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Meet the Inner Circle That Runs Groundhog Day

They’ve been holding the ceremony in Gobbler’s Knob every year since 1887

The President, one of only three Inner Circle members who are allowed to handle Punxsutawney Phil, holds him aloft during ceremonies in 2013. (Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers. It’s Groundhog Day.

And it’s a special one. The birth of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, custodians of famed weather prognosticator Punxsutawney Phil, was 130 years ago, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The club’s Inner Circle maintains that they are still speaking to the same groundhog they met in 1887, when they were led by town newspaper editor Clymer Freas to Gobbler’s Knob, writes Kathy Padden for Today I Found Out.  

According to the official history of the club, the belief that a hedgehog’s shadow was an indicator of more winter goes back to the time of the Roman Empire.  This idea made it to North America as a German tradition borne by Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers, they write, but there was one problem: there are no hedgehogs in North America.

“They determined that the groundhog, resembling the European hedgehog, was a most intelligent and sensible animal and therefore decided that if the sun did appear on February 2nd, so wise an animal as the groundhog would see its shadow and hurry back into its underground home for another six weeks of winter,” it reads.

Then in 1887, “the first legendary trek to Gobbler’s Knob” took place. Where’s Gobbler’s Knob, you might ask (if you haven’t seen Groundhog Day)? That’s where Punxsutawney Phil, probably the most famous groundhog in the world, has lived since then. And that’s where thousands, drawn by Phil’s mysterious aura—or maybe just a love of the 1993 film Groundhog Day—will gather to watch Phil and his inner circle work their magic.

This group of 15 are the custodians of the Punxsutawney Phil legend and the generators of his “predictions” vis-a-vis the outlook on a long winter. They’re all volunteers, writes Anna Orso of Penn Live, and they’re all residents of Phil’s town. They have Masonic-style given names for their roles, like Chief Healthman and Shingle Shaker, Orso writes.

They’re also easy to spot, as their official uniform is a tux and top hat. One former member told Orso that they dress up for Phil because, historically speaking, when VIPs came to town they’d be met by a greeter wearing that outfit. “Punxsutawney Phil is a dignitary around here, so we think he deserves that same treatment,” former Inner Circle president Bill Cooper said.   

In their everyday lives, these locals wear very different outfits: when Orso was writing in 2015, the Inner Circle included a math teacher, a welder, a dentist and a chiropractor, among others. According to the club’s website, no new members have been added since then.

It might seem like a thankless job, but the role does come with some local prestige.  “Despite the German legend, Phil’s handlers don’t wait to see if he sees his shadow, “ wrote the Pittsburgh Evening Sun. “Instead, the Inner Circle decide on the forecast ahead of time and announce it on Gobbler’s Knob.”

The club, however, would like you to know that’s not what happens at all. “Phil’s forecasts are not made in advance by the Inner Circle,” the website declares: “after Phil emerges from his burrow on February 2, he speaks to the Groundhog Club president in ‘Groundhogese’ (a language only understood by the current president of the Inner Circle.)” They are merely the custodians of his word, they insist.

The Groundhog Day tradition began with Punxsutawney Phil, and it was immortalized in the Bill Murray/Andy Macdowell film (which wasn’t actually shot in Punxsutawney), but Phil is far from the only groundhog in the predictions business these days. Competing groundhogs include Buckeye Chuck, General Beauregard Lee, (the embalmed corpse of) Poor Richard, and Canadian Shubenacadie Sam.

Are any of them right? Who knows. Does it matter? Not really. By this point in the year, we all just need something, anything, to get us through ‘til spring.

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