Call it the celebration that almost wasn’t, an idea that came out of the blue.
That sums up the early history of Groundhog Day at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in Upshur County.
Now, hundreds gather each year to see if French Creek Freddie will call for an early spring or six more weeks of winter.
Even cold, snowy weather doesn’t deter the crowds.
“In fact, the worst most bitter days when you wouldn’t expect to see a soul have been the times when we have had some of the most people,” said state wildlife biologist Tyler Evans.
Now a state star, the beloved rodent does his best at predicting the future and has done pretty well.
“He has a pretty good track record.”
“In fact, there is now an effort to track whether Freddie is right or not, and even look back at his record during earlier years.”
Many folks agree he’s done better than his cousin to the north, Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, Evans said.
It’s hard to believe this all began 41 years ago when a newspaper reporter called to see what was happening on Groundhog Day.
At that time, it was known as the French Creek Game Farm. Bill Vanscoy, superintendent at the time, is credited with having coined the name French Creek Freddie.
And the rest is history.
Now as many as 300 people of all ages are expected for this year’s celebration.
It’s all free and open to the public, including hot chocolate and cookies.
The fun will get underway at the park amphitheater 9:30 a.m., while the real magic will happen at 10.
That’s when the groggy groundhog will come out of his den to make history again.
If he sees his shadow, winter will continue but no shadow means spring is right around the corner.
For his part, Evans is betting there will be no shadow.
“Of course I always pick the side of an early spring,” he said.
Unfortunately the weather this week may not support that theory.
North central West Virginia is expected to be cold and possibly receive some snow Friday, Evans said.
“We will be here, and so will lots of other folks regardless of the weather.”
Groundhog Day goes back to a German superstition.
If a hibernating animal (a groundhog qualifies) casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, then winter will last another six weeks.
That’s what happened last year.
After his appearance, Freddie will return to his warm hay-lined home and continue his winter slumber.
Approximately 25 species of wildlife and birds, including owls, can be seen along the wheelchair-accessible trail that winds through a hardwood forest in rural Upshur County.
Friday’s festivities will also include a performance by the band Enny Corner, the fourth annual Woodchuckin’ Contest and children’s activities.
For more information, visit the DNR’s website or call 304-924-6211.