Groundhog Day

Though it may seem like a strange holiday, Groundhog Day is the savior of Punxsutawney. Andrew McGill chronicles how a furry prognosticator saved the Pennsylvanian town from deterioration.

Punxsutawney, Penn. is prettier at night. Daylight reveals cracked Mahoning Street facades, the borough’s sluggish creek, a slew of tourist traps. Outside the four-block downtown, ordered streets quickly give way to winding lanes and ranch homes, a low-rise landscape dotted with novelty mailboxes.

Ever-present is the grinning visage of groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, whose February prediction provides the town with modest national fame and much, it appears, of its reason for existing. No business is complete without some mark of his likeness, and many take on his name–Groundhog Instant Lube and Oil, Punxy Phil’s Cakes and Steaks. Recently, the borough commissioned local artists to paint gaudy six-foot fiberglass Phils, plopping them down like oversized garden gnomes throughout the city proper.

The 6,200-strong town hosts the yearly Groundhog Day celebration, when “the prognosticator of all prognosticators,” a twenty-pound rodent, weighs in on the possibility of winter lingering for another month and a half, an eventuality science has long established as inevitable.

At five in the morning, organizers have already begun murmuring to each other about the possibility of 2008 setting attendance records. Cars pack the roads into the town, idling in parking lots as the wait for a shuttle bus to Gobbler’s Knob, the site of the prediction, stretches to two hours. Police directing traffic begin telling visitors that if they want to get to the Knob in time for the 7:25 a.m. prediction, they had better start walking.

Punxsutawney elite, known as the “Inner Circle,” maintain that Phil is the same groundhog from when the holiday made its debut in 1887, sustained through the years by sips of a magical punch. If so, he would have seen Groundhog’s Day when it was little more than a point of civic pride and social event for locals; he would have known this western Pennsylvanian town before it was engulfed by its dubious honorific, “The Weather Capital of the World.”

Punxsutawney lies on Indian ground, marking the border between two departed tribes. Their legacy lives in the town’s name and its most prominent pest, the sandfly. Local legend has it that an Indian sorcerer cursed the region with the small stinging gnats, prompting the name “Ponksaduteney,” or “Town of the Sandflies.”

Farming and timber sustained the first European settlers, but it was the coal in the surrounding hills that put the small hamlet on the map. By the late 1800s, Punxsutawney had all the trappings of a small, thriving city: factories, breweries, a meat packaging plant and electricity. Railroads raced to lay tracks through the region, running up to 78 trains a day; the pride of the borough was its state-of-the-art trolley system, carrying passengers down the city’s main thoroughfares.

It was in the heat of this heady growth that Groundhog Day was born, the brainchild of a local newspaper editor, Clymer Freas. Partaking amply in locally-brewed beer at an annual groundhog picnic (where residents barbecued Phil’s progenitors on spits), Freas declared himself the head of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and designated the animal a weather seer. One can imagine the confused consternation of the crowd, their mouths full of groundhog meat. But Freas followed through that fall, celebrating the first official Groundhog Day at the wooded Gobbler’s Knob just outside of town.

Punxsutawney had its day. But even the most glowing of histories admit the town peaked in the 1920s, well before the birth of most of its current residents. Phil did have a presence–the local newspapers duly reported his prediction every year–but his hometown was more likely to be known for its eight-story skyscraper or fancy hotels than his whiskered face.

No more. Western Pennsylvania’s coal industry bottomed out after World War II, cutting off the vital flow of money and resources to Punxsutawney’s factories, foundries, and ironworks. Nearly overnight, the thriving boomtown of over 12,000 shrank by half, transforming into what it is today: a shriveled city of old buildings where serious commerce centers around the local Wal-Mart, nearly a quarter of the population suffers from a disability, and half the residents are over 60.

It’s a portrait seen again and again throughout the small towns lining the highways in Pennsylvania, but Punxsutawney is unusual. It discovered a way out.

The city has found survival in its most famous resident, rebuilding itself in the image of Phil. Through coordinated efforts between civic and business leaders, Punxsutawney relentlessly pushed its reputation as a tourist destination of national import, centered on the furry creature’s annual prediction. Today, nearly 80 percent of the town’s revenue comes from retail sales, with shopkeepers hawking groundhog t-shirts, groundhog hats, even groundhog beer; as the local Chamber of Commerce director puts it, everyone’s spent the last 10 years busily “groundhogizing” Punxsutawney. The pace of commercialization only accelerated after the release of Bill Murray’s comedy Groundhog Day¸ in which he relives the town’s most famous day over and over again. (Ironically, most of the movie’s footage was shot in Illinois.)

It was the new Punxsutawney that built the Groundhog Zoo, a spacious addition to the local library, to house and show off its new golden goose, or groundhog. It was the new Punxsutawney that converted a historic 1914 post office into a “Weather Discovery Station,” featuring a faux “groundhog burrow” and a weather-themed gift shop, to draw in more visitors with Phil’s panache. Groundhog Day wasn’t enough, so the new Punxsutawney invented a second holiday: the summer Groundhog Festival.

Nowadays, Phil and his hometown are nearly indistinguishable. His famous shadow stretches from the grinning billboards along Route 119 to the high school gym bearing his scarlet “P” (team name: the Chucks), from the masthead of the local newspaper to the flag-bearing street lamps downtown. But his heart centers on the modern Gobbler’s Knob, an amphitheater-like affair with its sodium-arc stadium lighting casting a glow in the sky visible for miles.

The fairground in 2008 has all the energy of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, although revelers appear more Main Street than Madison Avenue. Peddlers work the crowd, peeling off “I Love Phil” shirts from their draped arms for $5 apiece; onstage, high school volunteers dance to a sped-up version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Everywhere bobs the ubiquitous black top hat, a plastic approximation of those worn by the Inner Circle, available cheaply at Punxsutawney Phil’s Official Souvenir Shop downtown.

Foremost in view sits a gigantic stump, beneath which Phil is said to reside. Many visitors in the crowd don’t realize that this folksy construction is just that–an artificial mimicry, worthy of Disneyland’s Imagineers. There is no natural burrow underneath the lacquered stump. For most of the year, the town’s foremost groundhog is a consigned to a glass cage in the public library. On Groundhog Day, Phil sits crammed in a heated compartment inside the faux stump, awaiting his exalted exposure to the eager crowd.

Punxsutawney has gotten its wish. What other town of 6,000, declares its Chamber of Commerce director, can boast of a national reputation? Who else can claim to draw 30,000 visitors in one day? And if anyone mourns the passing of the city’s old character–its coke ovens and Victorian storefronts, its quiet charm and honesty–it can’t be seen.

The time has come. With great fanfare, Phil is pulled loose from his berth. For all his fame and wisdom, the groundhog looks a little bewildered, clutched in the gloved grasp of his top-hatted handler. Perhaps, as he’s held aloft before the cheering crowd of 30,000, he wonders why his life has become so precious, how all the dreams of this small town came to be surrendered to him.

Andrew McGill is a journalism student at Penn State. On the job, he's interviewed accused murderers about their shoe preferences and published the phrase "a pilferer's tickle." Google it!