Is Punxsutawney Phil Hogging the Spotlight?
Rivals Work in Famed Groundhog's Shadow; 'We Don't Fake It Here'
By KRIS MAHER
<<More critters are challenging Punxsutawney Phil for the crown of Groundhog Day prognosticator. In his home state of Pennsylvania, he has rivals including Octorara Orphie of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge in Quarryville, and Sammi II of Monroe County, who was pressed into service after Sammi I died of heatstroke after riding in a parade. Last year, Mel, a groundhog in Milltown, N.J., got into the act. His owner, Jerry Guthlein, is predicting a crowd of 200 in the parking lot of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
"We call them all impostors," says Bill Deeley, who owns a funeral home and is president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, the name given to a group of businessmen from western Pennsylvania who have been using a groundhog to predict the weather since 1887. "We are the real McCoy." At sunup on Tuesday Mr. Deeley, in top hat and tails, will tell the world whether there will be six more weeks of winter (if Phil sees his shadow) or an early spring (if he doesn't). As many as 35,000 visitors have come to the town of 6,700 to watch. People from out of state arrive to get married in the local chapel. This year, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development is texting Phil's forecast to 15,000 people who signed up for it.
It's unclear how many less-celebrated groundhogs appear in local festivities. Mr. Deeley thinks there are more than a dozen. Many are in Pennsylvania, and for good reason. German immigrants to the state began using groundhogs to forecast the weather in the 18th century, following the tradition in Europe where the badger was used.
Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are technically rodents and related to a group of ground squirrels called marmots. Some say the re-emergence of hibernating groundhogs was once considered a good predictor of spring weather. Today, the state has 17 groundhog lodges, or Grundsau Lodges, with 5,000 members who speak a Pennsylvania German dialect and eat traditional foods like scrapple, a mush of pork scraps and cornmeal, and fasnacht, a fatty doughnut. "When they came to America, there was no badger. They adopted the groundhog, and it's been that way ever since," says Lee Haas, a retired truck driver and president of the lodge that uses Sammi.
Many experts say Groundhog Day is appealing today because it provides a link, however tenuous, to the rhythms of nature and because it lightens the gloom of winter. "Part of the reason we have so many holidays during the winter is because of the need for festivity during that time," says Simon Bronner, professor of American studies and folklore at Penn State Harrisburg.
Indeed, the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge in Quarryville, four hours to the east of Punxsutawney, doesn't even have a real groundhog anymore, having used the work of a taxidermist to represent Octorara Orphie in recent years. But it still has a Groundhog Day parade that draws hundreds of people. At the event a new lodge member is initiated with a dunking in Octorara Creek.
Groundhog Day falls at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox or start of spring. So there is technically always six more weeks of winter, if not wintry weather, no matter what the groundhog says. That doesn't stop claims of meteorologic superiority in the groundhog circle, though.
Bob Will has been trotting out Dunkirk Dave for up to 100 people since the 1960s, and he has a number of pet peeves about Phil. The 59-year-old animal rehabilitator in Dunkirk, N.Y., notes that Phil isn't even from Pennsylvania and in some years hasn't even been a he.
But Mr. Will's biggest criticism is that Phil isn't given the chance to stand on the ground and stay outside or duck back into his burrow if it's sunny. "I just think that maybe Punxsutawney Phil should predict the weather the way Dunkirk Dave does, standing on his own on the ground, instead of being yanked up in the air and held," says Mr. Will. "We don't fake it here." He suspects the Punxsutawney Inner Circle consults the long-range weather forecast to make sure Phil doesn't look foolish
Mr. Deeley insists he won't make the call until Tuesday when he hears from Phil. He says he doesn't check the weather forecast or have the Inner Circle vote on the decision. "I shoot from the hip," says Mr. Deeley.
Other states and cities, too, have groundhogs. None are as well known, as Phil, although Staten Island Chuck got world-wide attention last year after nipping New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on camera. Peter Laline, general curator of the Staten Island Zoo, says Chuck has been right 22 of the past 29 years.
The prediction is deemed accurate if the groundhog predicts an early spring and the number of days with temperatures above 40 degrees exceeds the number of days where it remains below that threshold in the six weeks after Feb. 2.
He thinks Punxsutawney's celebration is "more storybook and fairy tale," noting that the town claims that Phil has lived for 100 years by sipping magical punch. But he understands. Phil's fame gives the town distinction. Without Phil, there wouldn't likely be a Groundhog Wine Trail around Punxsutawney. Phil makes the rounds at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Bill Murray visited the town in preparation of the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," which was set in Punxsutawney but filmed in Woodstock, Ill.
The rivalry extends to the old North-South divide. Gen. Beauregard Lee, or at least his latest namesake, is giving his 30th Groundhog Day forecast Tuesday at the Yellow River Game Ranch, a petting zoo in Lilburn, Ga., 20 miles east of Atlanta. Stefanie Reeves says she and other zoo workers are quick to dismiss calls they get from Phil fans. "They say, 'We're calling from Punxsutawney,' and we say, 'Where?' "
Oxford, Mich., used to have a groundhog, but it died. The animals typically live six years or more in the wild, longer in captivity. So now Oxford uses a llama to predict the weather. On Tuesday, Tutor the llama will be led out of his barn on Beth and Mark Harries's farm there to find out whether he sees his shadow The couple started celebrating the holiday in 1998 after helping rescue a groundhog that had been hit by a car. The Harrieses say extended family and friends will come over to celebrate. But the animals on the farm—38 llamas, three horses, two deer and five dogs—could outnumber human spectators.>>
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