Punxsutawney: Out of the Shadow

By Carol Vinzant
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Like Christmas and Halloween, Groundhog Day has sprawled into a season -- at least in Punxsutawney, Pa. Events go on for days, though things really heat up today, Groundhog Day Eve. A Groundhog king and queen will be crowned at the local high school and couples will be married in the presence of local groundhog officials. There's a traditional banquet, the Prognosticators Ball and a midnight screening of the movie "Groundhog Day."

By 3 a.m. revelers wil start arriving at Gobbler's Knob, the grassy knoll where Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, will appear near dawn and probably, based on history, see his shadow.

There will be a bonfire and fireworks. There will almost certainly be the tippling you would expect from an overnight winter gathering, despite the annual harsh talk about cracking down on alcohol. The Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club, the Punxsutawney elite who have been running these affairs since 1886, will dignify the occasion with tuxedos, top hats and flowery early-morning speechifying.

The events will be silly, but Punxsutawney is in on the joke. The hometown of America's most famous rodentine meteorologist (not counting Al Roker) doesn't take itself too seriously.

Whether you come for this week's billboard mayhem or drop by during Punxy's 360-day off-season, you'll find plenty of nods to the odd fact that this is the town that a woodchuck built. There are goggle-eyed groundhog statues, cheesy groundhog tchotchkes and a hilarious series of groundhog short films (viewable at http://groundhogchase.com/ and http://www.groundhog202.com/ ).

But there are also non-marmot charms. The friendly burg in the mountains with the gorgeous old-fashioned square is certainly worth a weekend visit: A great old-timey hotel anchors a days-gone-by Main Street, and the surrounding countryside offers some of the best hiking and wildlife viewing in the East.

With fewer than 7,000 people, Punxsutawney has a surprisingly enduring downtown. A mile or so of small businesses -- not just twee antique shops and cafes as at that fancy Brookville historic district 20 miles up the road -- lead to Barclay Square. The town plaza has a 1939 war memorial bandstand, Norway maples along curved pathways and, of course, some statues of You Know Who.

Punxsutawney is cute enough to spend the day just walking around, but you'll probably want to explore some of the natural wonders within an hour or so's drive. This is former coal country, mountainous and sparsely populated and, unlike the Poconos, not cluttered with touristy confections. To the north is the Allegheny National Forest, which National Geographic designated as one of the 100 best places to see wild animals in the country. The place is filled with deer -- and hunters -- but you may also see beavers (or, more likely, their architecture), black bears, river otters or ospreys.

Starting on the east side of the national forest in Ridgway, you enter, believe it or not, elk country. A wild (well, re-introduced) elk herd of more than 500 head roams the area. There are plenty of officially designated places to stop, but locals say the best bet is the town of Benezette on Route 555. It's not uncommon to spot a couple of the big guys right in the town's churchyard.

Back in Punxsutawney, the dog-friendly 1888 Pantall Hotel is a fine base for weekend wandering. This great old brick pile feels like the soul of the town, a picture of worn elegance and the last survivor of a group of grand old hotels that once lined Main Street. It's got a popular bar and the Coach Room Restaurant, an impressive wood-paneled room where the town's older folks seem to take their families. Across the street is a red neon clock, a functioning remnant of the burned-down Jordan Furniture Store.

And for the more scientifically weather-obsessed, there's the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. After six years and about $1 million raised, the 1914 post office that houses the center has been restored and is open on a limited basis for group tours. But another $500,000 is needed to fill out the exhibits, and the grand opening that was planned for tomorrow has been postponed.

But all this talk of Punxsutawney's many charms is, of course, ignoring the large groundhog in the room.

The Borough of Punxsutawney has been celebrating Groundhog Day since 1886. But it's only since the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day" that it has become Times Square for a day, attracting up to 35,000 people and emerging as the most famous town of its size since Mayberry.

Punxsutawney does have a dark secret, however. It is not, in fact, the small town from the movie that made it famous. That town is Woodstock, Ill., where "Groundhog Day" was filmed.

"Probably the number one question I get is about the movie, and I hate to tell people it wasn't filmed here," says Greg Shaffer, a clerk at the town's centerpiece, the Pantall Hotel. "People ask, 'We're looking for the diner that was in the movie.' And I have to say, 'You won't find it here, you'll have to look in Illinois.' "

Despite not standing in for itself in the movie, the town proudly remembers when Bill Murray visited to research his part. From the Pantall's Web site:

"Bill Murray called February 1, 1992 from Pebble Beach and wanted a room!!!!??!!! We didn't have one but knew someone who would give up his if we explained. . . . When he got here, there was a mob waiting and it took an hour to get through the lobby."

That room is now labeled "The Bill Murray Room."

Normally you have to book the Pantall months in advance for Groundhog Day, a year ahead if the holiday falls on a weekend, says Shaffer.

But there's plenty of groundhog to go around all year long.

Remember how Chicago's Cows on Parade in 1999 infected cities nationwide with mascot fever? Washington sidewalks had their donkeys, elephants and pandas, and Punxsutawney has 25 cartoonish groundhogs scattered around.

On one side of the square is the Groundhog Zoo, where Phil and his companion, Phyllis, live in a glass enclosure. You can see them anytime, though for much of the winter they are just sleeping furry balls.

The groundhog thing all started at a well-lubricated 1886 groundhog hunt and picnic, when the editor of the colorful local paper, the Punxsutawney Spirit, dubbed his local gang the Groundhog Club. The next spring, the Spirit began printing the groundhog's forecasts, based on an old Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of using the skies on Candlemas Day to predict the coming of warmer weather.

The Punxy ritual has evolved over the years. Eating groundhog for dinner was a tradition longer than you would think. Sam Light, late president and showman of the Groundhog Club, introduced top hat and tails in the 1950s.

The town likes to claim that Groundhog Day is "America's Second Favorite Holiday." Probably not. But if Halloween is the new Christmas to retailers, then Groundhog Day can certainly be the drinker's new St. Patrick's Day. Well, if that booze crackdown on Gobbler's Knob doesn't hold.

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