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They were a curious couple in an obscure corner of the publishing world.

Lovina Eicher was an Amish mother of eight from Michigan who had never written before. Kevin Williams was a Catholic entrepreneur from Ohio with a trail of customer complaints and unpaid bills.

For a dozen years, they produced the only national column written by an Amish person. They grew so close Eicher named her youngest child after Williams.

But the partnership ruptured amid accusations Williams had cheated Eicher out of money.

Now they’re rivals with dueling Amish columns in newspapers across the country. Eicher writes for a different editor while Williams oversees a new writer. 

“It was sad,” she said. “When you trust someone, you don’t think it can go any other way.”

Eicher, 47, lives in southwestern Michigan but, to guard her privacy, didn’t want the town identified.

Williams, 46, of Middletown, Ohio, denied cheating Eicher, saying he never made much money either.

“If I cheated her, I did a lousy job, because I struggled with the (column) most of my life,” he said.

To some, the most shocking part of all this may be the existence of Amish columnists. Williams once called Eicher’s weekly dispatches the most popular newspaper column you’ve never read.

"Lovina’s Amish Kitchen" and "The Amish Cook," written by Gloria Yoder, run mostly in small newspapers in the Midwest. Eicher’s column appears in 35 papers, which are named on her publisher’s website. Williams said the Amish Cook runs in 45 papers but didn’t have a list of them.

The columns read like missives from a Pilgrim. In plain prose, they describe the writers’ simple lives, which are unencumbered by modern technology.

These homilies on daily life describe quilting bees, church socials, sewing dresses, gardening advice, canning of fruits and vegetables.

Then they’ll casually mention the jaw-dropping dimensions of a community celebration. The wedding of Eicher’s daughter in 2015 featured 700 invites, 350 pounds of chicken leg quarters and 1,000 candy bars.

Every column ends with a recipe. Among the dishes are sauerkraut bread, dandelion jelly, dirt pudding and Whoopie pies, which are cream-filled sandwich cookies.

Peeking into Amish country

Williams was a teen when he got the idea to make money off the Amish.

Living in southwestern Ohio, he said he sometimes passed through an Amish community east of Cincinnati. Williams thought readers might be interested in taking a peek behind the curtain.

As an 18-year-old in 1991, he hired Eicher’s mother, Elizabeth Coblentz, a longtime correspondent for The Budget, an Amish paper based in Sugarcreek, Ohio.

Williams dropped out of college as he tried to find customers for the new endeavor, visiting newspapers across the country, he said.

When Coblentz died in 2002, Eicher took over the writing.

Eicher, who lives on a 10-acre farm, is funnier and more candid in person than in her columns, which tend to be dry recitations of her days.

She invariably frets about book signings but has an easy way with the crowds, and is unfailingly cheerful and chatty, acquaintances said.

“She thinks she’s shy but is very outgoing,” said a friend, Ruth Boss of South Holland, Illinois.

Williams also is friendly and talkative, but tells stories that sometimes seem more writerly than real. Like the time he got out of a speeding ticket because the state trooper spied a stack of Coblentz columns in the passenger’s seat.

“‘You know, my granny loved that column until the day she died,’” said the trooper, Williams wrote in 2008. “It almost seemed that his eyes were moistening. ‘Tell you what. Let’s just part ways and both try to have a better day.’”

As the column spread to more papers, Williams sought new sources of revenue. He published cookbooks and collections of columns by Eicher and Coblentz.

He also became an author, writing a cookbook with Amish recipes, a travel guide to Amish communities and an Amish fiction series.

In 2014, Williams self-published a 400-page Amish romance novel, “Abraham’s Redemption,” which included an appendix of Amish recipes.

A few years earlier he talked with producers about a reality TV show featuring the Amish but the proposal was eventually rejected.

Challenges of technology

Publishing a writer whose mores are stuck in the 19th century can be a challenge.

Eicher doesn’t use what she calls “that computer thing.” She writes her column on two pages of notebook paper, front and back.

She sends it through the mail or if, like most writers, she waits until the last minute, she will fax it from a nearby bank or business.

“Someone has to keep the mailman busy,” Eicher quipped.

The more liberal Amish draw a distinction between using technology in and outside their homes. So Eicher uses a phone but keeps it in a shed in her yard. She’ll check voicemail to see if her editor has questions about the column.

Another challenge is publicity.

The Amish don’t allow themselves to be photographed, except for their hands. They also won’t appear on television.

Such images could lead to vanity, which is frowned upon by their religion.

Doing business with the Amish is based on relationships, and Eicher and Williams developed a close friendship.

Unlike her mom, Eicher is a contemporary of Williams. They first met as teens when he hired her mom to write the column.

Both Eicher and Williams said the other was like a sibling. He attended her wedding and family funerals.

Selling an Amish column

The Amish column has always been a hard sell.

Newspaper editors looked down at it, Williams said. For their food sections, they wanted columnists who appealed to yuppies, like Martha Stewart.

An editor in Tupelo, Mississippi, told Williams he wasn’t interested because no Amish lived there. But the religious group has never been a big part of the column’s readership, said Williams.

He told the editor there were no Chinese in Tupelo, either, but that didn’t stop the city from opening Chinese restaurants.

Williams said he made a lot of mistakes as a fledgling entrepreneur.

When he walked into the Hamilton (Ohio) JournalNews and showed it a brochure for the column, an editor took out a red pen and marked all the grammatical mistakes.

“There was no template to go off,” he said. “It was all fly by the seat of your pants. It was all invented as we went along.”

Williams charged the papers $250 to $900 a year, depending on their circulation.

The column wasn’t a big moneymaker, as seen by Williams’ chronic money woes.

He had a string of unpaid bills from 1995 to 2001, owing money to Sears, lawyers, credit cards and financial leasing services, according to Ohio court records.

His dad helped him buy a house for $131,500 in 2003 and, by the following year, they had declared bankruptcy.

The column’s popularity peaked in the early 2000s with 120 newspapers but the good times didn’t last long, Williams said. A few years later, the column began to lose clients as newspapers folded or cut their pages.

The Amish are reluctant to ask for help from outsiders, but Williams wasn’t so encumbered.

Filling in as the columnist, he often beseeched readers to supplement his and Eicher’s income by buying the cookbooks or making donations to the Amish Cook Friends Club.

The idea was criticized by some readers and editors. Nearly half of the papers carrying the column wouldn’t allow it to be used to promote the money-making venture, said Williams.

“People have no idea how little newspapers pay,” he said. “For many years, that was all I did. It was tough to make a living off.”

Eicher declined to say how she felt about Williams’ constant poor-mouthing but put her foot down to one of his ideas in 2008.

Williams used his website to set up an audio file of the Eicher family yodeling and charged a $1.49 listening fee. It was so popular that his servers crashed, he said.

Eicher didn’t mind people having a chance to hear the singing temporarily but wanted it taken down after a few weeks.

In asking for money, Williams had a plethora of reasons. At various times, he told readers about the loss of newspaper clients, the health of two Eicher daughters who have muscular dystrophy, his impending marriage, his child’s birth.

Even his personal financial travails found their way into the column.

In 2008, readers expecting to learn about the latest doings at the Eicher household were treated to a treatise of the column’s financial struggles.

“It was over. The Amish Cook column had ended,” he wrote in 2008. “Through tear-soaked glasses, I reached back to consider what might have gone wrong. I looked at the calendar. Time of death: Thursday, Aug. 7.”

Williams also used the column to hawk his own wares — the travel guide, the romance novel, a proposed memoir.

In 2011 he wrote that his writing career, if successful, would make Eicher’s column stronger, but didn’t say how.

The battle begins

The financial health of Eicher and Williams seemed to brighten with their writing of four books from 2008 to 2013. Andrews McMeel Publishing in Kansas City published three cookbooks and a collection of columns.

The last court judgment for unpaid bills against Williams was in 2011, according to court records.

But little of the books’ advances or royalties found their way to Eicher.

She asked Williams about it but felt his answers were vague, she said. He had secured the deal through a literary agent but didn’t have a contract with Eicher.

Eicher shared her frustration with her friend Boss, and they contacted an attorney in 2013. They learned the publisher had paid $164,000 for the three books and a fourth one written in 2013. Of the $164,000, Eicher received $24,000.

“I was raised Amish. I have an eighth-grade education,” Eicher said. “I didn’t realize how books were sold. I was just stupid, I guess.”

Boss, who isn’t Amish, also believed Eicher was being underpaid for the column. Eicher received $2,000 a year for it, both sides said. If the 120 papers in the early 2000s all paid the lowest fee, $250, "The Amish Cook" would have made $30,000 a year.

Asked about the criticism, Williams told The Detroit News he made even less than Eicher on the columns. He said all the money was spent on travel and marketing as he drove from state to state to find new customers.

As for the books, he said he split the royalties with Eicher, but most of the money went for the agent, photography, promotion and production.

In his defense, Williams said he did most of the work on the column and books.

“My whole week was spend propping it up, marketing it, going to various cities to give talks to promote the column,” he said. “(Eicher had) a stay-at-home job that probably took her two hours a week.”

The two sides met with accountants to resolve the conflict in 2013 but Williams didn’t have paperwork on the finances and co-mingled his personal and business dealings, Boss told the Times of Northwest Indiana

Eicher gave Williams a year to compensate her and, when he failed to do so, she quit in 2014.

Williams told the News his finances weren’t as organized as they should have been.

“None of these things absolves me from being sloppy or disorganized and sometimes reckless,” he said.

Eicher didn’t file a lawsuit, which is discouraged by her religion.

She said she badly needed the money, but winning a legal fight would have been a hollow victory. She believed God will provide for her and her family.

Her religion also teaches forgiveness and loving one’s enemy.

“I try to put it in the past,” she said. “I wish him a good life. I hope he someday sees he did wrong. I’m happier. I hope he’s happier.”

A change in focus

Williams, who had met Yoder while working on the 2011 cookbook, said the column lost several newspapers after Eicher left.

He said he’s moving away from the column, as well.

He no longer tries to sell it to newspapers, which had been a big part of his job. It’s too difficult and not worth the effort, Williams said.

For two years, he has focused on a new pursuit — tech writing.

“I still edit the column and maintain the website. (But) the Amish take up less time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Williams continues to be dogged by customer complaints.

In 2017, the Better Business Bureau issued an alert after what it called a pattern of complaints against Williams’ website, Amish365, which continues to sell cookbooks written by Eicher and Williams.

The bureau, which gave the website an F rating, said it received a dozen complaints in three years about books being delivered late or not at all, and failing to respond to customers’ requests for help.

“This guy is a piece of work,” C.H. wrote to the bureau in 2016. “Customer service is horrendous. This company may be under the guise of innocent Amish stories but this is NOT someone to be dealing with.”

When the bureau tried to contact Williams about the problems, he never responded, it said.

'Love brings us home'

Eicher thought her writing days were over, but shortly after quitting the column she received a letter from MennoMedia, which is the publishing arm of the Mennonite Church.

The publisher wanted to know if she was interested in writing a chapter for an upcoming book. Eicher, still reeling from her experience with Williams, demurred.

But MennoMedia also offered to syndicate a new Amish column.

“It was a miracle,” Eicher said.

She said her new boss is more open about finances than Williams.

For the first time, she knows which newspapers carry her column. She splits the newspaper fees with MennoMedia.

And, yes, she now has a contract.

When MennoMedia recently published another book, and again asked whether Eicher wanted to write a chapter, she was in a better frame of mind. The book is named “Home Spun.” Her chapter is called “Home.”

“Life takes us to unexpected places,” she wrote, “but love brings us home.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell

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