‘We work for Phil’: The iconic groundhog is the boss in Punxsutawney

Groundhog handler AJ Derume holds Punxsutawney Phil, who saw his shadow, predicting a late spring during the 136th annual Groundhog Day festivities on Feb. 2, 2022, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Groundhog Day is a popular tradition in the United States and Canada. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/TNS)

In Punxsutawney, Phil is always the boss, but even more so this time of year.

For months, the small town of less than 6,000 has been meticulously preparing for the biggest event of the year — the 137th annual Groundhog Day today — when the estimated 30,000 visitors who have flocked to Jefferson County and the surrounding area this week will see whether Punxsutawney Phil, the famed marmot, will see his shadow, signifying six more weeks of winter.


Tom Dunkel, the president of the Groundhog Club Inner Circle — the only person permitted to translate Phil’s forecast — will interpret a series of nods, purrs, and chirps to determine whether Phil sees his shadow today at 2:25 a.m., when the groundhog will be lifted from his burrow at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney to forecast the weather for the next month and a half. Gobbler’s Knob is a tiny hill just outside Punxsutawney, about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Dunkel, also known as “Shingle Shaker,” contends that the ceremonial cane that has been passed down from Inner Circle president to Inner Circle president, including to his father, Bud Dunkel, allows him to speak “groundhog-ese.’

And while the vast majority of the crowd typically hopes for Phil to predict a short end to the winter, a hope that has elicited boos when Phil sees his shadow, Dunkel said he has no read on what Phil will determine this year.

Phil’s prediction in 2023 echoed his forecast the past three years. In both 2021 and 2022, he predicted six more weeks of winter. In 2019 and 2020, he forecast an early spring.

“I don’t have a good grasp yet on whether Phil will see his shadow or not,” Dunkel said. “It’s a decision that will take place between Phil and I on the morning of Groundhog Day.”

The day, which includes events Thursday through Saturday, will be replete with festivities throughout the town — including ice sculptors, food trucks, wood carvers, craft shows. While orchestrating the internationally livestreamed event is no small task, the tight-knit community has risen to the challenge year after year.

“We always say we work for Phil,” said Katie Laska, Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce president and owner of Laska’s Pizza. “He’s our boss. We all work together to bring people together to meet Phil and love Phil like we do.”

The events kicked off this year with Gobbler’s Knob Got Talent on Thursday afternoon at the Punxsutawney Community Center, a talent show that will decide two finalists to compete on the morning of Groundhog Day for a $500 prize.

Each year, the town also tries to outdo itself, Laska said.

“It’s exciting, we’ve been doing it for so long but we look forward to it every year, and every year we want to add something different and special,” she said.

The custom dates back to an early Christian tradition known as Candlemas, in which celebrants declared that clear skies on Candlemas meant a longer winter. Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers brought the tradition with them.

As for Phil, he rose to fame after appearing in Punxsutawney’s local newspaper in 1886. A member of a groundhog hunting group known as “The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” used his clout at the paper to trumpet Phil, named after King Phillip, as the only official weather prognosticating groundhog.

Phil’s popularity grew from there, and the first of many annual Groundhog Day treks to Gobbler’s Knob followed in 1887.

Laska, who said her pizzeria and other local businesses enjoy an influx of customers as visitors arrive, hopes Phil predicts an early spring, although she would not fault him if he sees his shadow.

“Whatever he says we still love him,” Laska said.

Along with running the community center, McCoy is also a member of the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle.

And while McCoy, whose Inner Circle name is “Downpour,” has been unable to consult directly with Phil prior to today’s forecast, he had his own prediction for the weekend — turnout will be big.

“From what I saw from the weather, it looks like a really good few days, so I would assume it’s going to be really busy with people,’ McCoy said. “You will see a downpour of people just everywhere this year.”

With the crowds flocking to Punxsutawney and the surrounding area also comes a boost to the region’s economy.

“All hotels and cabins in Jefferson County are fully booked months in advance,” Jess Seary, Jefferson County director of economic development said. “People come from all over the world to take part in the festivities. Area restaurants and shops often boast that Groundhog Day is their busiest time of the year.”

The boost is not only felt in Punxsutawney, or Jefferson County as a whole, but instead extends to the 13-county Pennsylvania Wilds region.

“The thousands of visitors bring in a real influx of cash to this rural region, with people stopping to eat at restaurants, stay at hotels or bed and breakfasts, and buy locally handcrafted souvenirs,” said Britt Madera, communications manager for the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit focused on conservation and economic development in the region.

Madera said the event often encourages visitors to explore the region apart from the Groundhog Day festivities, which requires a massive collaborative effort from the community.

“Imagine how much planning it takes to welcome in sometimes up to 30,000 in a single morning,” Madera said. “That’s more than quadruple the usual year-round population of Punxsutawney, so you have to admire how much coordination and cooperation that takes.”

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