Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Burt Blake – The Basket Man

By David Parmer

Burt Blake was born John Burton Blake to William and Viney Blake1 on Clover Fork in 1886. Growing up on Clover Fork and as an adult in Orlando , John Burton Blake was known simply as "Burt". Burt, a thin man with reddish hair and whiskers, lived quietly, without impact. He had few friends, he never married. He walked with the aid of a stick or pole which had a crook at the bottom and on which he rested the leg which was apparently shorter than the other. The stick served much the same purpose as would a crutch or cane. About the only thing he is remembered for, other than his eccentricities2, is his baskets.

At some point in his life, Burt left Clover Fork and took up residence in Orlando, living with a Blake cousin, John M. Blake, in a tiny shack out around the hill from the school house. Burt’s cousin John was also eccentric, a confirmed bachelor, a loner, prone to seizures. Some believed Burt and John were brothers, but to many small children they were simply curiosities to be looked at and to be kept at a distance. It is said that Burt and John did not bathe regularly and it was best not to be down wind of them. Of course in their day this might have been said of many persons when Saturday night baths were the norm.

While John carried on the occupations of miller, watch repairer, handyman and grave digger, Burt’s way of making a living was the making of sturdy, simple, and useful baskets.

Shown at the right are baskets made by Burt Blake in the 1940s purchased from him by the Henline family of Orlando . These examples show that Burt made a variety of useful, sturdy baskets in graceful, aesthetically pleasing shapes. These baskets though well used are pleasing to look at as art objects. Although Burt was lacking in certain aspects of his life, he was an artist of high order when it came to basketmaking.

The pictured baskets are examples of a classic egg, or "buttock" basket, a large flat bottomed vegetable carrier and an even larger and deeper storage basket. They are greatly prized by their current owner, Barbara Parmer. Mildred Morrison (McNemar), a near neighbor of Burt recalls Burt selling his baskets in the Charley Knight Store. Dale Barnett recalls the baskets being sold for a quarter, some for fifty cents, and the really extra special baskets went for a dollar, quite a sum in those days. Today, baskets not nearly as sturdy nor well made would fetch many times Burt’s prices, and they are good only for setting on top of the cabinets.

Where Burt learned his skill as a basketmaker we don’t know, but in his day, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat, so Burt must have learned his basketmaking at a young age, and with materials which didn’t cost anything except the labor of going on the hill to cut branches and bark, soaking them in water, and molding and weaving them into shapes that would please the eye of the farmer’s wife.

Cousin John Blake died in 1947. John owned the shack the two bachelors shared and soon John’s family took possession of the only house that Burt had to call home and Burt had to find another place to live. Having no family left in Orlando , Burt lived out his final days in Walkersville where he died in 1953 at the age of 66. He is buried in the Mitchell Cemetery on Clover Fork in an unmarked grave.

Thanks to Dorothy (Riffle) Weckbacker, who now lives in the Marietta, Ohio area. She knew Burt as she was growing up in Orlando and supplied some of the information presented here.

1. Viney’s name has been spelled a number of different ways in the official records, including Silvinie, Sabina, and Vinia, take your pick.

2. Burt's excentricities are thought to be the result of intermarriage. Burt was a "double cousin."
Burt's mother, Viney, b. 1859, was the daughter of Stewart McClung and Lucinda B.(Posey) Blake.
Burt's father, William T. was the son of Anthony and Rebecca (Posey) Blake.
Stewart McClung Blake and Anthony Blake were brothers.
Rebecca Posey was the daughter of Alfred Posey, Lucinda Posey's brother.
Therefore, Burt's parents were first cousins and first cousins once removed.
A contemporary, and cousin, Lee W. Blake voiced his concerns at the beginning of his monograph, Blakes and Riffles Going Back To The Seventh Generation.

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