Wiarton Willie was a Canadian groundhog who lived in the community of Wiarton in Bruce County, Ontario. Every February 2, on Groundhog Day, Willie took part in the local Wiarton Willie Festival. His role is to predict whether there will be an early spring. Although the original Wiarton Willie died, the Wiarton Groundhog Day celebrations continue each year with successors of the original Willie, also referred to as "Wiarton Willie."
Groundhog Day, featuring Wiarton Willie, is a popular annual festival in Wiarton and is similar to events in other locations in North America. A midwinter celebration involving an animal with predictive powers was an element of Celtic culture. The link between weather prediction and the day is said to have been inspired by an old Scottish couplet: "If Candlemas Day is bright and clear/ There'll be two winters in the year."
The story of Wiarton Willie dates back to 1956. A Wiarton resident named Mac McKenzie wanted to showcase his childhood home to his many friends, so he sent out invitations for a "Groundhog Day" gathering. One of these invitations fell into the hands of a Toronto Star reporter. The reporter travelled to Wiarton looking for the Groundhog Day event. None of the townspeople knew about a festival, but one suggested he check at the Arlington Hotel, the local watering hole. There the reporter found McKenzie and his friends partying and was invited to join them. The next day, the reporter lamented to McKenzie that he needed some kind of story to take back to justify his expenses. So McKenzie grabbed his wife's fur hat, which had a large button on the front, went out to the parking lot, dug a burrow in the snow and pronounced a prognostication (which no one remembers). The picture of Mac and the hat ran in the February 3, 1956 edition of the Toronto Star. A year later, about 50 people arrived for the festival. Half were reporters from various media, including the CBC and Canadian Press. Seizing on the opportunity, McKenzie invented a festival that has been added to over the years.
Wiarton Willie himself is a more recent addition to the festivities. In the early years, prognostication was provided by the "mythical" trio of groundhogs Grundoon, Muldoon and Sand Dune. Willie appeared on the scene in the 1980s. Wiarton Willie's predictive powers are attributed (by his followers) to his situation on the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. He is claimed locally to be accurate in his prognostications around 90 per cent of the time, although scientific studies show groundhog predictions to have a success rate of more like 37 per cent.
Death and ensuing scandal
The original Wiarton Willie lived to the advanced age of 22, and was found dead only two days before Groundhog Day in 1999. The organizers were unable to find a replacement, and instead marked Groundhog Day by revealing "Willie" in a coffin. He had been dressed in a tuxedo, had coins over his eyes, and a carrot between his paws. A scandal ensued when it became known that the real Willie had in fact decomposed, and the body in the coffin was that of an older, stuffed groundhog. The Associated Press was obliged to issue a retraction on its wires.
The new Wiarton Willie is also known as "Wee Willie," and is another albino groundhog. There have actually been two Wee Willies—Wee Willie and Wee Willie 2. The former was reported as deceased on July 11, 2006 after fighting an infection for the previous month. The actual number of different groundhogs known as "Wiarton Willie" is unknown, as previous replacements were not reported; however, the average life span of a groundhog is four to nine years.
The Groundhog Day show
Groundhog Day in Wiarton is a major celebration, with dances, parades, ice hockey tournaments, curling bonspiels, pancake breakfasts, darts and snooker tournaments, sleigh rides, a Monte Carlo Night and a fish fry. Around 10,000 people are said to attend. It has been called "one the most popular events in Ontario" and has twice been named "the World's Greatest Event" by Seattle's Festivals.com.
Other Groundhog Day stars
Other towns throughout North America are known to have winter-predicting groundhogs. The most famous is Punxsutawney Phil of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (which appeared in the movie Groundhog Day). There is also "Brandon Bob" of Brandon, Manitoba, "Staten Island Chuck" in New York, "Balzac Billy" in Alberta, "General Beauregard Lee" in Lilburn, Georgia, "Shubenacadie Sam" in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, Two Rivers Tunnel in Cape Breton and "Gary the Groundhog" in Kleinburg, Ontario, among many others.
- Punxsutawney Phil
- Balzac Billy
- Buckeye Chuck
- General Beauregard Lee
- Shubenacadie Sam
- Staten Island Chuck
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- Wiarton Willie Festival Events. southbrucepeninsula.com. Retrieved on: November 3, 2007.
- Jim Fox (February 2, 2007) "Waking Wiarton Willie." Canoe.ca. Retrieved on: November 4, 2007.