The History of Wiarton Willie

The original Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog said to be 22 years old, died during hibernation during the winter of 1998-99. The good burghers of Wiarton discovered this to their horror just before Groundhog Day 1999.

Willie's death made headlines around the world.

On Groundhog Day, they put Wiarton Willie face-up in a small pine casket, bright pennies over his eyes, paws clutching a raw carrot. But it was a fake! Turns out the real Wiarton Willie was so disgustingly decomposed he couldn't be put on display, so they found a stuffed facsimile and laid it in the casket.

Groundhogs are woodchucks, members of the squirrel family, marmots, sometimes called "pig-whistles." They are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. When nervous, they emit a high-pitched squeal, which might as well be an embossed dinner invitation to predators who follow the squeal until they find and eat the groundhog.

So how did they gain a reputation for predicting weather? Fact is, they aren't very good at it. The people of Wiarton insist their Willie was accurate 90 per cent of the time, but what do you expect them to say when the Groundhog Festival attracts 20,000 free-spending tourists to the town every February? Scientific studies show groundhogs are accurate only 37 per cent of the time, which means you'd do better flipping one of the pennies that covered ol' Wiarton Willie's eyes.

Loyalists insist that Wiarton Willie possessed an uncanny ability to predict because he was born exactly on the 45th parallel, midway between the Equator and the North Pole. Wiarton is a pretty town of 2,300 on the Bruce Peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. 

The legend of Willie Wiarton began in 1956, with many groundhogs taking their star turn as Willie.

Other jurisdictions have their favourite winter-predicting groundhogs, the second most famous after Wiarton Willie being Punxsutawney Phil of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. There is a Brandon Bob in Manitoba, a Staten Island Chuck in New York, a Balzac Billy in Alberta, and a Gary the Groundhog in Kleinburg, Ontario.

Wiarton Willie's successor is Wee Willie, another albino groundhog. Actually there are two Wee Willies Wee Willie and Wee Willie-2 just to be safe. An Ottawa man captured them after Wiarton Willie died. He sent them to Wiarton for the big show.

And a big show it is, with hockey tournaments, curling bonspiels, dances, parades, pancake breakfasts, a Monte Carlo Night, a dart tournament, snooker tournament, horse-drawn sleigh rides, a mammoth fish fry and a circus.

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