road” - and Winnie, the pit bull mix - “he just came down the driveway one day.”
Years ago, she had dozens of dogs.
“People used to dump dogs out here all the time, knowing Betty would take them in,” Steve Fender said.
When he and Lewis were kids - they are 65 and 67 years old now - they would ride their bikes to town, always pedaling faster passing by the Blakers, since dogs would run out to chase them down the road. He chuckled at the long-ago memory.
Fender called Blaker’s politics conservative, “but she sure doesn’t have anything nice to say about Donald Trump.” She believes in God, but finds her religion in nature, living her life in a way that honors creation and also creatures, including the lowly raccoon and opossum she feeds supermarket surplus, sometimes unsold birthday cakes.
“Everybody must think I’m crazy. But I don’t bother worrying about that.”
A simple existence
There’s no television at Betty Blaker’s house, “ever since they switched to that black box.” She never turns on the radio. “I like it quiet,” she said. What about severe weather alerts? “If a tornado’s coming, I’ll know it’s coming,” she said.
Blaker keeps up on world events by reading two newspapers front to back: The Herald-Times at lunch and the Spencer Evening World over dinner.
Two decades past the age most people have retired, she keeps busy from sunup until dark. Anyone who wants to catch her on the phone needs to call before sunrise or after 8 p.m. “I don’t understand how in the world anyone can be bored with life,” Blaker said. “I never know one minute to the next what’s gonna happen.”
She is usually up by 6 a.m. and starts her day reading, most often a paperback Western. “I got one the other day down at the mission store for a quarter, a Zane Grey, ‘Wanderer of the Wasteland,’” she said. Her favorite books are William Johnstone Westerns.
After reading, she might wash some clothes and bring in firewood before heading out to feed the cows. Then, she often drives into Spencer for errands and to collect what is being thrown away at the grocery stores. She might go by the rental house she owns across from Riverside Cemetery, where her mother used to live, to check on the tenants or repairs being done.
She keeps her diet simple, and swears by eating potatoes every day, most often mashed or fried. A neighbor supplies her with bushels of red potatoes from a garden, best for frying. She likes green beans with cheese melted on top and eats whatever fruit she has on hand, pink grapefruit being her favorite. “It helps the immune system, and your cholesterol, too,” she said.
She used to grow a big garden and can fruits and vegetables for the winter. She has exhibited canned foods and produce at the Owen County Fair for 78 consecutive years, not missing one. Maple syrup tapped from trees in her woods won a top award in 2013.
At the 2009 county fair, the last one before Milo died, he won grand champion honors for his shell-out beans. The Evening World ran a picture of him sitting in a chair, proudly holding his plate of dried beans.
Not giving up
Before the weather turned cold this winter, Blaker got down on her hands and knees on the hillside where her husband lies buried and planted another 100 daffodil bulbs. Milo Baker loved daffodils, and his widow has planted some every fall since his death. Come spring, the steep slope outside her kitchen window turns to a carpet of yellow, “like bright sunshine,” she said.
As she goes about life, a worry sticks in the back of her mind. Blaker is set on making sure her green cemetery is allowed to expand beyond just two plots. It is the legacy she wants to leave. She has no heirs.
“All Milo wanted was to be buried there on that hill,” she said. “And it took a whole lot to get that to happen. I’m not gonna stop now.”
Two new county commissioners were to take office in Owen County, and Blaker said she will go before the three-member board this month to reintroduce her green cemetery proposal.
The day Milo Blaker was reburied in November 2011, 20 friends and family members gathered at the site as six men carried the casket from the truck to the tomb and placed it gently into a 4-foot-deep hole in the ground beneath a hickory tree.
All three commissioners who had voted to approve the burial ground were there. George Jennings smiled when it was suggested they may have started something by allowing the home burial. So be it.
“I have known Betty Blaker all my life,” Jennings said that afternoon. “It was the right thing to do. I’m glad she was able to put him to rest.”
Source: The (Bloomington) Herald-Times, https://bit.ly/2hKNOoz
Information from: The Herald Times, https://www.heraldtimesonline.com
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