A testament to 'good sense' Tradition: The "Hagers-Town Almanack," published since 1797, is a slice of Americana filled with everything from weather forecasts to tomato-growing tips.

August 08, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Vt. -- Extensive medical examinations were conducted, specialists were consulted, and the news from the doctors was not good: Charles Fisher, well into his 70s, needed a stomach operation.

Fisher had faith in modern medicine, but he also had more consulting to do before consenting to the knife. It was important, he told his doctors, to schedule the operation on a day when the moon was concentrating on his head or feet -- and certainly not on his stomach.

And to determine just when that might be, Fisher did what thousands of people have done for a couple of centuries now. He consulted his Hagers-Town Almanack.

"I certainly do believe in it," Fisher says, now 81, a wild mane of straight white hair sprouting over his collar. "The doctor said, 'I can use all the help I can get.' You know what? We picked a day when the moon was by my feet -- and not a single complication."

Fisher has every reason to believe in the Almanack. It has been published by his family since 1797, and is believed to be the oldest almanac in the world run continuously by the same family. These days, about 150,000 people pay $2.25 for the booklet.

The 1999 version is due out in the next couple of weeks, and, like every previous issue, it will include weather forecasts (expect average snowfall this winter -- the first cyclonic storm arriving Nov. 10-12), everyday bits of wisdom ("An oil can works better than a wrench") and garden tips (plant a little Epsom salt with your tomatoes -- "And for heaven's sake," Fisher says, "start them inside before St. Joseph's Day").

For 26 years, Fisher has been its editor, banging out copy and crafting the booklet from his bare-wood Cape Cod-style home, tucked next to a trout-filled river in the deep woods of Vermont's Green Mountains.

Millions of copies have been sold over the years, firmly entrenching the Almanack as both an amusement and a farmer's tool in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and parts of Ohio.

The Almanack, in many ways, is a glorified picture of Americana, emphasizing the importance of decency, hard work and -- above all -- common sense, a booklet that has survived against high odds, through wars, serious recessions and the Great Depression, all the while maintained as a living thread through Fisher's family and that of many of its readers.

"If I die first, my wife takes it over," he says from behind dark glasses, sipping a glass of wine, fiddling with his hearing aid, ("This blasted thing!"). "When she goes, my son gets it. That's the way it has always been."

J. Gruber, a distant ancestor -- Fisher's not sure how many "greats" come before "grandfather" -- came to Maryland from Pennsylvania as the son of German immigrants and began the Almanack in Hagerstown. Officially called J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, it was mostly an aid to rural people, especially farmers, who used its long-range weather forecasts to manage their crops. Some farmers still do.

It may be difficult for some people to put much faith in a booklet produced by an inescapably charming and slightly offbeat World War II veteran, a former producer of soap operas, current playhouse actor and believer in the power of the moon.

Those who doubt, though, may want to refer to the Hagers-Town Almanack of `The Year of Our Lord 1995." That was the edition in which the Almanack got to brag a bit about the accuracy of its long-term forecast for the previous winter. While the National Weather Service was predicting a mild season, the Almanack's prognosticator predicted heavy winter storms for the days they occurred.

"It was fierce," says Bill O'Toole, 56, who has been predicting the weather months in advance since the 1970s. A professor of mathematics at Mount St. Mary's College, his predictions are not based on the woolly bear as in many almanacs but on a thick history that involves the weather observations of generations of farmers and the position of the moon.

"We had a pretty good year that year," he says. "A lot of people really rely on this, and it's due a lot to Charlie that the Almanack's still around. Now, if El Nino would leave us alone, we might have another good year."

Fisher was born in Philadelphia in 1917, joined the Army in World War II and landed in North Africa on D-Day. When he returned and began looking for a job, potential employers asked him what kind of work experience he had.

"I told them, 'Well, dodging bullets. Never did that before, but I became pretty good at it.' Some of them thought that was pretty good."

He landed a job in the mail room of Benton & Bowles, a New York advertising agency that pushed Maxwell House coffee and Tide detergent, among other products of the day. Before long, Fisher had worked his way up to directing the radio version of "Portia," NTC "When a Girl Marries," and a few episodes of "Perry Mason." Later, he directed television's "Captain Video," and later produced the soaps "As the World Turns" and "The Edge of Night."

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