Groundhog Day & History
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.
Source: Sun Prairie Comprehensive Plan