EMMITSBURG, Md. — In these times of upset and uncertainty, comfort comes in knowing that dental floss can cut a dense cheesecake more cleanly than any knife. That cloves of garlic will send ants scurrying. That a cow requires at least 15 pounds of hay per day. That the state bird of South Dakota is the ring-necked pheasant.
For the 217th consecutive year, useful facts and tips like these have been assembled in J. Gruber’s Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack, a deceptively slim volume that is available to farmers, merchants and all good citizens at the nominal cost of $4.99.
Contained within its 82 pages is the accumulated wisdom of many generations of farmers who lived and worked according to the arc of the sun and the pull of the moon. This means that the gift of a daffodil represents unrequited love, Gruber’s Almanack also provides “conjecture of the weather and other astronomical information."
For example, if you want to know what weather to expect in New England next Thanksgiving Day, the almanac offers an answer with a better-than-even shot at accuracy: “Snow, heavy south."
This is the educated guess of Bill O’Toole, 70, a retired college math professor who, for more than four decades, has served as the almanac’s seventh prognosticator — or conjecturer, or calculator — a line of work that began in 1797 with a star-savvy blacksmith. He is tall and bearded, with large eyes that convey wonder in all things, and a business card that declares in black and white his gray-area profession.
Working from desk space carved out of the book clutter of a brick row house in Emmitsburg, about a mile south of the Pennsylvania line, O’Toole endeavors to divine the weather as much as 18 months in advance. He does so with a conjurer’s brew of age-old wisdom and 21st-century technology that includes a range of tools, from a software program of astronomical data produced by the U.S. Naval Observatory to the meticulous tracking — through some 30 computer programs he has written — of all things lunar.
The moon matters, O’Toole says, as people who work the land discovered long ago. “They noticed a trend," he says. “When the moon changed phase close to midnight, the weather over the next lunar week, between six and nine days, would be fair, agreeable, calm. But it was just the opposite if it occurred close to noon: snowy, rainy, stormy, disagreeable."
After completing his calculations, O’Toole charts his predictions on postcard-size weather maps of the continental United States, drawing a map for every week. Here, then, a test: Did the prognosticator foretell Sandy, the fall’s calamitous superstorm?
He points to a blue-ink swirl that he drew on one of those small maps. In June 2011. “Tropical storm from Atlantic," the Almanac predicted — somewhat prematurely, it turned out. “I was off by a week and a few days," he says. “Not too bad, considering this was done 16 months earlier."
O’Toole ignores the occasional charge of quackery. He says that a person could predict the weather 25 percent of the time by simply throwing darts at a board, but that he shoots for better than 50 percent. And, in the annual “Conjecturer’s Column" that he writes for the almanac, he is nothing if not candid about his performance.
“Daily forecasts for the mid-Atlantic region were correct 55.1 percent of the time, slightly below last year’s 59.3 percent, which was the best in recent years," O’Toole wrote in the current almanac. “The worst month for daily forecasts was October at 38.7 percent; the best was May, clocking in at 72.6 percent."
O’Toole was a boy so drawn to the moon and the stars that in high school he helped to establish an amateur astronomy club. After flirting with the idea of a career in astronomy, he graduated from Mount St. Mary’s University here, and promptly joined its math department as a teacher.
Then one day in 1969, he says, he received a call from “out of the blue" (a hoary expression that refers to the sky). It was the business manager of Gruber’s Almanack, and he wanted to know: Are you familiar with our publication?
The business manager went on to explain that the almanac’s sixth prognosticator had passed away, and was in need of its seventh. Was O’Toole interested?
He inherited the charts and notes of his predecessor and, before long, was using the lunar cycle and other variables to recommend the best days to plant, to weed, to harvest — even to go fishing (May 30 next year is good, for example, but May 31 is better).
The almanac has been passed on through the generations within the same family. These days it is owned and produced by three men driven more by loyalty than by money: O’Toole is the prognosticator; Jerry Spessard, 63, a retired insurance agent and part-time inventor, is the longtime business manager; and Charles W. Fisher Jr., 63, a retired sales executive, is the editor and great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Johann Gruber.
Over the years, circulation has waxed and waned — its circulation now is about 85,000 — but the readership remains fully engaged. Spessard often receives calls about sweet recollections of a grandmother’s reliance on the almanac, as well as angry complaints about a typographical error that might disrupt the spin of the Earth.
But the Earth continues to spin, and J. Gruber’s Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack continues to advise and to console. Dental floss can also be used as an emergency shoelace. The state flower of Maryland is the black-eyed Susan. And if you plan to be in the mid-Atlantic next Memorial Day, the prognosticator suggests that you might want to pack an umbrella.