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Amish Columnist Chronicles Her 19th Century Life--and Gets E-Mail

Culture: Working by kerosene lamp in her Old Order farmhouse, Elizabeth Coblentz, 63, writes a weekly article syndicated in about 100 newspapers. Her editor is her link to the outside world.

July 30, 2000|SHARON COHEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GENEVA, Ind. — Before the black curtain of night rises for a new day on the prairie, the newspaper columnist lights a kerosene lamp, takes out pen and pad and begins writing about her life:

The trips she takes by horse-drawn buggy.

The water she pumps from her well.

The clothes she sews, the corn she cans.

Elizabeth Coblentz juggles all these chores--and her column--from her spare white-frame farmhouse, which is, by design, steeped in the 19th century: It has no running water, no electricity, no plumbing, no phone.

This is the only life she has ever known, the only one she has ever wanted, and every week, the 63-year-old columnist offers a window into the world of the Amish for hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers.

"The Amish have remained as they've been since the days of the Pilgrims," she says. "That's our religion and way; things are not supposed to change much, so they haven't."

Coblentz's column, "The Amish Cook," appears in about 100 mostly small papers from New York to California. It is a stew of recipes and vignettes about daily life: a chimney fire, hauling manure, doing laundry, watching crocuses grow, walking barefoot in the warm spring soil.

And, of course, there's a heavy emphasis on food, and heavy food at that, with Coblentz's guide for making Aunt Hilty's cinnamon rolls, ice cream (seven eggs) and chili (forget the hamburger; pour in more than a quart of canned sausage).

But Coblentz says the stories about her family--six daughters, two sons and 30 grandchildren--are what readers seem to like most.

"There are a lot of lonely people out there who like hearing about another family's life," she says from her kitchen, where by noon she has put in an eight-hour day, starting with a home-cooked, cholesterol-busting breakfast of fried potatoes, eggs and bacon.

"I think our family becomes their family," she says.

So devoted readers mourned with her recently when she reported the death of her husband, Ben, who suffered a heart attack at age 69. They had been married 42 1/2 years.

"I am so glad Ben didn't have to suffer long," she wrote in a June column. "So peaceful to see his eyes set on me and feel he was gone. . . . So many memories linger on."

Ben's death touched many readers; Coblentz received more than 2,000 sympathy cards and letters and 1,500 e-mails, according to her editor, Kevin Williams, who syndicates the column from his Oasis Newsfeatures in Ohio.

There also have been many happy family moments recounted in the column, including the weddings of daughters Liz, Lovina and Emma.

"The women baked 70 pies (cherry, raisin, oatmeal, rhubarb)," Coblentz wrote of Emma's wedding party. "They also made 14 plates full of 'nothings,' a traditional Amish wedding pastry."

It might sound like a scene from "The Waltons," but readers enjoy this kind of over-the-back-fence chatter, says Mike Hilfrink, managing editor of the Quincy (Ill.) Herald-Whig, the first paper to sign up for "The Amish Cook" nine years ago.

"It's really like listening to one of your favorite neighbors," he says.

One reader wrote: "You don't know me, but I feel I know you. . . . The way you do things now is how I was brought up--and I was born in 1922."

"The Amish Cook" does have the home-baked feel of another era when ladies in small towns chronicled the doings of friends and family for their local papers, from the arrival of out-of-town kin to who went where for the holidays.

Even now, readers take comfort in the traditions the Coblentz clan has carried on through the generations, Hilfrink says.

"She introduces us to . . . a vanishing way of life with a large family where everybody sits down [to dinner] together," he says. "It reassures people those values are still important and there are places in America where they are lived every day."

Coblentz's world has not turned much in the last seven decades.

"You would not notice much difference in our life now from when I was a girl or my mother was a girl," she says, remembering the mustard sandwiches she ate and the hankies she received as Christmas gifts as a child.

Broad-faced and stout, with silver-frame glasses, a gap-toothed smile and a wisp of gray hair peeking out from her cornflower blue bonnet, Coblentz has lived on this same northeastern Indiana homestead for more than 40 years.

Her house, following Amish tradition, has no faucets, no toilet, no tub, no television or radio. "I don't much miss modern conveniences," she says with a grin. "Our children are our television."

Her living room is sparsely furnished with handmade rocking chairs, a wood-burning stove and a treadle-operated Singer sewing machine inherited from her mother.

A closet off the kitchen has a red hand-operated pump that delivers well water from an underground cistern. An icehouse outside keeps food cold.

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