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Almanack is steeped in volumes of history

July 07, 2003|by JESSICA DAVIS

Editor's note: Washington County was the first and is the oldest of 31 counties in the United States to be named after the country's first president, George Washington. This weekly series each Monday seeks out other places and items in the county that hold the title of "the oldest."




jessicad@herald-mail.com

Washington County's oldest publication and the nation's second-oldest almanac is steeped in volumes of history but changes also are being made to attract younger readers and keep business alive, according to Business Manager Jerry Spessard.

The Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack first was published in 1797 by John Gruber of Hagerstown, then known as Elizabeth-Town. Gruber was born in 1768 in Lancaster County, Pa., the son of a doctor, according to Almanack history. His father wanted him to follow in his medical footsteps but Gruber was more mechanically inclined, Spessard said.

Gruber was an apprentice at a printing press when Jonathan Hager's son-in-law befriended him and convinced him to move to Elizabeth-Town in 1794, Spessard said. Gruber's first home in the city stood where The Maryland Theatre is today. He used the front as a printing shop to publish the Almanack and the back as his living quarters, Spessard said.

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For 25 years, the Almanack was printed only in German. Information and views on politics and religion were found within its pages, as well as weather predictions and helpful hints. Beginning in 1822, as the English language became more prominent, readers could choose from German or English editions. Those were published until around the time of World War I, when the German version was dropped because of the lack of area residents who spoke the language and because of anti-German sentiment, Spessard said.

At least one German element of the Almanack remains, however: The Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack's trademark is the only almanac that still uses the "k" on the end of the word, a nod to the German spelling.

Upon Gruber's death in 1857, at the age of 89, he had published the Almanack for 60 consecutive years. Gruber's descendants continue to publish new editions of the Almanack, according to Spessard.

Gruber's great-great-great-great grandson, Charles W. "Chad" Fisher Jr. of Philadelphia, is the current editor. He is in charge of editorial content and the layout aspect of production before sending the entire package to Hagerstown Bookbinding and Printing for publication around Labor Day each year, Fisher said.

The 2002 edition of the Almanack was the first printed under his editorial eye. He took over after his father, also Charles W. Fisher, retired after 29 years as editor. Chad Fisher's other job as a full-time sales executive with IBM keeps him busy but also has the added bonus of aiding in the publishing of the Almanack.

"I've worked for IBM for almost 25 years and have gained much experience in desktop publishing and many other skills that help to move (the Almanack) along in the process," he said.

Technology makes it easier to get the Almanack to market, but from there it is up to retailers and buyers, Fisher said.

"Readership has unfortunately been declining in the past years due to distribution costs and difficulties," he said, citing the fact that retailers don't like to put once-a-year publications on their shelves because they don't sell continuously.

Part of the solution to this problem is the possibility of recalculating the weather predictions for up to four or five more regions in the United States so distribution can be more widespread, he said.

The family has overseen 208 continuous printings of the Almanack and Chad Fisher's son, Charles W. Fisher III, is poised to take over the business when he retires, Chad Fisher said.

The Almanack is not a business for men only, Chad Fisher said. For more than half of the 200-plus years that the Almanack has been published, the editor was a woman. Gruber's two daughters took over after he died, and various women in the Gruber family have acted as editor since then, Chad Fisher said. Most recently, his grandmother, Emily Kohler Fisher, was editor from 1934 to 1972, he said.

Business management of the Almanack also is a family affair. Spessard, who became the manager in 1984, was preceded by his father-in-law, Jack Hershey, who held the title beginning in 1960. Hershey's father-in-law, Frank Leiter, became manager in 1935 following Leiter's father-in-law, Wilfred McCardell, Spessard said. Those managers were not related to John Gruber, Spessard said.

The business manager is in charge of managing operations, handling distribution, printing and advertising, Spessard said.

The Almanack contains "a lot of folklore, a lot of tradition and a lot of beliefs," as well as helpful hints that readers "probably wouldn't hear of in today's society," Spessard said.

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