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Is Maryland in for a harsh winter? A venerated ‘Almanack’ in Hagerstown has the answer

Chad Merrill, weather prognosticator, Chad Fisher, editor and direct descendant of founder John Gruber, and Jerry Spessard, business manager, right, each hold a copy of the Hagers-town Town and Country Almanack, just released for 2021.
Chad Merrill, weather prognosticator, Chad Fisher, editor and direct descendant of founder John Gruber, and Jerry Spessard, business manager, right, each hold a copy of the Hagers-town Town and Country Almanack, just released for 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Stephanie Zenker remembers too well the time she ignored the advice of her favorite publication.

The Baltimore County resident was planning a Christmas party when she decided to double-check the weather forecast. She lives at the bottom of a hill, so snow can turn her driveway hazardous.

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Every local TV and radio meteorologist predicted clear skies that day. Only the “Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack,” a homespun journal published once a year, forecast heavy snowfall.

She proceeded with her plans, a blizzard blew in, and she had to cancel the fully organized bash.

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“I should have known better,” says Zenker, 70, a fan of the periodical since the 1960s. “I will never plan another winter party without consulting the Almanack first.”

Readers like Zenker, a retired educator who lives in Phoenix, have turned to the Almanack for its practical, spiritual and aesthetic offerings since post-Colonial days. It was founded in 1797.

Jerry Spessard, business manager of the Hagers-town Town and Country Almanack, holds the hand-carved wood printing block of a cabin.
Jerry Spessard, business manager of the Hagers-town Town and Country Almanack, holds the hand-carved wood printing block of a cabin. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Printed now, as then, in Hagerstown, it has over the years reached millions of readers, most of them in the Mid-Atlantic. A small but growing percentage live in places as far away as Michigan and Oregon. About 25,000 read the print edition each year.

Most are drawn to the Almanack for the same reasons people were two centuries ago, says Charles W. “Chad” Fisher Jr., its editor: For the forecasts they hope will guide their farming, gardening and other activities through the coming year, as well as a smorgasbord of information, from recipes and home remedies to domestic advice on everything from cleaning blinds to raising chickens.

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“The formula behind the Almanack hasn’t changed much since the beginning,” says Fisher, a great-great-great-great-great-grandson of its founding editor, a son of German immigrants named John Gruber. “It’s about helping people to live better, body and mind.”

The current issue — editors say it’s the 225th — came out in September and is available now, as it is shortly before every winter, both in select stores across the region and via phone or online order.

Its newsstand price: $5.50.

To cut to the news that is always most widely anticipated, the Almanack’s new “weather prognosticator” is calling for a milder-than-average winter, with slightly below-average amounts of precipitation.

Latest copies of the Hagerstown Town & Country Almanack, celebrating 225 years of continuous publication.
Latest copies of the Hagerstown Town & Country Almanack, celebrating 225 years of continuous publication. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“The highest elevations in the [western Mid-Atlantic] will see a white Christmas,” says Chad Merrill, a 40-year-old meteorologist who took the position as a nearly full-time second job last year after his predecessor, Bill O’Toole, retired after more than half a century.

“Into January, we’ll revert into a milder pattern. I don’t see any prolonged cold spells then,” Merrill says. “Once we get into February, winter will see more of a comeback.”

Like O’Toole, he makes his predictions more than a year in advance, basing them not on the radar or satellite readings essential to contemporary daily forecasting, but on metrics that predate modern technology, including phases of the moon, an understanding of sunspots and weather data compiled over a course of decades.

Merrill says he took the job because it called for a different set of skills from the ones he uses forecasting for Earth Networks, a weather data network based in Germantown, and the layers of interpretation involved make the work no less effective.

“There are limitations based on the data I’m looking at, of course, but within those limitations, I can get very creative,” he says. “It’s a cultural and artistic process as much as a scientific one.”

Historians say an almanac (the word’s origins may or may not be Arabic, and it can end in the letters “ck” or “ch”) can be defined as an annual publication that spells out events expected to occur in the coming year.

Chad Merrill, weather prognosticator, right, leans in as Robyn Symner, executive director of the Washington Historical Society, examines a 1918 printing held by Chad Fisher, editor of the Hagers-town Town and Country Almanack.
Chad Merrill, weather prognosticator, right, leans in as Robyn Symner, executive director of the Washington Historical Society, examines a 1918 printing held by Chad Fisher, editor of the Hagers-town Town and Country Almanack. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The form may have had its origin about 1000 B.C., when Babylonian astronomers produced tables of planetary periods as a way of predicting lunar phenomena.

Over the centuries, astronomers and philosophers in the Near East and Europe explored links between those cycles and the days, weeks or months when human endeavors appeared to flourish.

By the time the first almanac was printed in North America — “An Almanac Calculated for New England” by William Pierce in 1639 — almanac makers had made a near-science of connecting such events as waxing or waning moons to everything from the success of corn crops to the prospects of building a strong roof.

Almanacs abounded in the American colonies, where weather could be harsh and farmers needed reliable ways to produce a good harvest. “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” produced by Ben Franklin’s brother James in Philadelphia in the mid-1700s, was one of the more widely read. Few survived more than a few decades. The Hagerstown almanac is now the second-oldest in the country.

The cover of the current issue, with its woodblock renditions of an eagle and a woman at a spinning wheel, and the motto “By Industry We Thrive,” looks much the way it did when the first edition rolled off the presses in Gruber’s print shop on South Potomac Street in Hagerstown.

Back then it was printed in German, the language of most settlers in the area at the time. It wasn’t until 1920 that the Almanack became an all-English publication.

“My dad would tell me stories about sitting at his father’s feet, helping him do articles, sorting them and so on.”


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“After World War I, you didn’t see German copies anymore,” Fisher says. “It wasn’t prudent for the times.”

The Gruber family history and that of the Almanack are intertwined. After the founder died in 1857, his widow, Catherine, took over for nine years. Their daughters, Mathilda, Frederica and Rebecca, followed suit for four more decades. A succession of descendants — including Fisher’s grandfather, Charles (1906-1934), his grandmother, Emily (1934-1973), and his late father, Charles Jr. (1973-2000) — kept the tradition going, each generation teaching the next.

Fisher can’t remember a time when his dad, a TV producer, wasn’t poring over piles of Almanack materials and telling his son that he, too, would run the publication someday.

“My dad would tell me stories about sitting at his father’s feet, helping him do articles, sorting them and so on,” he says.

Fisher, 71, took over as editor soon after retiring from IBM and settling down with his wife on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Today he works nearly full time trolling for material for such beloved departments as Health Hints (“Smell the skin of an orange for a natural mood-booster”), Hints for the Homemaker (“Dust your blinds with a used dryer sheet”), and Some Very Interesting Facts (”If you cut down a cactus in Arizona, you could be penalized up to 25 years in jail.”).

Business manager Jerry Spessard holds the wood printing block of the original multiplication pyramid, which was carved backward, and the printed page in German.
Business manager Jerry Spessard holds the wood printing block of the original multiplication pyramid, which was carved backward, and the printed page in German. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“I really enjoy what I call ‘the charming stuff,’” he says.

For the other stuff — the astronomical and weather information that occupies about half of every issue — the Fishers began turning to O’Toole, a longtime Mount St. Mary’s University math professor and the publication’s seventh prognosticator, in 1969. He says that when folk wisdom and modern metrics collide, it’s often the old ways that prove the better bet.

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“I have programmed and used supercomputers in my career, and I wrote several programs to produce weather forecasts, but I never published the results in the Almanack,” he says. “Turned out they didn’t do as good a job as head-banging and eyeballing the data.”

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He’s not the only staffer who has straddled old and new. Fisher has made adjustments in format to appeal to a more modern audience. The household column was known as “Hints for the Housewife,” for example, until a consultant advised a more gender-neutral title last year.

The 2021 issue also contains mild commentary on current events, including a section titled “It Took a Pandemic to Show Us That …” and Merrill has helped upgrade the periodical’s online presence to include Facebook and Instagram pages, an e-newsletter and a YouTube channel featuring guests and weekly weather forecasts.

Much of the upgrading has fallen to another long-timer: Hagerstown native Jerry Spessard, 71, the Almanack’s business manager since 1984. Spessard says the mass media environment has changed so drastically over that time that the publication’s future is far from assured.

Readership is a tenth what it was during the peak years of the early 1970s, with a particularly steep drop over the past 20 years. The average reader is now 60 or older.

“There are so many different places to get information out there now, with television, the radio and the internet,” Spessard says. “With the Almanack, we’re talking about something that was founded in 1797. Most things have a natural life span, don’t they?” But he believes the Almanack’s appeal remains universal enough that it promises to survive well into the 21st century, given further refinement.

Its editor’s aims are even loftier.

Fisher says that every time he sends a newsletter out via email, subscription numbers jump noticeably, just as they do every time it snows. The YouTube channel is starting to catch on. And his son, Charles W. III, a contractor, has vowed to take over operations once his father retires.

It was the younger Fisher, in fact, who first pitched the YouTube idea and who came up with a new sales angle: A reader can now sign on as a Friend of the Almanack, a status that brings a discounted three-year subscription, some company merchandise, and access to archived issues.

His father hopes that such adjustments will help preserve an institution that dates to when John Adams was president.

“We want to be around for another 200 years,” Fisher says.

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