Clymer H. Freas and the creation of Punxsutawney Phil, America’s most famous groundhog weather prognosticator


There will be no early spring in Winnipeg this year. Or at least not one that can be predicted Tuesday because winsome Winnipeg Willow, the provincial capital’s weather prognosticating woodchuck, a rodent in the squirrel family (or in Latin, Sciuridae in the order Rodentia, which also includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks and larger bodied marmots), died Jan. 29, a bit shy of what would have been her sixth birthday this spring – and just four days before Groundhog Day Feb. 2.

For a woodchuck, also known as a groundhog or whistle pig, six years of age is a good long life, says the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Winnipeg, where Willow lived most of her life. Groundhogs have short, powerful legs and a medium-long, bushy, and somewhat flattened tail. They are called whistle pigs for their loud shrill alarm whistles when they become alarmed or are suddenly disturbed. Groundhogs also whistle in the spring when they begin courting. The name woodchuck is possibly derived from an Algonquian name for the animal. Groundhogs, whistle pigs or woodchucks – take your pick – normally weigh from 12 to 15 pounds and have a life expectancy of four to eight years.

Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre has cancelled their scheduled Groundhog Day event that was to have taken place Feb. 2 at Cabela’s on Sterling Lyon Parkway in Winnipeg. Cabela’s, now one of the leading fishing and hunting outfitters in the world, was started by Dick Cabela in 1961 as a kitchen-table business, selling hand-tied fishing flies by mail-order from Chappell, Nebraska.

The Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre was founded in 2007 by a group of animal-loving volunteers. It is a non-profit organization whose main goal is to treat injured and orphaned wildlife and to successfully release them back into their natural habitat. Willow was born in the spring of 2010 and was brought to the centre after her mother was killed by a dog. She was being raised for release until she broke her leg in an outdoor enclosure. “With the extra handling and time spent in care, she became too friendly towards people to be released back into the wild,” Lisa Tretiak, a founding member and president of the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre said Friday. In the spring of 2008, Tretiak became the first Manitoban, and only the fourth person in Canada, to be certified as a wildlife rehabilitator through the Eugene, Oregon-based International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, founded in California in 1972.

Willow was adopted into Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre’s educational program and visited many Winnipeg schools and students. The woodchuck or groundhog’s scientific name is Marmota monax.

The first part of the scientific name, Marmota, is the Latin word for “marmot.” It was probably derived from corruption through two Latin words meaning “mouse of the mountain” and is the name given to the European marmot and the North American marmot, which are close relatives of the woodchuck. The last part, monax, is an aboriginal name that means “the digger,” as woodchucks are noted burrows excavators. Groundhogs are almost complete vegetarians, preferring to eat leaves, flowers, soft stems of various grasses, field crops, such as clover and alfalfa, and of many kinds of wild herbs. They occasionally climb trees to obtain apples. Willow reputedly loved kale, green leafy lettuce, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, snap peas and peanuts.

“We loved trying to predict the upcoming forecast,” Tretiak said, although Willow was a bit … err … spotty, to put if charitably, as a prognosticator. “I think we only got one season right,” added Tretiak. “From her current behavior this past winter, we were going to predict an early spring as she was eager to head outdoors.” So perhaps best be keeping your parka handy, Winterpeggers, for the next six weeks.

My one and only time covering a furry prognosticator came on Feb.2, 2000, when I was working for the now strike-bound Chronicle Herald’ s Truro bureau in Nova Scotia.  As well as journeying to such locales as Middle Musquodoboit Harbour on the Eastern Shore’s Musquodoboit Harbour River, or the Folly Lake-Folly Gap-Folly Mountain area, and through the Cobequid Mountains and Wentworth Valley to Londonderry, formerly known as Acadia Mines, in Colchester County, where time appeared to have stood still, I also found myself that February morning assigned to go down to Shubenacadie, about 37 kilometres southwest of Truro in Hants County in central Nova Scotia, to cover the predictive prowess of Shubenacadie Sam, Nova Scotia’s most famous groundhog prognosticator.

A baby groundhog is called a kit or a cub. Because they are one of the few large mammals abroad in daylight, many people enjoy seeing them. As well as Winnipeg Willow and Shubenacadie Sam, other famous woodchuck prognosticators include (or have included) Punxsutawney Phil, from Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Wiarton Willie from Bruce County, Ontario and Balzac Billy, from Balzac, Alberta, just north of Calgary.

Groundhog Day has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas Day, when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on this concept by selecting an animal – the hedgehog – as a means of predicting weather. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its burrow Feb. 2 – where the main entrance is often by a tree stump or rock and is usually conspicuous because of a pile of freshly excavated earth, with side entrances also and tunnels leading to an enlarged chamber three to six feet underground containing the nest – and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring.

Once they came to America, German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition,” although they switched from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful in the Keystone State,” A&E Television Networks’ This Day in History notes.  Clymer H. Freas, city editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper is credited with printing the news of the first observance in 1886 (one year before the first trek to Gobbler’s Knob) on Feb. 2, 1887, where Groundhog Day, featuring the rodent meteorologist, was first celebrated for the first time in Punxsutawney.) “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow,” he  wrote. Freas, who belonged to a group of groundhog hunters from Punxsutawney, who would later be called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, declared that “Punxsutawney Phil,” as the groundhog was named, was the “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” and Punxsutawney, named by the Lenape or Delawares, and located halfway between the Allegheny and the Susquehanna rivers,  90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, was henceforth to be known as the “Weather Capital of the World.”

But forget about weather predictions for just a minute and consider this: Groundhog fur was once used for fur coats, and the flesh of young, lean animals was considered a tasty treat by some late 19th and early 20th century Pennsylvania pioneers. While the line of Punxsutawney groundhogs that have been known since the late 1880s as “Punxsutawney Phil” make up America’s most famous groundhog lineage, and are now better known for their tourism potential, as opposed to their coat-making and vittles possibilities, Freas was involved even some 13 years after Phil’s debut in organizing Punxsutawney’s first “Groundhog Feast” in 1899, where groundhog meat was enjoyed as a local Pennsylvania  delicacy, washed down by a concoction known as “Groundhog Punch.”

But back to the weather. If you want to know just how good a weather prediction track record “Punxsutawney Phil” has, or perhaps how he stacks up against your local weather forecaster,  you can checkout the Groundhog Day webpage of the  U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) at

The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day dates back to Feb. 4, 1841 and is found in the diary of Morgantown, Berks County,  Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris, and can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. Morris wrote: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, “insects do not bother groundhogs and germs pretty much leave them alone. They are resistant to the plagues that periodically wipe out large numbers of wild animals. One reason for this is their cleanliness.

“Groundhogs are one of the few animals that really hibernate,” the club says. “Hibernation is not just a deep sleep. It is actually a deep coma, where the body temperature drops to a few degrees above freezing, the heart barely beats, the blood scarcely flows, and breathing nearly stops.” Their heartbeats slow from 80 to five beats per minute and they can lose 30 percent of their body fat.

Spring, of course, is something of a relative concept here Northern Manitoba, just above 55 degrees north latitude. Relative to much of the rest of Canada and the United States that is. New arrivals to Thompson and environs are sometimes surprised their first year here to learn Feb. 2 really doesn’t have any resonance beyond wishful thinking here. Winter ending in early or late March in Thompson? Six more weeks of winter only from Feb. 2?

Yes, bring that on, any year! But hold the Groundhog Punch.

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3 thoughts on “Clymer H. Freas and the creation of Punxsutawney Phil, America’s most famous groundhog weather prognosticator

  1. Pingback: Why is groundhog day celebrated and how did it begin? | Interesting Answers

  2. Pingback: What is Groundhog Day and where did it come from? | Interesting Answers

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