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A Homely Link for Mennonites, Amish Across America

SARASOTA, Fla. -- For 112 years, The Budget weekly newspaper has kept Amish and Mennonite families around America and abroad in touch with one another.
More than 450 ``scribes,” unpaid correspondents, provide the paper's heart: homey letters that document the lives of far-flung relatives and congregations and give this national-international weekly the warmth and soul of a small-town publication.
``We actually have a network of scribes greater than the New York Times,” said owner and publisher Albert Spector.
The scribes report marriages, births, deaths and church visits -- anything they think might interest readers. From Corinna, Maine: ``Sun. evening at dusk a flock of 40 wild turkeys walked through the upper part of our garden.” From Horse Cave, Ky.: ``All is well that ends well for young James Miller! He somehow got his driving lines crossed and the young horse he was using ditched him with his dad's buggy.”
Reports come from 30 or so of the mainland states -- from California to Oregon to New York to Florida -- and from Canada and missions in Paraguay, Haiti, Mongolia and other nations.
The Budget goes to press every Wednesday out of Sugarcreek, Ohio. Its national edition has about 20,000 subscribers and possibly as many as 150,000 readers. A broadsheet, with up to 44 pages, the paper advertises trotting mares and farm auctions, pie carriers and Amish clothing patterns, church cookbooks and free Bible studies.
Still, it's the letters that keep subscribers eager for The Budget to arrive by Friday for a weekend of reading about families, revival meetings and visiting bishops.
``Some people don't like The Budget. They call it a gossip letter,” said Vera Overholt of Sarasota, a scribe for 39 years. ``I call it a big circle letter.”
She operates a fruit stand in Pinecraft, a community in Sarasota that draws winter vacationers and year-round residents from every variety of the family of Amish and Mennonite churches, which share a common ancestry and theology but which differ congregation to congregation in styles of dress and in what modern technologies they adopt.
Overholt, for example, calls herself Amish Mennonite, saying she wears modern plain dress and uses current conveniences, such as the electric typewriter on which she writes for The Budget.
She attended a recent scribe breakfast in Pinecraft that annually brings together correspondents from several states.
Spector, who is Jewish, divides his time between Wooster, Ohio, and Longboat Key, near Sarasota. When he bought The Budget in 1980, he had no publishing experience but was the paper's largest advertiser through his family's fabric stores in Ohio and Indiana that largely cater to the Amish.
He said when his father started the stores in 1920, few Amish spoke English but their Pennsylvania Dutch was surprisingly similar to Yiddish. Since assuming ownership, Spector has worked to maintain The Budget's personality as a newspaper for and mostly by the Amish.
``I think they're very happy people. They get along without the things that we feel are necessities. And they seem to be perfectly satisfied with the way they are living,” he said.
The breakfasts started casually some 25 years ago; now many scribes plan their vacations around it. This year's event drew a record 66 Amish and Mennonite guests -- including 35 scribes and various spouses from Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Colorado, Arkansas, Illinois and Iowa.
Assistant publisher Keith Rathbun said many ``English” -- or non-Amish -- take the paper because they like the peacefulness of Amish life.
While the Amish try not to become too worldly, sometimes they become eyewitnesses to the world's news. During the Sept. 11 attacks, the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania near an Amish community.
Scribe David Miller of Meadville, Pa., and his wife, Anna, had been to the World Trade Center just a few days before. The Millers, horse-and-buggy Old-Order Amish who have a country store and woodworking business, were visiting New York as part of an Amish tour group.
They took an evening tour of the center, staying up until after dark to view the sunset and city lights. On Sept. 10, David Miller mailed to The Budget an account of their happy visit. His next letter expressed empathy for the terror of those who had been trapped within.
Nealie Miller, 33, of Sarasota, who is not related to David, said when he writes for The Budget he's communicating in his heart with estranged family members who are unhappy because he and his wife, Malinda, 32, left the Old-Order Amish life in which both had been raised. Briefly, Nealie and Malinda were ``out in the world.” But now they consider themselves conservative Beechy Amish, perhaps one step from Old-Order, the main difference being that they drive a car and use electricity.
Katie and Dan A. Hochstetler, Old-Order Amish, live near Topeka, Ind., which is one of the country's largest Amish areas, and winter in Sarasota. They have six children, 25 grandchildren and 81 great-grandchildren.
The Hochstetlers have been married for 61 years, and for 53 of those years Katie Hochstetler has been a Budget scribe. Every Saturday or Sunday, she sits down with ballpoint pen to compose her report.
``It just seems my work isn't done until I write for The Budget,” she said.
Editors: An annual subscription to The Budget's national edition costs $37. For information, call (330) 852-4634 or write to P.O. Box 249, Sugarcreek, Ohio 44681-0249.