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Groundhog Day, the improbable holiday that brings a shot in the arm to a former coal town

Officials with in Punxsutawney say 25,000 people came to Gobbler's Knob Saturday to see Phil, who didn't see his shadow. According to legend, that means spring is on its way.

A member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's inner circle holds Phil after he makes his weather prediction on Groundhog Day at Gobbler's Knob. With no shadow in sight, expect an early spring, unless you believe government experts, who say Phil's record is more wrong than right.
A member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's inner circle holds Phil after he makes his weather prediction on Groundhog Day at Gobbler's Knob. With no shadow in sight, expect an early spring, unless you believe government experts, who say Phil's record is more wrong than right.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. — Thousands came to Gobbler’s Knob here in the dead of night, bused in from Walmart and bundled deep in layers of camouflage and safety orange, all to see a groundhog. One man was dressed as a banana, a very frozen banana.

Forbidden flasks of whiskey were plentiful, hand warmers even more so, and when the crowd sang along to the pop music blaring from the stage, the collective breath crystallized in the frigid air. Some children couldn’t feel their toes, but they weren’t complaining.

“It’s 2 degrees out!” an emcee shouted from the stage at around 3:30 a.m. Saturday

The crowd erupted into cheers when they heard the temperature. This joy in the face of near-frostbite is but one of the things that doesn’t make sense about Groundhog Day, the holiday that gets this little town of 5,788 in Jefferson County mentioned on newscasts around the world every year, thanks to a boost from a beloved movie from 1993.

“Why does this thing even exist? Honestly, who knows,” said Punxsutawney native Augusta Kraker, 29. “But it’s here and I come.”

The weather prediction is not based on hard science: Phil, an immortal groundhog and meteorology savant, leaves his burrow every Feb. 2 around dawn. If he sees his shadow, it means six more weeks of winter. If Phil doesn’t see his shadow, an early spring is around the corner. According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s inner circle of men in top hats and trench coats who handle Phil and speak groundhog, he has never been wrong. (Government weathermen say he’s been wrong only 75 percent of the time.)

Right around 7: 30 a.m. after a fireworks display that likely woke any local who skipped the event, Phil emerged from his burrow for the 133rd time up at Gobbler’s Knob and he didn’t see his shadow. By then, it was a balmy 10 degrees. Spring is on the way.

"It’s really the coolest event on the planet, because it’s so stupid.” said Jack Matson, a Jefferson County commissioner.

The holiday’s roots go back to Europe, to a winter festival called Candlemas Day, when clear skies meant a longer winter. Romans inserted a hedgehog and its shadow into the fray, and when German settlers came to Pennsylvania, they couldn’t find hedgehogs, so they settled on groundhogs

Punxsutawney Phil is not the only groundhog that predicts weather in the state, though it’s wise to keep that to one’s self when you’re there. Octoraro Orphie, of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge in Lancaster County, has battled with Phil for groundhog supremacy for decades.

“They can’t tell the difference between a skunk and a groundhog,” a former president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club said of the Slumbering Lodge in 1973.

When told the Inquirer and Daily News was headed west to Punxsutawney, Richard Rankin, chairman of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge’s hibernating governors, made a sound of disgust and muttered “Why?”

Rankin said Orphie’s record for prognostications is also perfect, sort of.

“There was a year when the weather was wrong,” he said.

During Phil’s first 50 years, Punxsutawney was known for bituminous coal production. The town’s population steadily grew to a high of 10,300 in 1920, only to drop over the last century. The town’s median household income is under $30,000, according to the Census; the top employers in Jefferson County include school districts, health care, state government, and Walmart.

“Coal really kicked our butts. It’s a fraction of what it was,” Matson said. “I think there’s maybe 10 or 11 open pits in Jefferson County, but there used to be 100.”

Today, Groundhog Day makes big financial sense for Punxsutawney and the greater region, with estimates of anywhere from $1 million to $4 million coming in, particularly when the holiday falls on a weekend. Owners of every restaurant, bar, and fast-food franchise in town say it’s their best day of the year, with up to 50,000 coming in and out of town over the weekend.

“I order extra everything and I double the help, because we get hopping,” said Lill Cameron, owner of Lilly’s Restaurant in town.

Hotel rooms are booked months and even years ahead of time in a 50-miles radius, and managers often spend much of the new year putting people on cancellation lists.

“People would be willing to sleep in the linen closets," said Cody Billotte, general manager of Cobblestone Hotel & Suites in Punxsutawney. “We don’t let them.”

Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney grew slowly, from a few hundred to a few thousand people over its first century, locals said. People mostly came in from local counties. For a few years, the knob grew rowdy, with college students “rasing hell and puking everywhere,” Groundhog Club president Bill Deeley said.

In 1992, however, screenwriter Danny Rubin and actor Bill Murray came to the event, for research. Everyone said that Murray was low-key that year and that no one knew for sure what the movie would be about. One woman said Murray fell on ice.

In February 1993, Groundhog Day was released and it remains a cult classic, a comedy that’s part romance and part meditation on nihilism, that somehow captures the goofiness of the town, even if it was filmed in Illinois.

“The movie blew everything up,” said John Griffiths, one of Phil’s handlers. “We went from having a few thousand, to 10,000 the next year, and it’s only gotten bigger.”

Rubin declined to comment on the film’s impact on Punxsutawney.

Carrie Lepore, of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, said the holiday is a dream for the state, though frigid. She noted the impending construction of a visitors' center at the knob.

“This is the very best of small-town America,” Lepore said at the knob Saturday.

Still, a large, historic hotel in the center of Punxsutawney is vacant and for sale, as are many storefronts. Some owners will open the storefronts for the day, to temporarily sell coffee and souvenirs, but they’ll be empty again come Monday.

“It’s hard to make a living on a few days a year,”Griffiths said of the hotel.

Many spectators who couldn’t find a hotel room simply slept in cars and recreation vehicles in the parking lot of Punxsutawney’s Walmart, a staging area where they could pay $5 for a bus ride up to the knob. Walmart was handing out free hot chocolate and selling souvenirs.

“I Googled it and apparently Walmart was where it’s at,” said John Lucey, of Point Pleasant, N.J.

One U-Haul van was packed with people and another spectator appeared to have placed a shed, complete with a smoking chimney, on a utility trailer and hauled it to Walmart as a makeshift sleeping quarters.

Officials with the Groundhog Club estimated that 25,000 people would come to the knob, which meant long lines for portable toilets, food, and warming tents for four hours. To keep people entertained, and moving their blood, emcees sang, danced, held talent shows, and shot hot dogs into the masses.

One would-be poet shouted out “Go, Steelers!” before he left, and in the din of the cheer, a faction from out east repeated a familiar chant: “’E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!”

“It’s one and done for me," said Joanne Donnelly, who drove from South Philly with family to celebrate her 60th birthday.

A month before the holiday, on an equally frigid day, Griffiths lugged Phil over to the Groundhog Club in a plastic container in the back of a pickup truck and drove up to Gobbler’s Knob, Griffiths, 58, wasn’t doing a test run with Phil because the groundhog is a professional.

Instead, Griffiths was going to meet a bar owner from Johnstown and a guy so cold his numb fingers could barely play the “Pennsylvania Polka” on his accordion. They just wanted a picture, both of them wearing groundhog hats, because they loved the holiday.

Phil embraces the weirdos, he honors those requests.

“We try to keep the knob pure” Griffiths said.