Groundhog Day offers annual distraction, possibility of an early end to winter

PUNXSUTAWNEY – Stepping outside this past week, it’s hard to imagine Punxsutawney Phil foreseeing anything but eternal winter.

Winter weather sufferers nationwide may have been looking for the furry prognosticator to see an early end to snow and subzero temperatures, but weather seems not to be a factor in determining just how many people show up for the annual spectacle.

‘Winter blahs’

Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce employee Gail Reddinger said Groundhog Day is so successful because, with Christmas and New Year’s long over and Easter far off, Feb. 2 is a celebration that excites people.

“It helps with winter blahs,” she said about the holiday, for which people apparently have been stocking up for several weeks.

Standing over a large United States Postal Service hamper, Reddinger said hundreds of orders are being placed a day, with workers having to make three or four trips to the post office for items to be sent out on time. One customer from the United Kingdom even paid $47 for a freight order of two T-shirts, she said.

And many are looking for a quirky novelty. A surprisingly popular item is a white T-shirt that reads, “I was born on Groundhog Day.”

Not so long ago, she said, a husband and wife both born on Feb. 2 showed up to buy the shirts.

But mugs, ornaments, postcards, silly hats and even “Punxsutawney Phil in a Can,” a plush Phil stuffed in a tube, are also big sellers.

“People in general just want groundhog paraphernalia,” Reddinger said, laughing.

Each year it has grown

Chamber of Commerce Director Michele Neal said Groundhog Day became wildly popular in the years following the 1993 debut of the Bill Murray film named for the holiday, with between 50,000 and 60,000 people turning up for the next several years.

Since then, interest waned, she said.

Now, Groundhog Day usually draws between 8,000 and 10,000 spectators when Feb. 2 falls on a weekday, and 20,000 to 30,000 when it’s on a weekend which it has been for the past two years.

Even bad weather, or having this year’s Super Bowl fall on the same day, hasn’t kept attendance numbers from climbing.

“You really can do both” if you’re determined to watch the game, she said, since Phil is a morning guy and makes his prediction before 7:30 a.m., leaving plenty of time for an afternoon nap.

And if hotel reservations are an indication, people plan to do both.

Area innkeepers are swamped with reservations, with spectators willing to drive over half an hour if they were unable to book a room in town.

Andy Dowdall, general manager of Clarion Hotel in DuBois along Rich Highway on Route 219 North, said in his four years working at the hotel, he’s seen continued growth in the number of people attending Groundhog Day.

“For the last couple of years, we have gotten lots of bookings,” he said.

It also was busy last Feb. 2, he added, noting that weather isn’t much of a factor for tourism.

It was 17 degrees last year, and thousands of people still turned out for Phil, he said.

A year-round tradition

In a town where it’s all Phil, all the time, painted cutouts may stand on porches perhaps for a few days or weeks, but local business owners and restaurateurs have taken advantage of the town’s fame.

Many have painted murals on walls and in windows, and many don Phil-themed sweatshirts or buttons as part of their work uniform.

Gobbler’s Knob, located just outside town, was quiet in the days leading up to the holiday, but Hollidaysburg resident Vivian VanDyke was passing through the area Thursday with her sister, Violet Johnson, a Houston, Texas, resident.

The siblings grew up near Greensburg but graduated from Clarion University and were in the area often because of school.

Unfortunately, they said, neither was going to be able to stay see Phil in person but said family and friends especially Johnson’s will be excited to hear of the trip.

However, she said, Houston residents experiencing 76-degree weather this weekend may not feel like Phil has to put much of a rush on springtime, she said.

“People do look and see what Punxsutawney Phil says,” she said. “He’s definitely world famous.”

Don’t doubt Phil

Even those who don’t get decked out for Groundhog Day made one thing clear: Residents take the holiday, and the shadow prediction, quite seriously.

Delbert “Moonshine” Highlands, who is a fixture of Punxy Phil’s Family Restaurant along Indiana Street, said Phil has never been wrong.

He pooh-poohed naysayers – like those from the National Climatic Data Center and Almanac records-keepers – who said that since 1887, Punxsutawney Phil’s weather predictions have been correct only 39 percent of the time.

“He’s always right,” Highlands said. “It’s the weather gods that are wrong.”

Few in town were willing to disagree. Some in the borough, Highlands said, might need an extra drink or two to get through the chaos of having tens of thousands

of visitors swarming Punxsutawney, whose population is comparable to Hollidaysburg’s, but that it’s generally a good time for all.

“It’s madness,” Highlands said, “but it’s great.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.