Maryland Almanac Endures

June 15, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Vt. -- At the keyboard of an IBM personal computer in a mountainous corner of northern New England, Charles W. Fisher tends the flame of a 196-year-old Maryland tradition.

In a small office overlooking a trout stream, he keeps faith with his great-great-great grandfather, John Gruber, who established an almanac in Hagerstown in 1797.

Without setting foot in the town where Mr. Gruber toiled in a print shop on South Potomac Street, Mr. Fisher writes and edits J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, the second-oldest continuously published almanac in America. Only the Old Farmer's Almanac, a national publication that celebrated its bicentennial last year, is older.

The people behind Gruber's -- which is still printed in Hagerstown -- expect to make their 200th anniversary. After that, who knows? Gruber's distribution is falling, its advertising dwindling. Yet it survives, somehow, one of the last of scores of regional almanacs that once papered the American scene, a throwback to the days when folks ran their lives by the Scriptures and the phase of the moon.

"It used to be if the Bible didn't say it and the almanac didn't say it, it can't be true," says Mr. Fisher. "They swore by it."

One would not, for example, shingle a shed when the almanac showed the moon in the "up sign" -- that is, at the southernmost point of its orbit and heading north -- "because the shingles would curl up," Mr. Fisher says.

The signs of the moon are listed in Gruber's. As are monthly regional weather forecasts, information on eclipses, tornadoes, planetary movements and the best times for fishing, planting, weeding, harvesting. A multiplication table appears on the back cover, as it first did in 1841. An early 19th-century diagram shows how different parts of human anatomy are governed by the 12 signs of the zodiac. Woodcuts depicting farm life illustrate the almanac, as similar woodcuts have done since 1836.

Even some of the advertisements seem products of another age. A full-page ad for the Brooks Appliance Co. in Marshall, Mich., implores readers to "THROW AWAY THAT TRUSS." A small advertisement offers K-B-L Diuretic Powder "For weak kidney, bladder, bed wetting, getting up nights, frequent passages, backaches, liver."

"I think the only thing that keeps an almanac alive is its antiqueness, its quaintness," says Mr. Fisher, 75, who represents the sixth generation of his family to write and edit the almanac. "I'm interested in keeping it alive for" the sake of continuity, he says. "We've lost too many of the traditions of the country. Nothing's sacrosanct."

Still, he acknowledges that the almanac's antiquity may limit its appeal in an age of specialized magazines, cable television and vanishing farm culture.

"Our niche? I'm not sure we have a niche anymore," says business manager Gerald W. Spessard, noting that the number of copies published has fallen to 175,000 from more than 200,000 a decade ago, with most of the sales in the Washington area. To make matters worse, "every year it's getting tougher and tougher to find advertisers," he says, and the cost of printing the almanac has doubled in 10 years. Next year, the price of the almanac will rise from $1.75 to $1.95. As Gruber's distribution falls, its national competitor, Old Farmer's Almanac, has made -- sharp gains since the 1970s to 4.5 million copies, said publisher John Pierce in Dublin, N.H.

Mr. Spessard, who runs the business side of Gruber's from his insurance office in Hagerstown, figures "the only thing we offer that you can't find anywhere else is the weather forecasting." He also says he hears from many people who buy the book for tips on when to plant crops.

Like Mr. Fisher, Mr. Spessard comes to Gruber's through a family connection. His father-in-law, Jack Hershey, was business manager before him and Mr. Hershey's father-in-law managed the almanac before that.

Mr. Fisher, a retired television producer and director with an interest in American history, took over the editorship from his mother, Emily Kohler Fisher, when she died in 1972. She had assumed the editorship from her husband, Mr. Fisher's father, when he died in 1935.

"My earliest connection was when my father said, 'Come on, I need somebody to proofread.' " says Mr. Fisher. "I was probably 10 years old. I didn't know what the doggone names of the constellations were."

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