MONTPELIER — There was a time when Vermont households began the new year with the promise of a fresh start — an almanac published in Montpelier by Ezekiel Parker Walton.
“Walton’s Vermont Register and Farmer’s Almanac” was published continually for more than 190 years, and was a standard reference for many Vermonters. With a string looped through a small hole punched through the upper left corner, the handy compilation of facts and forecasts could be hung from a nail near the kitchen window and consulted for myriad purposes. A farmer could sow his crops in consort with the phases of the moon, or plan a fishing trip during the most propitious times for angling success.
There were countless versions of these “farmer’s almanacs,” and most resembled the pocket-sized, yellow covered version that can still be found. An important feature of all each almanac is the calendar of celestial events, such as the rising and setting times for the sun and moon, eclipses and other astronomical occurrences. Essential to all such predictions are basic mathematical calculations and, for Walton’s Register, the mathematical reckonings were formulated by Vermont’s pre-eminent practitioner of natural science, Zadock Thompson, who prepared his celestial calendar “calculated for the meridian of Montpelier.”
E.P. Walton was born in Canterbury, New Hampshire, in 1789. While Walton was still a boy, his father moved the family to Peacham, and Walton attended the nearby academy. In Peacham, he was apprenticed to Samuel Goss, who printed a local newspaper, The Green Mountain Patriot. When Goss came to Montpelier in 1807 to purchase the Vermont Precursor, E.P. Walton came with him. They changed the name of the newspaper to the Vermont Watchman, and in six years’ time, Walton bought a 50% interest in the enterprise. A few years later he became the sole proprietor. Concurrent with his business interests, he also served in the Vermont Militia, ultimately attaining the rank of major general.
The Watchman served a wide readership, and Walton, an innate entrepreneur, built a successful paper-making mill on the Berlin side of the Winooski River. Eventually the printing plant of the Watchman filled a space now occupied by Montpelier’s City Hall. His printing business flourished, and he became the official printer for the State of Vermont, adding that imprint to all official publications of the Vermont state government. He first published Walton’s Register in 1817, and it was continually printed in Montpelier until 1868, when production was moved to Claremont, New Hampshire.
An essential feature of Walton’s Register, along with approximate weather prognostications, was the inclusion of the signs of the zodiac, “names and characters of the aspects,” and “chronological cycles.” It was believed that these astrological phases would help determine the best times to plant crops, breed cattle and make fodder for livestock. Robb Sagendorph’s “America and Her Almanacs” delineates the primitive conviction that, “All vegetable and flowers, the blossoms of fruits of which are to appear above the ground, should be planted in the light of the moon and those from which the harvest is made below the ground (such as beets or potatoes) are to be planted in the dark of the moon.”
Other superstitions concern the most advantageous of times for cutting brush, trees or fence posts — even weaning calves.
The almanac’s astronomical information was essential to rural Vermonters who planned their seasonal chores and recreations in accordance with the availability of daylight or lunar illumination.
One famous illustration of reliance on an almanac involves Abraham Lincoln and his use of the reference tool in the defense of a man accused of murder. As recounted in many biographies of the 16th president, the young lawyer demonstrated that the prosecution was in error when it claimed that his client was seen murdering James Metzger by the light of the moon on Aug. 29, 1859. Brandishing a copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, Lincoln proved that the moon was only in its first quarter that night and was also riding low on the horizon, thus discrediting the testimony of the prosecution’s eyewitness. Lincoln argued that the witness did not have enough light to make a decisive identification, and the jury agreed, rendering a not guilty verdict.
Walton’s Register also was a useful source for health, veterinary advice and household tips. In the 1828 edition there is a remedy for bloat in cattle: “When an animal has too much green herbage it ferments in the stomach and produces carbonic acid gas, which occasions bloating. To destroy the gas, make the animal swallow a spoonful of ammoniac mixed with a glass of water. Perhaps a dose of lye would do as well.”
Sound, seasonal advice also was proffered in the monthly calendar section. For November 1828: “Continue your preparations for winter, and keep pace with your business, and then the cold and storm will not come too soon for you. See that your ploughs, harrows, carts and your farming utensils are all carefully and neatly laid up under shelter.”
The overwhelming preponderance of the volume was given to general reference information that also included national, state and local government — information that would be difficult for a rural resident to find. Officials in state and local government are delineated in detail and, as the annual editions evolved, a plethora of commercial and professional information was also included.
As the contents of Walton’s Register and competing almanac became more detailed, charges of inaccuracy were leveled against the rivals of the Montpelier company, which was not always as current as some critics would have desired. In the 1860s, with the appearance of several competing almanacs, the Montpelier publisher launched its own attacks against the veracity of its competitors.
With the appearance of Atwater’s Vermont Directory in November 1866, the editor of Walton’s Register took it to task in the pages of several Vermont newspapers, noting in a variety of important areas, “Atwater is imperfect.” Specifically, it was pointed out that “the grand list for 1866 is not yet completed, the last corrections for County Officers have not been made, in town returns, a number of towns are missing, we notice an imperfect list of stamp duties, no table of population, governors and elections in the several states … .”
In response, the editors of Atwater’s Vermont Directory published a counter attack, calling the criticism of their Vermont Directory, “in the spirit of low jealousy on the part of Walton’s Register. If the waning fortunes of his pet register are at so low an ebb as to render it necessary to disparage its rivals in order to keep his own alive, the sooner he throws the old fogy concern overboard, the better for all concerned.”
It is possible that the Vermont Directory hit the mark. The following year, Walton’s Register was sold to the Claremont Manufacturing Co., where the almanac was published until 1881. It then returned to Vermont, moving to White River Junction, St. Albans and then to Rutland, where it was published by Charles E. Tuttle. In 1930, Walton’s Register became the Vermont Yearbook, publishing continually until the first decade of the new millennium.
Today, it might seem quaint and old-fashioned to consult a printed reference work which, by its very nature, was out-of-date the moment it was printed. But for generations of Vermonters in the days before online information, these local almanacs were the standard for data and directory information — and some Vermonters still lament their passing.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian from Barre.