Betty Sheffler stubbed out her cigarette in the turtle ashtray, shifted in her motorized scooter and, with a whiff of resignation, signed the papers.
She'd get her money in a week or so. For now, the 80-year-old woman lit into the young man from the Missouri Department of Transportation.
"It is a house of history. And it seems such a shame, such a pitiful shame for so much thought to be put into any place," Sheffler said, "and have it destroyed."
They were gathered inside Sheffler's horseshoe-shaped house in the state's northeast corner. The highway - the reason for this awkward meeting - runs close by on its way to the Iowa border. The home's exterior walls were covered with exotic, multihued rocks from all over the world. Inside there was even more rock - Mexican calcite, Brazilian quartz and thousands of Keokuk geodes, rocks unique to this region.
For years, hobbyists and tourists have stopped here, at Sheffler Rock Shop [in Alexandria MO], to buy, talk, or spend a few hours digging for their own rocks at Sheffler's geode mines.
Sheffler's place is considered a treasure for collectors, and an ever-more valuable one as the places open to rock hunters become increasingly hard to find, just like the rocks themselves. "They have quite a reputation all over the country," said Steve Weinberger of the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies.
But the rock shop and the house, and perhaps even the mines, will soon be gone. Sheffler has until May 1 to leave the land she's owned for nearly 60 years. The state needs it to expand Highway 61 to four lanes from two, part of the Avenue of the Saints running from St. Louis to St. Paul.
Sheffler fought the state. But the state pushed back with a court-ordered condemnation under eminent domain. Which is why the man from the highway department was visiting last week with the promise of compensation.
"I'd just as soon tear up the check and set fire to it and stay home," Sheffler said. "But it's not my home, now is it?"
The man from the highway department stood with his hands clasped in front of him. He said nothing. Off to the side sat an old cash register with a large sign reading, "All Sales Final."
Bit by "rock bug"
Sheffler grew up a few miles from Alexandria, in Keokuk, Iowa, just over the Des Moines River. That's where the "rock bug" bit early.
As a young girl, she hunted geodes - ordinary round rocks that belie their sparkling crystal interiors. They were easy to find back then. The Keokuk region has one the highest concentration of geodes in the nation. Most were deposited more than 300 million years ago when a shallow sea covered the land. Keokuk geodes are favored because of their colorful bursts of crystals - yellows, pinks, blacks and purples.
"The rough exterior is not very pretty," Sheffler said. "But you look inside and it is beautiful."
In 1947, she married and moved to the property she is now losing to the highway. She recalled how her late husband was astonished at the truckloads of rocks that came with his new bride. Twelve years later, she opened her rock shop. In 1960, she opened her first geode mine. And in 1971, she and her husband finished the horseshoe-shaped house with 60 tons of rocks laid in the walls.
The aboveground mine looks like an old excavating pit with walls of dirt-covered shale. That's where the geodes hide. Sheffler started out charging $2 per person to mine. She closed one mine and opened another. Last summer, the price was $15 per person for 50 pounds of rocks.
It is one thing to show a geode in a display case, Sheffler said. "It is another thing to let people go in and dig their own and get the thrill of it."
Steve Rudloff knows the thrill. A short time after the highway man left Sheffler's house, Rudloff arrived looking to dig. He'd driven the 160 miles from Jefferson City that morning.
"I thought I'd give it a shot before the highway comes through," said Rudloff, 57.
He was covered in orange mud. Rudloff wore an insulated jumpsuit and gloves to protect against the chill. Sitting on his knees, he swung a hammer against a chisel pointed into the shale. Tap, tap, tap. He moved the chisel a bit. Tap, tap. He tossed broken pieces of black rock over his shoulder. He set aside two small geodes.
He hit the chisel a few more times and stopped. He picked up a gray geode that had split open. He held it in the sun. The light caught a wealth of crystals colored gold and shaped like tiny squares.
"I've just never found one that nice before."
"It's a terrible thing"
The 526-mile Avenue of the Saints project is completed except for a 17-mile stretch around Sheffler's place. The narrow highway is considered treacherous. Trucks fly past with only a double yellow line in between. In 2000, this stretch emerged as a symbol of unsafe roads when a teenager, just weeks from her high school graduation, was killed in a head-on collision.
Sheffler has known for years that the state might take her land. Last August, the highway department went to court, invoking the government's right to take private property for certain purposes. In January, the state paid $632,868 to compensate Sheffler for the loss of 21 acres, according to state records. She will keep about 30 nearby acres.
Most of the land is empty. But the highway and a new interchange will run through her house and between the two geode mines, coming perilously close to them, if not closing them entirely.
"That's right where the interchange needs to be," explained Tom Batenhorst, a state highway project manager. "It's unfortunate."
Sheffler's son, Tim, manages the business for his mom. He wants to reopen the shop in a new location. He doesn't know what will happen to the mines. He expects the mines to be closed this year, and perhaps forever.
Keokuk, a town of 11,000 residents, had declared Sept. 20, 1997, "Betty Sheffler Day." There were T-shirts and speeches. Last year, the town hosted its first Rocktober Geode Fest. Sheffler's place was one of the main attractions. Most prime rock hunting spots are off-limits due to concerns about liability insurance and trespassing.
Rockhounds, with numbers estimated at more than 50,000 nationwide, say they don't know what they'll do without Sheffler's place. There are perhaps fewer than a dozen such geode mines in the country, and none as well-known.
"It's a terrible thing for all of us," said June Culp Zeitner, of Rapid City, S.D.
Zeitner, known as the "Queen of Mineralogy," has authored nine books on rocks. At age 90 and with the days of climbing rock piles behind her, Zeitner is working on a new book. This one is about geodes. She has visited Sheffler's mine many times.
"Every place we lose, we can't get back. It was the last place that I know of where we knew we could find something and it was legal," Zeitner said.
Back at her house, Sheffler recalled one of Zeitner's visits. She sat in her scooter in an area crammed with now-empty glass display cases.
"We sat here, right where you're standing and pulled out geodes. She loves dew-drop geodes. And the dew drop is so lovely," Sheffler said. "So lovely."
Sheffler recalled the crystal's appearance from memory. Her bright blue eyes see little these days. She can make out the shadows of a visitor standing in front of her, but not a geode's fine crystal fingers. The beauty of rocks she collected her entire life are beyond her now.
"I miss them. I really miss them," she said.
Soon, Sheffler will leave her house of rock.
Tim Sheffler secured two halves of a large geode with masking tape. His mother asked if it was one of her favorites. He asked her to describe it.
"Selenite from one side to the other, probably 20 some-odd sprigs of selenite," she said.
"It's the same one," he responded.
"The exterior felt different to me," she said.
Tim Sheffler finished wrapping the rock and packed it away for the move.
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