“No doubt many of our readers in this locality are close observers of ‘signs,’” said the Nebraska Advertiser on February 11, 1875, “and especially of ground-hog day, as it comes after a long and tedious winter, when the bright days and enlivening showers of spring are longed for.” The Advertiser’s reference is based on a belief grounded in folklore that on February 2, the groundhog or woodchuck emerges from its burrow after hibernation. If the day is sunny, the animal sees its shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter. If the day is cloudy and no shadow appears, spring is thought to be near.
Some Nebraskans believed—or professed to believe—that the groundhog’s yearly predictions were accurate. The Omaha Daily Bee on February 10, 1885, noted that “anyone who ‘plays’ the ground hog for a sucker will get left.” Others agreed with the Red Cloud Chief, which said on February 2, 1900: “[W]e don’t take any stock in ground hog.— that is with the exception of the kind usually found in butcher shops.”
Most people probably weren’t disturbed over the groundhog’s forecasts, right or wrong. Weather prediction, even by official government agencies, was generally treated with skepticism, with the U.S. Signal Service, forerunner of today’s National Weather Service, called by one Nebraska newspaper in 1892 “the all-around-hoax of the nineteenth century.”
Groundhog Day has been popularized across the United States in recent years. The groundhog Punxsutawney Phil is the star of an annual celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on and around each February 2. In Nebraska Unadilla, in Otoe County, hosts an annual February celebration featuring a stuffed groundhog named Unadilla Bill. Lt. Gov. William (Bill) Nichol signed a proclamation in 1988 designating Unadilla as the Groundhog Capital of Nebraska and thereby gave Unadilla Bill his nickname. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor/Publications