BY ERIC MODEL
JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY
There was a time when Groundhog Day (Feb. 2) focused on one groundhog in a small town in Pennsylvania.
That was then and this is now.
Much as bagels have gone beyond New York and hockey is played in the Sun Belt, so too have Groundhog Day celebrations long since expanded beyond Punxsutawney.
First there was Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, which burst on to the scene in the 1950's claiming that it was "Groundhog Capital" and having a Congressional Proclamation to back it up.
Now almost 60 years later many an American community boasts a groundhog prognosticator of its own. New Jersey is no exception.For example, there is Essex Ed of the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange.
Ed has made quite a name for himself for over 20 years after having been rescued.
According to those who maintain statistics, his predictions have been accurate for something like seven of the last eight years. This record has garnered him much publicity, even a trip across the Hudson to appear on television's "Good Day New York."
In the past there have been parades and balloons in town. Keeping with the time, the tone is a bit more modest these days. There are contests, crafts and lectures for the family. Lots of fun, tells us Dr. Jeremy Goodman, director of the Turtle Back Zoo.
Down the road in Milltown there is an equally appealing story. There, last year for the second straight year, over 100 gathered to hear the Groundhog Day verdict from a rodent called Milltown Mel.
Mel is owned by locals Jerry and Cathy Guthlein who purchased him after Cathy underwent a long illness.
According to local legend, it all started online. Jerry located someone in Pennsylvania who introduced the couple to a newborn who ultimately would become the now famous Milltown Mel.
Unlike Ed who lives at the zoo, Mel resides in a backyard cage called a "Groundhog Palace." It is equipped with an igloo type house generally seen for dogs as well as hay. He'll also eat carrots left by neighborhood kids and leaves.
Mel's public appearance mimics the festivities in Punxsutawney. Jerry brings together a group of about 10 men, called the "Groundhog Dubblers", a local variation of the Punxsutawney "Inner Circle." This group helps organize the Groundhog Day event each year, as well as caring for Phil.
Though none of the Wranglers claim to know "Groundhogese", an invitation sent out by the Guthleins points out that "gentlemen are welcome to wear top hats," just as the Inner Circle is known to do.
What started as family and friends including the Guthlein's grandchildren, has now been opened to the community. The Guthleins even serve up a breakfast. Notwithstanding to cold of the winter and the early hour, crowds have turned up.
The celebration usually starts at 7 a.m., with Mel making an appearance around 7:25 or daybreak, in the Guthlein's backyard at 152 N. Main St.
Whether it's Mel, Ed or the original Punxsutawney Phil, they are all guided by the principle that if the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, there will be an early spring (According to groundhog.org, the official site of Punxsutawney Groundhog Club).
Most folks are happy to hear the results via TV, radio and in this 21st century online. But for those who want to see it up close and personal, there are now places to see it for yourself right here in New Jersey.