Skip to main content

The Yankee Express

The Old Farmer is Grafton Native

Portrait of Robert Bailey Thomas by Zedekiah Belknap, 1836

By Patty Roy

There’s a deep partial solar eclipse heading our way on April 8, 2024.  According to, a solar eclipse happens when the moon, as it orbits the earth comes between the earth and the sun.  This casts a shadow over the earth, preventing sunlight from reaching us. The moon shadow will begin creeping across the sun a little before 2:14 p.m. and wind up its traverse about 4:39 p.m.  
To us, it will appear as an arc-like shade moving across the round sun.
Like rainbows, the Northern Lights and less picturesque phenomenon such as blizzards and downpours, the hard evidence that we are merely creatures on a rock circling the sun, never fails to impress.
While most of nature’s measurable effects can be predicted accurately (or almost accurately), did you ever wonder how folks managed to adjust for vagaries of the weather in the “olden” days? The days when Americans lived more closely to the land, depending upon it for all their nourishment, for their families and animals alike.
Well, they got it from a slim volume called “The Old Farmer’s Almanac”, authored by Robert Bailey Thomas. 
Of course, there is a tie-in to Worcester County, and to Grafton in particular.
Thomas, the founder of “The Old Farmer’s Almanac was born on April 24, 1766. 
In the 1833 Almanac, Thomas began his “Concise Memoir of the Author and Editor of The (Old) Farmer’s Almanac,” installments of which were published over a span of five years.
Two years before Thomas was born, his father William bought a small farm in Shrewsbury and married Azubah Goodale (not likely to end up on the list of top 100 baby girls’ names any time soon) who was from Grafton. The editor and author of “The Farmer’s Almanac” was born at his maternal family’s Grafton home.
Parents and baby son moved from Grafton to the Shrewsbury farm, located in what is now West Boylston.
There was only one other child born to the family in 1768, a boy named Aaron.
“In our youth, we were brought up to farming,” Thomas wrote. “Our father, quite a scholar for those days, instructed us at home and sent us to the winter school.”
When he was about 17 years old, Robert Thomas’ father sent him my father sent him to Spencer to study with Dr. I . Allen to improve his penmanship, a must-have skill for anyone who pursued business. The following winter, he studied arithmetic, under his father’s tutelage.
“My father possessed a larger library than usually found in a country town,” Thomas wrote. “Among many scientific works, no one engrossed more of my attention than Ferguson’s Astronomy. From this work, I first acquired the idea of calculating an Almanack [sic].”
In the fall of 1787, he had an offer to teach school in Princeton. This, he continued until the first of April 1788, when he worked as a farm laborer on his father’s farm through the summer. Come the autumn, he headed up a school in Sterling.
In April 1789, he was back on the farm, pursuing his favorite study of astronomy, occasionally doing farm work, and trying his hand at bookbinding.
“I wanted practical knowledge of the calculations of an Almanack, he wrote.  “In September, I journeyed into Vermont to see the then-famous Dr. S. Sternes, who for many years calculated Isaiah Thomas’s Almanack, but failed to see him.”
Disappointed, he spent the next winter as a school master in Sterling. I pursued my avocations through the summer. There being few books in the country, I found good sales to the storekeepers, schoolmasters, etc.
“In the fall, I called on Isaiah Thomas of Worcester (no relation) to purchase 100 of his Almanacks in sheets, but he refused to let me have them. I was mortified and came home with a determination to have an Almanack of my own,” he wrote. “I knew that there were many things in his that were not generally approved of and which I knew I could remedy.”
In the spring of 1791, he was back at his father’s pursuing teaching, bookbinding and farm work.
After the school year was finished Thomas, he returned to his father’s, with a full determination never to resume teaching again. He made up his mind to follow the binding business. 
Publishing an almanac remained an obsession, however.
“The last of June or the first of July 1792, I went to Boston and arranged with Osgood Carlton, a teacher of mathematics, to instruct me in astronomy as related to calculating an Almanack. This he readily consented to do,” Thomas reported.
By the end part of August, he had made all the calculations for an almanac for 1793. Before he left town, he disposed of his copy to two young printers for a certain percentage on all those that should be sold.   
“The Farmer’s Almanac”, first published in 1792 by Robert B. Thomas, was an immediate success. Circulation of its second edition tripled from 3,000 to 9,000 copies. It sold for six pence, then about four cents in value.
To calculate the Almanac’s weather predictions, Thomas studied solar activity, astronomy cycles and weather patterns and used his research to develop a secret forecasting formula, which is still in use today. Other than the Almanac’s prognosticators, few people have seen the formula. It is kept in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire. 
Thomas also started drilling a hole through the Almanac so that subscribers could hang it from a nail or a string. It was a printed version of the internet with weather prognostications, planting guidelines, moon phases, folklore, home remedies and useful tips for everyday living.
In 1832, with his almanac having survived longer than similarly named competitors, Thomas inserted the word “Old” in the title. In 1848, the book’s name was permanently and officially revised to “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” by his succeeding editor John Henry Jenks.
Thomas remained the editor until his death at age 80 in 1846, supposedly while reading proofs for the 1847 edition. By then, his was the oldest almanac in the country. He is buried in Legg Cemetery in what is now Sterling.
Today, “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” remains the oldest continuously published periodical in North America. And remember, there’s a little bit of Grafton in its history.