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.”