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Voices from the Country. An Amish newspaper celebrates a century of Plain speaking

EVERY morning, George Smith walks the half block to the post office, checks his personal mailbox, then bends down to pull out a boxful of fascinating letters. They come from places like Topeka, Ind.: ``A lot of field work is being done among the Amish.''

And Mendon, Mich.: ``After church we all made a call at Jake Wickeys's, known as `Gabby.' We finally got those school-age girls coaxed into singing and yodeling for us, some very beautiful singing.''

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Each week, these and similar letters from Amish and Mennonite writers fill the national edition of the Budget. In fact, the newspaper contains little else.

``Some good country correspondence - that's all it is,'' says Mr. Smith, the paper's associate editor. ``When you read their letters week after week, you learn about their family and about them, their likes and dislikes, and things like that. You almost feel as though you know them, even though you've never met them.''

The Budget has two editions. The Ohio edition carries regular news from Sugarcreek, Ohio, and the surrounding area, which boasts the largest concentration of Amish (a strict Mennonite sect founded in the 17th century) in the world. The national edition, with 18,000 readers in the United States, Canada, Central America, and Europe, carries recipes, classified ads, and the letters: ``Andrew M. Yoders spotted a pair of sparrow hawks, not too far from their house, with hopes they are building a nest,'' says one.

From Dover, Del.: ``Rudy Yoders had quite an interesting experience Fri. evening with what appeared to be a pet raccoon. ... John Mark started petting it when suddenly the raccoon got him on the back of his head, either bit or clawed him that it bled, so they called the game warden.'' (John Mark was OK.)

The letters often begin with the weather, as one might expect from a people with deep agrarian roots. The most conservative of the 15 to 20 Amish groups in Ohio don't believe in using modern technology, but their accommodations to it show up in their letters. They write about train trips and the cars and drivers they hire to visit relatives. They write about trips to the hospital and other medical news. Many conservative Amish still don't have telephones, so the thoroughly modern Budget (now on its third computer system) helps them communicate with items like this one from Barrs Mills, Ohio:

``To the ladies that were in church at Pre. Clyde J. Coblentzes', Feb. 26th or March 12th, check your shawls. Mrs. Edwin L. Yoder does not have her own shawl. The one she has now is a heavier shawl with a light blue diaper pin in it.''

``You'll find all sorts of things in it,'' says William Schreiber, an Amish scholar who spent a year studying the paper. Mr. Schreiber recalls the story of Amish boys who got even with a bishop by chopping down his cherry trees.

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Births figure prominently in the Budget. But an Amish mother doesn't earn a front-page mention until her 16th child. In January, the paper announced the passing of Mrs. Sarah Zook Schwartz of Springfield, Mo., who left 685 direct living descendants: 13 children, 175 grandchildren, 477 great-grandchildren, and 20 great-great-grandchildren.

``That's a world record right there,'' says Smith, who relies on more than 400 letter writers, or ``scribes,'' to tell the news of their communities. Some scribes have been writing for 50 years - almost as long as Smith's 69 years with the paper.

Smith, a Lutheran, worked for the paper as a boy, helping his father and then buying the paper from him. In 1974, he sold it to two employees, who later sold it to the paper's largest advertiser. Smith keeps working part time, sorting, editing, and pasting up the letters.

``I'd like to stick around long enough to put out our 100th anniversary edition next year,'' he says. This month, the paper begins its year-long centennial celebration, inviting the scribes to come and visit the newspaper they've written for all these years.

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