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A New Hope for Groundhog’s Day

By France Griggs Sloat

Hope Stephan completed a master’s degree in business administration last year with plans of becoming publisher of a small newspaper. She got a little more than she bargained for, though, when she was hired by the Punxsutawney Spirit. Now, she’s not only putting out a newspaper, she’s keeper of the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, that famous weather-predicting groundhog.

The legend that now rests in her hands dates back to the late 1800s, when bands of good ol’ boys, including the newspaper’s editor, tromped into the woods each year to hunt groundhog and drink “groundhog punch.” They poured some down the gullet of the “seer of seers,” which, they claimed, extended its life indefinitely. The good ol’ editor, Clymer Freas, began publishing exaggerated stories about the groundhog’s weather prognostications, and the tradition continues today. “We’re still working with the original groundhog here,” Stephan says with complete seriousness. Uh huh. What is serious, though, is the business. In her first season with Phil, she saw the tiny mining and logging town of 6,000 residents absorb a record 41,000 visitors for the annual trek to Gobbler’s Knob, where fireworks heralded Phil’s 7:25 a.m. appearance on Feb. 2. This year, Stephan had the six-day-a-week paper, which normally publishes 5,200 copies, publish a special promotional edition by noon that day, carrying the official prediction. It sold 2,000 copies.

It’s all in good fun, and about the only identity Punxsutawney, Pa., has. “Phil is taken very seriously and this town knows it would be in a sorrier state if not for the holiday,” she says. “It’s meant to be fun. If you couldn’t have fun with this, you don’t belong here.”

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