Evelyn Birkby was welcomed into the Fifty Year Club at the Iowa Newspaper Association Convention Feb. 8 in Des Moines as one of the longest-tenured columnists in newspaper history.
Evelyn’s first Up A Country Lane column about life on a farm appeared in The Evening Sentinel on Nov. 24, 1949, along with a recipe which became her slogan for 70 years of writing columns.
Willard Archie, Publisher of The Evening Sentinel at the time, ran an ad that he was looking for a woman who lived on a farm to write a column. Birkby tells the story that during her interview, the only advice Archie gave her was to include a recipe at the end of her column because no matter what else she might write people will always be interested in a recipe.
For her family, including a recipe each week with her column meant a lot of taste testing with a bowl of cornflakes waiting for them in the kitchen if the recipe did not turn out well.
“We’re certainly very proud of her for having stuck with this for so long and made this an important part of her life,” said Bob Birkby, Evelyn’s oldest son. “Growing up, there was always a typewriter going in our house.”
Bob said it was an interesting experience occasionally seeing their mother’s take on what they had been doing in her weekly column.
“It sort of gave us an awareness of a bigger world out there because she was so connected with readers all over the Midwest,” said Bob. “As we got older, we started going off in the summers to find adventures further and further from the Midwest but always felt a strong connection through her columns. Wherever we lived, we would get the columns and see what she was doing and what she was thinking.”
Bob said Evelyn has always been aware of her family and community and always had her column on her mind. He said she looked for ways to communicate what was important about small towns, farms, and families.
Up A Country Lane appeared in The Evening Sentinel, which was renamed The Valley News, for 70 years without missing a week.
“There were times when, for instance, soon after she started writing her column a few months later, I was born,” said Bob. “That week my dad wrote the column while mom was in the hospital giving birth to me.”
Bob said he and his brothers had written the column, too, especially after returning from long trips.
“Mom would always encourage us to write them and said people want to know what you’ve been up to,” said Bob. “We would say no, I think you want a week off.”
Evelyn was born in Springfield, Illinois, and was the daughter of a Methodist minister. At that time, the Methodist Church would move ministers about every two years to different congregations. Evelyn and her family lived in different towns throughout central and western Iowa moving to Sidney when she was a senior in high school.
Evelyn attended Simpson College for two years, where she received a teaching certificate. She taught grade school for a few years before she began working for the Methodist Church in Waterloo running their youth program. From Waterloo, she moved to Chicago as the director of the youth program at the Methodist Church in downtown Chicago called the Chicago Temple. She was there during World War II and developed programs for older teens and people in their 20s. While in Chicago, she finished her four-year degree in psychology. She then moved back to Sidney, where she married Robert Birkby in 1946, and they had four children.
“I enjoyed sharing,” said Evelyn. ” It was part of my life.”
Evelyn’s column Up a Country Lane was named after the long lane that ran from the road where the mailbox sat to their farmhouse. She described the mailbox as her window to the world. She would mail her columns to the newspaper each week and in return, received mail from readers of her columns that could identify with her.
Evelyn has written 13 books and had a program Down a Country Lane on KMA Radio, was part of a program called Radio Homemakers that aired on KMA and KFNF, and was also involved with the Kitchen Klatter program.
When Evelyn’s eyesight started to fail about the age of 95, she started dictating her column to her son Bob and he would type and submit them to the newspaper. Her final column appeared in The Valley News on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, and Bob now helps Evelyn in writing a few lines to go with her favorite columns through the years, which still appear in The Valley News.
HAY HAND ROLLS
1 cup lukewarm water
1 Tablespoon dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
4 cups lukewarm water
4 cups white flour
1 cup salad oil
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 eggs (optional)
Additional flour to make a soft dough
Dissolve yeast in 1 cup lukewarm water with 1 teaspoon sugar added. When mixture is bubbly, add 4 cups lukewarm water and 4 cups flour. Mix well and let mixture set, covered, in draft-free place until mixture bubbles up, making a “sponge.”
Add oil, sugar, salt and eggs and combine well. Gradually add enough flour to make a soft dough. Turn out on floured bread board and knead until smooth, adding a little more flour if needed. Place in a greased bowl (or two—this is a large recipe). Turn the dough to grease on all sides, then cover and let rise until double in bulk. Take out the portion of dough you want to bake immediately. Put the remainder, covered, in the refrigerator for another day.
Knead the dough you kept out on a floured board for 4 or 5 minutes until dough is smooth and springs back in your fingers. Shape into loaves or rolls or whatever shape you wish. Put into greased pans and let rise until double. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 to 30 minutes or until nicely brown on top. Turn out on cooling rack to keep the bottom from “sweating” and coat the top with butter for a tender crust.