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The other groundhog

Punxsutawney Phil might have the rest of the country waiting to see his shadow today. But not in Sun Prairie, Wis., where they trust Jimmy the Eighth to predict the end of winter.

By BILL DURYEA

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001


Today, for the 114th consecutive year, the people of Punxsutawney, Pa., will look to a groundhog named Phil to predict how long winter will last. If he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. No, and spring is nigh.

Everyone has heard of Punxsutawney Phil. He's been on the Today Show more than once. He visited the White House when Ronald Reagan was in office. He had a Bill Murray movie named after his day.

There is, however, another town that celebrates Groundhog Day with the same earnestness as Punxsutawney. Not many people have heard of Sun Prairie, Wis., and Jimmy, the Avis of groundhogs.

Earlier this week, the Times spoke with Rebecca Fox, assistant director of the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce, about what it's like living in the shadow of Phil.

Groundhogs

TIMES: Let's begin with the bold assertion on your press release that Sun Prairie is the Groundhog Capital of the World.

REBECCA FOX: With a name like Sun Prairie, how could we not be the Groundhog Capital of the World? We are the center of the USA, right here in the Midwest.

TIMES: But are there groundhogs in Sun Prairie?

FOX: Well, sure there are. There are groundhogs in the Midwest. We do have them here in Wisconsin, yes we do.

TIMES: Does Sun Prairie have more groundhogs per capita than other Midwestern cities?

FOX: The reason Sun Prairie became the Groundhog Capital was when Wisconsin was celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1948 the governor declared certain areas in Wisconsin responsible for certain holidays, so when it came to Groundhog Day they looked to Sun Prairie because of its name.

TIMES: I thought Wisconsin was the Badger State.

FOX: We're just full of little critters here. Anything in a fur coat lives in this state. We've got the cold weather.

TIMES: Do you really think you can dethrone Punxsutawney Phil?

FOX: Yes, we predict better. You know, there were quite a few years there when Punxsutawney didn't even use a live groundhog.

TIMES: Oh, come on.

FOX: They had a stuffed one. This is what I hear.

TIMES: That's verging on slander.

FOX: I don't know if it was a stuffed one or a toy one, but come on, a stuffed groundhog?

TIMES: Have there been better Jimmys than others?

FOX: There was a little problem during El Nino and La Nina years.

TIMES: The weather kind of threw him off?

FOX: Yes, we don't blame Jimmy for that. Everyone was confused during that time.

TIMES: What happened?

FOX: He predicted spring would come in a week, and there was a huge snowstorm two weeks later.

TIMES: You do claim a 79 percent accuracy rate.

FOX: He's been very good. Out here in the Midwest maybe it has something to do with the fact that we do have long winters, so they might be a little easier to predict.

TIMES: I don't want to call into question the honesty of the good people of Sun Prairie, but has that accuracy rate been independently verified?

FOX: All I've done is go through our back records.

TIMES: Well, that's more than the Punxsutawney folks do. They don't tell you if the predictions were actually correct.

FOX: I saw that. They just tell what the predictions were.

TIMES: Frankly, 90 percent of the time Phil says he saw his shadow. What about Jimmy? Does he pull one way or the other?

FOX: Let me check my history page. Let's see, one, two, three, four, five, six . . . Since 1989, six times he's said it would be early. And one, two, three, four, five, six, no, five times he's declared six more weeks of winter. So he's about 50-50.

TIMES: Very often, then, he and Phil are not in agreement.

FOX: No, but that's understandable. They've got that whole ocean thing. They've got that water.

TIMES: They're kind of close to Pittsburgh; I wouldn't go too far with that ocean thing.

FOX: Well, they're still East Coast. They're closer to the ocean than we are.

TIMES: What do you look for in a groundhog? Or are they all related?

FOX: The Jimmys have all been related. It's a bloodline. Now we're on the eighth generation.

TIMES: So it's like the English throne. Has Jimmy ever been a she?

FOX: I don't know.

TIMES: So how old is Jimmy the Eighth?

FOX: He was about a month old last year, so he's just over a year.

TIMES: This is his rookie season. So you don't know if he could beat up Punxsutawney Phil. He's not at his full fighting weight.

FOX: Punxsutawney has this environmentally correct cage for him that's located in their library. I've heard it's pretty amazing. They've built a shrine in their library just to keep him in, and he's well taken care of.

photo
[AP Photo ]
Handler Bill Deeley holds Punxsutawney Phil as he greets 25,000 faithful fans in Punxsutawney, Pa., in 1997.
TIMES: Now, don't get too complimentary. You'll never get to No. 1 with that attitude.

FOX: I'm sorry. Now, our Jimmy lives outside. He's got his own cage, fresh hay, he lives on a farm, which is appropriate for the Midwest. He doesn't get gawked at in a library all day long. He's got his privacy. The thing about Punxsutawney is he doesn't necessarily hibernate. What good is a groundhog that doesn't wake up and scoot his little butt out there?

TIMES: How does he know to wake up on the 2nd?

FOX: They woke him up this week and took him to the vet. He gets his teeth dulled. The kids see him and he goes on tour. They take him out; they do have to roust him a little bit.

TIMES: What happens on the big day?

FOX: On the big day he'll be riding in a limousine. They pull up, he goes up on stage with the mayor, the mayor talks to him and she gets the prediction, and then he goes on display. It's kind of like Santa Claus; you can go and have your picture taken with him.

TIMES: When will he have seen or not seen his shadow?

FOX: The mayor will look to see if there's a shadow. At 7:10 a.m.

TIMES: I guess sunrise would be earlier for Punxsutawney.

FOX: A whole hour earlier. That's why they get all that TV stuff.

TIMES: How many people will be there?

FOX: We'll average around a thousand people. We'll have three TV stations, a couple of newspapers and one radio station.

TIMES: Have you got any interest from the network morning shows? Do you think you'll ever be able to crack that one?

FOX: We send a press release out every year, but maybe next year.

TIMES: Up until now, it's been one disappointment after another.

FOX: Yeah, having to follow Punxsutawney. But they have the movie. If the movie had come to us, we'd be the famous ones, right?

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