April 2008 Issue
Fit to Print
The Budget and its far-flung correspondents report news that matters to the Amish
On a day when Hollywood scribes were updating the nation on the revolving-door rehab of various glitterati, Glen Hochstetler was holding forth on the snowfall in Gold Creek, Montana, and Daniel Hershberger was recounting the particulars of rescuing a horse that had fallen through the ice on a pond in Osceola, Missouri.
The snow in Montana and the mare in Missouri would go unnoticed by most of the nation, but not the Old Order Amish. Once a week, the comings and goings of the so-called “Plain People” are chronicled in a weekly Sugarcreek, Ohio, newspaper, The Budget.
For more than five score years, the publication has carried the latest news about hay mowings and spring lambings, the particular hues of stunning sunsets.
“It started in 1890,” editor Fannie Erb-Miller explains of The Budget, “and through the decades, it has been a daily history of a people; all the little things and the major events of their lives. ... You can tell that they stop to see it all. They will write about the stars in the skies or the color of a bird’s wing. They can see things from a buggy that you don’t see from a car.”
From Corinna, Maine, to Chewelah, Washington, almost 500 Amish correspondents file weekly dispatches with Erb-Miller; each missive scribbled in cursive on the ruled sheets of aBudget tablet and posted to Sugarcreek. Set in type, the filings fill 42 newspaper pages each Wednesday.
Erb-Miller’s predecessor at the helm of The Budget, George Smith, started out at the paper as a 12-year-old, setting type after school, and continued there until his death 81 years later in 2000. Some of the Old Order scribes who began writing for Smith while yet in their 20s are still at it well into their 80s. Much of what the correspondents detail would seem banal to the “English” (as the Amish call those who are not). In early February, a correspondent from Worthington, Indiana, who signed herself simply “Mrs. Melvin Kauffman,” wrote of nature hastening the closing of a church gathering:
“The meeting was almost over and we were looking forward to singing the closing song and then visiting awhile when word came ... of tornado warnings, and bad hailstorms. I cannot recall being out in this kind of storm before. We knew we had all of 30 minutes or more to get home. I felt so sorry for the poor horse as she headed directly into the wind and rain. ... Water was gushing crazily down both sides of the road and pouring down over the stone cliffs beside the road. The noise was immense. ... Out here in front of our place, the road was completely underwater.”
Erb-Miller edits the dispatches with a light hand, explaining, “You don’t want to take away the flavor of their writing.” She may repair the syntax or smooth the grammar, but even when her correspondents wax rhapsodic, it is her preference to let them have their say. If they are captivated by a night of shooting stars when the Perseids light the sky, she knows it is because they have not yet lost their capacity for awe.
Erb-Miller was born to a family of Old Order Amish, though when she was 4, her parents became Mennonites. Over the years, she has seen much change for the Amish. Because the ready availability of tillable land has always been central to their life, its scarcity in traditional strongholds — Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, say, or Holmes County, Ohio — has scattered settlements of the faithful to far-flung points of the compass. Sadly, the Amish find it increasingly difficult to maintain a respectable distance between the 19th-century pastoral that is their lives and the insanity of the English world. More than a year after the shootings in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, news of the protracted recovery of the survivors yet finds its way into the dispatches of scribes writing from Lancaster County. The small updates are, Erb-Miller says, not graphic. They do not rehash the crime in all of its fever-dream details. The Amish there buried their dead, their daughters, in rude pine boxes, in graves dug by church kinsman. It was not a thing they cared to dwell upon. They turned themselves back to the business of furrow and field.
Erb-Miller, likewise, turns back to her labors editing copy from Elnora, Indiana, where, despite changeable weather, the children had a chance to put on their ice skates. She proofreads Dan Yoder’s filing from Westfield, New York, in which her correspondent wrote:
“Last week, 4-year-old John, son of Enos Yoder, was put in the hospital ... with a ruptured appendix for two days. His stomach was turning blue and hard when they left. Sunday, he was recovering, but his chest was such that they didn’t want to move him out of ICU for fear he will get pneumonia.”
Interspersed with scribes’ reckonings on the turning of the seasons and the fortunes of farming,The Budget runs advertisements for livestock for sale, gas-powered washing machines, hearing-aid batteries and seamstress patterns for “Amish and plain” clothing.
As editor Erb-Miller knows only too well, the Amish have a moth-candle relationship with the English world from which they try to maintain a separate peace. Entrepreneurs from outside the Amish community are only too happy to trade upon the word Amish to sell their wares to bus-bound tourists who come to Holmes County and gawk at the passing buggies. Conversely, non-Amish businesses have provided a cottage-industry windfall to everyone from quilters to cooks to woodworkers.
“They have money that they didn’t have a couple decades ago,” Erb-Miller says of the Amish. Yet, despite that money, she adds, the Old Order Amish in Holmes County maintain a retention of their young into the faith of “about 90 percent.”
From Mt. Ignatius, Montana, Mrs. Orlie Troyer recently reported:
“Joseph Miller had a few heart-stopping moments this week when he was using his dad’s team of Percherons to skid some firewood logs out of the woods near their home. He dropped the lines for a brief instant to give the log a half turn, and, in that instant, the team took off. ... They disappeared in a cloud of snow, and when he caught up with them, they had straddled a tree and were both down. The one horse got up again and ran home without a stitch of harness or bridle on him. The other one, they had to work with a while to get him up and he appeared to have some injuries, but no broken bones.”
“Some of them are excellent writers,” Erb-Miller says of herreporters.
Change a name here or there, and a report sent to her in 2008 could just as easily be a report on the goings-on within an Amish community a hundred years earlier in 1908. Yet, her scribes are keenly aware of the profound differences wrought by that century of change. They have made it clear to Erb-Miller that they want no part of having their dispatches placed on the Internet, although the English section of the paper is posted there.
Time and life move to the dictates of a different clock in Amish country. To Erb-Miller falls the task of trying to squeeze it into 42 pages of newsprint once a week.
It is the news, plain and simple.