West Virginia's groundhogs both predicted an early spring this year. At the West Virginia Wildlife Center Monday morning, the groundhog named French Creek Freddie did not see his shadow. At Concord University, Concord Charlie also did not see his shadow.
However, in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow and predicts six more weeks of winter.
Who is French Creek Freddie?
Back in 1978 the superintendent here, at what used to be called the French Creek Game Farm, was Bill Vanscoy. And he said a newspaper reporter called him the day before Groundhog Day, and asked him if they had a groundhog and if it had seen its shadow. Mr. Vanscoy told the reporter whatever was appropriate to the weather they were having. Then the reporter asked what the groundhog's name was. Mr. Vanscoy said it was French Creek Freddie, and it just took off from there.
The Game Farm is now called the West Virginia Wildlife Center, where I met Kenny Hall. He's been the handler for French Creek Freddie for over two decades. “I've been here for 24 years, and on February 2nd we do it just to break up the long winter that it has been. And we see the chance for an early spring.”
Two years ago, Kenny also took on a new role as the official French Creek Mascot. That means that he's the one who wears the copper toned groundhog costume. And of course he also wears a giant black top- hat. But for the real French Creek Freddie, Groundhog Day is, among other things, probably the most confusing day of the year.
“I know one year he was really lively and he took out and ran out over the pen. So we had to go get him and bring him to the camera (he was kind of camera shy). We've seen a lot of different activities. When you're using a live animal, and it's been woken up for that day, you could see just about anything.”
For Groundhog Day, the center gives out free hot chocolate and cookies to the crowd. Judy Channell also works at the West Virginia Wildlife Center, and she helps organize the public event.
“And the kids make posters, you know, 'We Love Freddie', and people are just showing Freddie a lot of love, so we want to provide them a good time and, you, know, let them know they came for a reason.”
What began in the 1970s as a sort of inside joke between the superintendent here and the media has turned into a major event for this small town.
“Our attendance has gone up tremendously. Last year it was on a Sunday and we had an attendance of over 400 people. And people are really getting into it. They come wearing hats and they make posters and bring them, and they're just really getting into French Creek Freddie. It's really getting to be a popular event. We had some folks last year that traveled from Georgia. They had been to Punxatawney, to see Phil, and they were gonna work their way around the country to see the different groundhogs and last year was their turn to come and see French Creek Freddie,” said Judy Channel.
And it all leads me to ask this: Why do all these people travel here, in the dead of winter, to see a sleepy groundhog?
“I think it's like Kenny said, you go through Christmas and Thanksgiving and all that, you know all that rush, and then it just kind of slows down and you've got two, two and a half months of winter weather to look forward to. And I think Groundhog day is just a good opportunity to get out regardless of what the weather is. And then it's uplifting to know that if Freddie doesn't see his shadow, we've got an early spring. ... in six weeks you're gonna see better weather. It's something to look forward to,” said Judy.
And while the tradition of groundhog day might seem silly, there is a biological reason why the tradition exists- this is the natural time when groundhogs usually begin to wake from their hibernation.
“We have seen in the last week or so, a groundhog out in the wild. So these ones that we've got in the real consistent temperature right now, are probably still asleep. But in the next 2-3 days they'll probably wake up,” said Kenny.
Every now and then, though, French Creek Freddie's biological clock is a little bit late.
“If he is asleep, we will just pick him up. And that's only happened twice in the 22 years that I've been here. But he could be hibernating this year. Cause we haven't seen him on his own yet,” Kenny said.
French Creek Freddie and Punxsutawney Phil don't always agree. In 2014, French Creek Freddie called for an early spring. Punxsutawney said 6 more weeks of winter. Who was right? that's still up for debate. In 2015, both the groundhogs made the same predictions as last year.
The West Virginia Wildlife Center is open Monday-Sunday. There is a $3 admission for adults and $1.50 for children. The West Virginia State Wildlife Center is located in Upshur County in north-central West Virginia, 12 miles south of Buckhannon on State Route 20. From the north take exit 99 off Interstate 79 and follow State Route 33 east approximately 12 miles to Buckhannon and turn south on State Route 20. Coming from the south, take exit 67 off Interstate 79 at Flatwoods and follow State Routes 19 and 4 north approximately 30 miles to Rock Cave and Route 20. Follow State Route 20 North for 2 miles to the center.
Who is Concord Charlie?
Another groundhog in West Virginia also saw his shadow- Concord Charlie of Concord University. Every Groundhog Day since 1978, Concord Charlie has been making prediction and insights on the duration of winter. The President of Concord University confers briefly with the groundhog and then relays the forecast to guests at an annual breakfast.
The Concord Charlie tradition was originated in 1978 by the late Professor R.T. “Tom” Hill. As chairman of both the Geography department and the Appalachian Studies program at Concord, Hill started the Groundhog Day Breakfast as a means to celebrate a bit of Appalachian heritage and highlight the program.
But there’s a different Groundhog Watcher each year. The Grand Groundhog Watcher honor is bestowed on an individual who has positively impacted life and culture in West Virginia.
This year the prestigious position is held by the University’s Head Football Coach, Garrin Justice.
The Grand Groundhog Watcher usually gives a colorful speech at the breakfast.
Justice led the Mountain Lions through an unprecedented season in 2014 that included a conference championship, region championship and an appearance in the national semifinals.