LEWISTON, Maine — Deep in the otherwise ordinary Geiger Bros. office building in an industrial part of Lewiston lurks a secret: a small, private museum dedicated to the Farmers’ Almanac, a national mainstay that has been published every year since 1818.
There’s an old-fashioned editor’s office, complete with a rickety wooden chair that could have — and may have — belonged to the very first editor, David Young. There’s a small potbellied stove and a big roll-top desk with cubbies that are perfect for tucking away bits of wit, wisdom and weather forecasts. The museum also features a collection of 18th and 19th century American almanacs of all sizes and from all parts of the growing country.
But you get the sense that a lot of the real work on the modern Farmers’ Almanac — published in Lewiston since the 1950s by Geiger Bros. — happens at a big wooden table. That’s where current editor Pete Geiger sits to talk expansively about one of his very favorite things — the book that his father brought into the family business in the 1930s. Geiger uses the title “Philom,” short for philomath, which means “lover of learning,” and said the word is apt for what he does.
“You need to be a lover of learning if you’re an editor of an almanac,” the affable, enthusiastic 65-year-old said. “I’m thrilled to be part of it.”
It’s a big year for the humble almanac, which has kept generations of Americans company through wartime and peacetime, through dizzying technological advances and then the return of interest in gardening, backyard chickens and putting up one’s own food. So to do right by the 200th consecutive edition — published this summer — Geiger locked himself in the museum for a weekend carefully pored over the fragile almanacs from days of yore, searching for snippets of advice, wit, wisdom and more to include in the new volume.
And he found some doozies.
From the 1878 Farmers’ Almanac, there is a parenting tip for an infallible way to keep babies perfectly quiet for hours: to smear its fingers with thick molasses and then put half a dozen feathers in its hands. “The young one will set and pick the feathers from one hand to the other, until it drops asleep. As soon as it awakes, more molasses and more feathers, and in place of nerve-astounding yells, there will be silence and enjoyment unspeakable!”
From the 1855 almanac, there is a tip on resuscitating drowning victims that includes the use of a pair of common bellows to push air into the lungs.
From 1896, a treatise on the art of kissing that begins with the timeless words “don’t peck a woman on the forehead or end of the nose, or jerk at her bonnet strings in haste to get through.” Don’t be in a hurry, the author of the long-ago article urged not once but five times.
From 1935, 10 simple rules for married happiness, which includes “have patience with each other,” “do not conceal little differences until they accumulate to the breaking point; discuss them calmly” and “make your bedtime prayers a review of the day and never go to sleep without a clean slate.”
From 1878, advice for husbands, including “do not humiliate her by groaning over every item of household expense as if she was extravagant,” and advice for wives, including the distinctly non-modern sentiment “try to do not only what your husband wishes in household matters, but also when and how he wishes.”
It was fun to do all that research, Geiger said, and the old-fashioned notes from the past intersperse the usual almanac offerings this year. Those include the all-important long-range weather forecasts, articles about raw food diets, homemade garden fertilizers and eating weeds, recipes, information about the 2017 solar and lunar eclipses and so much more.
The weather predictions are what people are interested in first, he said. The proprietary weather formula was developed by Young, the first editor, who also was a mathematician, astronomer and farmer. His formula allowed him to predict the weather two years in advance, and although it sounds hard to believe for a nation accustomed to the science of meteorology, Geiger said the formula has a success rate of between 80 and 85 percent.
So what does this year’s weather forecast look like?
“We’re saying this winter is going to be ice-cold and snow-filled,” he said. “But last winter I predicted it was going to be worse weather, and El Nino knocked my prediction off. I have to eat a slice of humble pie on that one.”
Publishing the almanac is just part of what Geiger Bros., the family-owned promotional-products company with about 375 employees, does, but it is probably the best known facet of the business. The company has published the almanac since Ann and Ray Geiger purchased it from the Almanac Publishing Co. of New York City.
When the first Farmers’ Almanac was published in Morristown, New Jersey, it had to vie for attention and market share in a very crowded field. There were hundreds of almanacs being published in America in the 19th century, doling out advice to farmers and others in different regions and in different ways. But over the decades and centuries, most of those other almanacs have ceased publication. Only the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, a separate publication based in New Hampshire that is marking its 225 birthday this year, have survived.
According to Pete Geiger, his father began editing the Farmers’ Almanac in 1934, when he was a recent Notre Dame graduate. Ray Geiger kept on editing it even when he was serving in the Pacific theater in World War II, and after he came home from the war he purchased the rights to the almanac. Then, in 1955, he decided to move the company to its current quarters in Lewiston.
Ray Geiger, who edited 60 consecutive editions of the almanac, was a colorful figure who grew the circulation of the Farmers’ Almanac from 85,000 copies to more than 6.5 million. He loved talking about the almanac, too, and participated in more than 30,000 media interviews. Perhaps most unusually, a few years before his 1994 death, Ray Geiger hosted what he called a “predeceased adventure” at his own tombstone. The lighthearted event was attended by his friends and covered by the media, and he held it so he “wouldn’t miss the fun” of his own funeral.
“Friends, I am delighted and really quite excited that you came to this rather grave event,” Geiger recited in the beautiful dusk, according to BDN archives. “I’d rather have you gather as I write it, then have you come to see me when I’m dead.”
Hosting his own funeral is not the only way that the family patriarch broke the mold. Pete Geiger recalls that when he was a lad of about 7 years old, his dad sat him down and told him he needed to designate a successor to publish the almanac. It was a lot of responsibility for a boy who couldn’t yet read well, but Ray sold his son on the gig by emphasizing the fact that every almanac editor had lived a very long life.
“That sounded like a good enough reason to me,” Geiger said, adding that he worked as assistant editor for 16 years, then took over in 1994. Ray Geiger stepped down from his beloved almanac the same year he died.
Although editing a book with this much history behind it can feel intimidating, Pete Geiger said that like his father he loves the almanac and is happy to have played a role in its continued relevance. The almanac business has changed with the times, and these days he publishes about 3 million copies of the almanac annually. Many of those are sold directly to consumers, but lots are given away every year by businesses such as the Renys department stores and by the Maine Turnpike Authority, which will be handing them out to visitors on Labor Day Weekend.
In addition to the printed product, Geiger is proud of the almanac’s growing online presence. It has more than a million fans on Facebook and nearly 30,000 followers on Twitter. And he keeps busy with media interviews, too, generally doing about 400 per year. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
“You think about almanacs being old because they have a long history, but it’s very topical. We started before newspapers and certainly magazines. We were the internet before there was internet,” he said. “And you have to have a sense of purpose.”