“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 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. “Some people may think that the old tradition in regard to ‘ground hog day’ is all bosh and that the ground hog is a fool and knows no more than any other animal,” said the Omaha Daily Bee on February 10, 1885, “but 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.”
Some in Nebraska even questioned the existence of groundhogs. “Is There a Real Ground Hog?” asked the Kearney Daily Hub on February 2, 1912, noting that many thought them in a class with unicorns and mermaids. The animal, said the paper, did exist, was about fifteen to eighteen inches in length, with a thick form, broad head, short legs, and bushy tail. “Can whip any dog of his size, is easily tamed, and will eat bread and milk or vegetables.”
Many weren’t greatly disturbed over the groundhog’s forecasts, right or wrong. “Nebraskans learn to take it [weather] as it comes and like it,” said the Hub on February 2, 1928. “The average is certain to please anyone excepting perhaps a ‘home grown’ Californian.” However, residents of Kearney were less tolerant when the groundhog saw his shadow on a sunny February 2 in 1933, and the temperature soon afterward dropped to twenty-one degrees below zero. The Hub observed, “Local intellectuals who last weekend ‘exploded’ the ground hog myth, today were going about with frost-bitten ears, while the ground hog, according to some reports, has been heard to chuckle merrily.”
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 the town of 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.