Yesterday was Groundhog Day, when thousands of Americans make their annual pilgrimage to the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsatawney to see Phil coaxed out of his luxury, electrically-heated hilltop burrow to make his prediction. Around 20,000 people were there when the groundhog emerged at 7.20am and his loyal supporters insist, despite strong evidence to the contrary, that he is always right. In fact, he predicts another six weeks of winter nine times out of 10, and he six out of 10 of these predictions are correct. The tradition has been maintained since 1886, and nearly led to war between Punxsatawney and the State of California in 1953. In that year, the good folk of the town presented a "Royal Groundhog Couple", named Elizabeth and Philip, to the Los Angeles Griffith Park Zoo. The California Department of Agriculture, however, declared the young groundhogs to be "agricultural pests" and ordered them destroyed. Despite a national protest, the six-week-old baby groundhogs were lined up and shot. Or, as a Beverly Hills newspaper reported: "Two little groundhogs dropped their shadows and picked up eternity's wings."
All citizens of California were promptly denied membership of the Punxsatawney Groundhog Club and there was talk of forming a militia to march on California. The bodies of Elizabeth and Philip were brought home for a dignified burial.
Despite having been a national institution for over a century, Punxsatawney Phil only became a true celebrity after the release of Harold Ramis's 1993 film Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray played the part of a weatherman doomed to repeat the same day in his life over and over again.
Groundhogs apart, there seems to be little excitement in Punxsatawney. The town's homepage on the World Wide Web has a list of "Interesting Facts About Punxsatawney" of which the most interesting seems to be that it is near towns called Panic, Desire and Harmony. Our own newspaper database contains just one news story about the town that does not mention the word "groundhog". Its headline: "Trapped lumberjack cuts off leg with penknife." There must be another good story concerning the origin of the place name "Gobbler's Knob" but that seems to be lost in antiquity. It certainly predates the time of Bill Clinton's presidency.
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