I love when a town has a mascot, a theme, a point of pride, and doesn’t take itself to seriously. Like Roswell, NM and its aliens, catfish in Belzoni, MS, or manatees in Crystal River. Punxsutawney, PA is that kind of town. Embracing the time-honored tradition of using a groundhogs’ prognostication of the coming of spring. The town is all about the groundhog as witnessed by the dozens of groundhog statues, Phantastic Phils, scattered around town.
I begin my towns exploration by traveling along a narrow windy road to a crest of a hill. Here I find a wooded park and an archway identifying Gobblers Knob. A quiet little park 364 days out of the year but it “springs” to life with over 10,000 visitors every Groundhogs Day.
Celebrated since 1899, if the hibernating groundhog known as Punxsutawney Phil leaves his burrow on February 2nd and sees his shadow there will be 6 more weeks of winter. The legend is based on a European custom predicting the length of winter by weather conditions on Candlemas, an ancient Christian festival.
Just as Murphy and I exit the truck, a very cordial gentleman pushing a wheelbarrow of bricks introduces himself as the “Stump Master”. I’m not sure if he’s kidding or not. The place is otherwise deserted and I’m not 100% sure I should even be here “out of season”. After exchanging pleasantries, he further identifies himself as Ron, a member of the Groundhogs Club Inner Circle, and of all things, Punxsutawney Phils co-handler. The top dog, the big chief, the man you see on TV in a tux and top hat every winter.
He offers a brief history of the Groundhog Club and their quest to replace a recently fallen 15th member. I’m honored, though mistaken, to think he may be recruiting me. I’m invited to check out the stage and the proverbial “Stump”. The Stump Master recalls a story 20 years ago when the handler reached into the stump and Phil was gone. He had chewed through the wood and gone below the stage. The problem has since been rectified with a heated concrete pad that is now inside the stump. There is, however, a secret process to get Phil in there prior to the big reveal. Only the members of the Inner Circle know, and well now I do, but I can’t tell ya or we’ll have an eternal Winter.
After a few sniffs and photo ops, the Stump Master directs us to Headquarters and Phil’s summertime burrow. Phil has a viewing station at the public library. He along with his wife, Phyllis, are content to snuggle and sleep most of the time. And that’s how I found them.
Just a short walk from Phil’s Burrow is the Groundhog Club Headquarters. HQ is a small single room museum/gift shop. On display are historical and rare Groundhog Club and Punxsutawney Phil items. Also featured are items from the Groundhog Day movie. There, a lone employee cheerfully recounts winters passed and unusual facts about our favorite groundhog.
Interestingly, there has only been one “Phil”. Phil has been around since 1882 and owes his longevity to groundhog punch. Each year he takes a sip of the magic elixir and extends his life another 7 years. Phil speaks a special language, called Groundhogese, which he uses to communicate his shadow-finding to the Inner Circle President, who then announces it to the world.
Phil is never wrong and is prediction is 100 percent correct, Any variants on Phil’s prediction and actual arrival of spring are due to the president’s misinterpretation of Phil’s prediction. I’m never much one to look forward to winter but I am now anxious to see Phil and his Stump Master do their thing in February.