by Catherine Breese
If you’re a fan of Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day, you’ll be surprised to know that Canada has its own version of the mythological groundhog: Wiarton Willie.1 Now Wiarton Willie has a unique, and, some might say, superior appearance for a groundhog because he is an albino. Wiarton, Ontario is a small town (population 2500) on the Georgian Bay side of Lake Huron. It is a beautiful little town with an historic main street and a stunning view of the very deepest and bluest part of the lake. Add Wiarton Willie and you’ve got a formula for the kind of mixed visual message (kitschy-tacky amidst natural grandeur and historic landmarks) that make one say “Oh my!”
Wiarton Willie is a real groundhog, or at least he has been since 1980. Before that Groundhog Day was celebrated without live animals. In fact in 1956, the first festival groundhog was a fur hat with a button on it. The reigning live Willie is kept in a large habitat area in the park with both indoor and outdoor living spaces. While his home is pretty grandly designed, Willie’s not much for personal appearances. A shy little beast, he hides throughout the day, leading to endless disappointment from children and adults alike.
Basically, you just cannot ever see him, except on Groundhog Day when he’s extracted from his cozy nap and dragged out to do the heavy lifting of predicting six whole weeks of weather, a feat that trained meteorologists will not even try. When I was younger I remember him being kept in a more conventional (cruel?) cage in front of the Wiarton Motel, now called Wiarton Willie’s Motel. You could walk right up to the cage and there he was, asleep. Let’s just admit that live groundhogs are not good pets, nor are they good tourist attractions.
Wiarton Willie’s history has not been without controversy. In 1999 an almost famous scandal scarred Willie’s reputation. A mere two days before Groundhog Day, the 22-year-old Willie had the nerve to wake up and die. There was not time to find a replacement and Willie appeared on the February 2nd holiday in a tiny coffin, dressed in a tuxedo with coins on his eyes. But hold on, that’s not even the scandal. The scandal occurred when it was discovered that the deceased was not the Wiarton Willie. Rather it was a different deceased, taxidermy groundhog because poor Willie’s decaying body couldn’t do the job. (Other versions of this story with contradictory details are everywhere on the Internet. There’s no reason not to believe all of them.) Despite the humiliation, the tradition and festival survived, attracting thousands annually to Wiarton, Ontario, during the very coldest and darkest part of the calendar.
A carved stone statue was placed in Bluewater Park several years ago. In this rendering Willie is serious and contemplative, native even. Yes, it is large, but also artistic enough to be called tasteful. Then, this summer, a new likeness of Willie has appeared around Wiarton. This five-foot tall Willie is a shiny fiberglass version with a chubby rump and a goofy grin. He is cute—at least as cute as a ginormous plastic thing can be—vaguely resembling one of Alvin’s chipmunks. In the park, three Wiarton Willies squirt water from their mouths into a children’s splash pad. And out at the southern entrance to the town of Wiarton, a giant Willie has been “added.” Picture earth tones, landscaping, lots of stone and dark purple flowers. As if he has been dropped in by helicopter, he looks as natural as a giant white alien might.
At gift shops and motels around town today, tourists can purchase small stuffed Willies, Willie T-shirts, Willie flags, and Willie coffee mugs. (See www.spiritrock.net/Giftshop.htm). I don’t own any of these things, but I’m looking into acquiring some for Christmas gifts. Kitsch is in, even in Canada.
1Willie is not the only groundhog prognosticator in Canada. There are actually a surprising number of special groundhogs and Groundhog Day festivals in Canada, especially Ontario. I surmise that it has something to do with mid-winter cabin fever and a general Canadian willingness to throw a party/festival over very little cause.