Groundhog Day & History
History of Groundhog Day
For over 50 years, the Sun Prairie members and supporters have been proclaiming Sun Prairie to be "The Groundhog Capital of the World." This proclamation has caused reverberations from the halls of Congress, to the coal fields of Pennsylvania, and in the news media of the country. Groundhog Day is tied to Candlemas Day, a centuries old celebration day in Europe. Folklore states: "If the day is bright and clear there'll be two winters in the year."
The Groundhog Day tradition in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin dates back to 1948, when Wisconsin celebrated its centennial year. Many ways were found to commemorate the centennial event, both public and personal. One such private observance was a rather ambitious project. A commercial artist, Ira Bennett, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin and his young son decided to create a series of commemorative post cards relating various locations in Wisconsin to the holidays throughout the year. Some of the cities chosen were: Independence, Wisconsin for July 4th, Port Washington, Wisconsin for Washington's Birthday, Loyal, Wisconsin for Boy Scout Sunday (a scout is loyal). Groundhog Day required a stretch of the imagination. The groundhog sees his shadow when the sun comes up on the prairie, thus, Sun Prairie was picked for the honor.
At that time the postmaster in Sun Prairie was Margaret McGonigle, a lifelong resident, active in politics and a promoter of the virtues of Sun Prairie. When this idea was presented she quickly asked the artist his permission to use this idea to further promote the community. Soon after, the Sun Prairie Groundhog Club was organized as a sort of serious spoof. All people born on February 2 were eligible to be groundhogs. Those born on other days in February were designated woodchucks. The word spread and birth certificates were mailed to folks all over the country for a nominal fee.
Ground hogging really hit its stride in Sun Prairie when the 4-H Club and its leaders, Erich and Teena Lenz took over. Erich, never one to do things halfway, immediately got live groundhogs and always had one ready for the ceremony. Dan Royle, the newspaper publisher and neighbor to the Lenz', made his contribution to the legend with his recipe for Moose Milk, a hot milk drink with the kick of a moose (liquor). The celebrations were held at the Lenz home on Pony Lane, with their ample home bursting with media people, local politicians and anyone else who wanted to be there at sunrise. Telephone calls came from TV and radio stations all over the country wanting to know if spring was at hand or if we were in for six more weeks of winter.
Each year, the groundhog group had a different scheme to attract the attention of the country. One year, two stuffed groundhogs were married in a wedding ceremony. This gave rise to a declaration by Wisconsin Congressman Glen Davis in the Congressional Record that Sun Prairie groundhogs were "legitimate" and that those in Pennsylvania were otherwise. This of course prompted an equally frivolous response from the Punxsutawney congressman, all printed in the Congressional Record. Congressman Davis has a Sun Prairie street named in his honor. When Sputnik was the subject of conversation, the groundhog was sent to the moon by rocket to keep up with the Russians.
All this high-jinx did not go unnoticed by the groundhog club in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania who claimed prior rights to the title. Good natured ribbing has been the order of the day since the start. One year the Pennsylvania rodent didn't see his shadow and Sun Prairie's Jimmy did, the locals pro-claimed the reason was that their animal's eyes were full of coal dust and of course couldn't see his shadow.
Additional History and Event Locations
1886: “Colder 21 below at 7a.m. Clear and cold 2 below at 1p.m. and 18 below at 9p.m.” Diary of Col. William H. Angell, 1886-1891, Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum archival collection.
1889: “This is a lovely day warm to Sun Shine the Ground Hog … could see his shadow at 12:00 noon, so we may take it for granted that the winter is not half gone.” Diary of Col. Willliam H. Angell, 1886-1891, Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum archival collection.
1891: “Cloudy to fine snow all day; the Old Ground Hog could not see this shadow today at 12:00 noon, according to the old adage the winter is more than ½ gone.” Diary of Col. William H. Angell, 1886-1891, Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum archival collection.
1948: As part of the Wisconsin Centennial celebration, many communities sought symbols as part of its community promotional efforts. Sun Prairie Village Postmaster Margaret McGonigle agreed to adopt the groundhog as a symbol for Sun Prairie. The first groundhog postcard was produced in 1948.
1949: The Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce voted to sponsor Sun Prairie as “Groundhog Capital of the World”. The Groundhog Club was formed and included the following organizers: President Margaret McGonigle; Secretary Emden Schey; and Treasurer Stanley Fisher. The first Groundhog Day event took place at Angell Park.
1950: A carnival dance was held at the Tropical Gardens Dance Hall.
1951: The event took place at the American Legion Club at the same time that a formal groundhog funeral took place at Angell Park.
1952: The feud with Punxsutawney made headlines around the country. Sun Prairie was described in the Punxsutawney newspaper as a “remote two cow village buried somewhere in the wilderness…” At the fourth annual celebration, in response to the Punxsutawney newspaper article, Sun Prairie announced itself as the Groundhog Capital of the World. The event took place at Angell Park.
1953: ‘Prince Dauphine the Groundhog’ was named as Sun Prairie’s official groundhog. The event took place at Sacred Hearts Parish Hall.
1954: The event took place at Hunts Restaurant.
1955-1958: The event took place at Angell Park.
1959: ‘Prince Dauphine the Groundhog’ was preserved by taxidermy and is on display at the Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum. The event took place at Angell Park.
1960: The event took place at Bob & Tips Café.
1961: It is reported that Sun Prairie resident Ray Patt picketed the Sun Prairie Star Countryman for printing a groundhog prognostication, which contradicted the Groundhog Club’s forecast.
1962: A story was fabricated about ‘Prince Dauphine the Groundhog’. The story reported that ‘Prince Dauphine the Groundhog’ went to the moon in a rocket. Sun Prairie residents George and Carl Farwell manned the Launch Control headquarters at Bob & Tips Café for the Groundhog Rocket Launch. The Rocket launched from Angell Park.
1963: The story concluded with ‘Prince Dauphine the Groundhog’ returning from the moon after a twelve-month space mission, landing in Angell Park, where the event seemingly took place.
1964: The event took place in Angell Park
1965: The 1965 Groundhog Club established the ‘Jimmy the Groundhog’ dynasty. Sun Prairie residents Erich and Tina Lenz became the official Keepers of the Faith (otherwise known as Keepers of the Groundhog, or the groundhog handler). Erich established the name ‘Jimmy the Groundhog’ in honor of Sun Prairie resident Jim Weigen, who helped Erich acquire the first Jimmy. They Lenz family developed the largest 4-H Club in Sun Prairie with the name ‘Prairie Groundhogs’ to assist in serving ‘Jimmy the Groundhog’. The event was held at the Lenz home on Pony Lane.
1975: Sacred Hearts Parish revived the Groundhog Ball.
1976: Prairie Heritage Quilters produced the Prairie Quilt. ‘Prince Dauphine the Groundhog’ was “quilted” as one of Sun Prairie’s historic personages. The quilt won a First Premium at the Wisconsin State Fair. This quilt is only displayed at historic events.
1982: The event was moved from the home of Erich Lenz to Feldman’s Supper Club. This move from the friendly confines of the Lenz home destroyed the dynastic celebration of toasting Groundhog Day with Moose Milk. State regulations prevented Moose Milk from being served in a public gathering place. Sun Prairie resident Dan Royle developed the secret recipe as the ‘Jimmy the Groundhog’ official drink. Moose Milk was an early morning adult beverage, refreshing many adults who attended the ceremony. Alternative beverages were served to children and to abstaining adults. Everyone seemed to enjoy the free pastries that were also served to Jimmy’s guests.
1983: The Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce assumed the care of ‘Jimmy the Groundhog’. Jimmy’s new caretakers and Keepers of Faith were Sun Prairie residents Ted and Cheri Krisher, who lived on a farm just outside of Sun Prairie.
1986: The event took place at Sacred Hearts.
1987: The event took place at American Legion Hall on East Main Street.
1994: The event took place at Knights of Columbus Round Table.
1998: The event took place at the VFW.
2001: The event took place at St. Albert the Great.
2003 – 2015: Sun Prairie resident Jerry Hahn was the handler for ‘Jimmy the Groundhog’.
2004: The event took place at the Colonial Club.
2005 – 2011: The event took place at St. Albert the Great.
2012: The event took place at the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce Office / YMCA of Sun Prairie.
2013: The event took place at Cannery Square in Downtown Sun Prairie.
2015: An over enthusiastic Groundhog bit the ear of Mayor Jon Freund, making for a very memorable event, which generated a substantial amount of media interest as the story quickly went viral. The event took place at Cannery Square in Downtown Sun Prairie.
Sources: Sun Prairie Comprehensive Plan and Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum