What life is like in Punxsutawney, PA, when it's not reliving Groundhog Day
Like clockwork, the church bells chime through town at 1:59 p.m.
The bells announce the hour a minute early for anyone who will listen — the elderly man walking his dog through the park, the McDonald’s worker puffing out a cloud of smoke during her lunch break, the jogger careful not to lose her footing on the uneven town sidewalks.
The sound vibrates through the town’s shops housed in 150-year-old brick buildings, past elegant Victorian homes reminiscent of better times, down the train track that slithers past buildings and cuts through roads and eventually disappears.
It’s a scene out of any small town in America, except for one thing: There’s a man standing on the sidewalk outside of the library, wearing a top hat and using his right hand to point to the ring finger on his left hand. A crowd of tourists gasps as he recounts a painful incident.
“I have been bit once pretty bad,” he says. “I’m married, but that’s my reason for not wearing my wedding ring. I haven’t put it on since because of the scar tissue — I’ll have to get it resized or wear it on the other finger.”
Next to A.J. Dereume stands the culprit who did the damage and doesn’t seem particularly interested in the retelling.
He’s a grayish-brown, fuzzy, 3-foot tall rodent, and he’s perched up on his hindlegs in a glass box, preoccupied with the crowd of tourists pointing iPhones and digital cameras at him as he nibbles on a piece of corn. His name is Phil.
As the sign that greets people entering the town boldly proclaims: “Welcome to Punxsutawney, PA. Weather capital of the world.”
You may have watched the classic Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” or know Punxsutawney from its one-day-a-year television appearance every Feb. 2, but this is a story about what it’s like in this tiny western Pennsylvania borough the other 364 days a year.
As Dereume continues his presentation about life as Phil’s handler, a steady stream of sedans, minivans and lumber trucks ebbs and flows down Mahoning Street adjacent to the library. Traffic backs up a bit at the red lights, but never too much to bother those passing through.
It’s a small town. Many residents have lived here most, if not all, of their lives. To them, living here is to live comfortably. It’s the familiar feeling of sliding on a 10-year-old pair of duck boots after the first snow.
Most days in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, are quiet, familiar and a bit slow. It’s just one day a year when the town is thrust into the international spotlight, when the population of just under 6,000 makes room for upward of 30,000 people, who travel here to sit outside in freezing temperatures at 7 a.m. to watch whether Phil decides to see his shadow that morning.
As quickly as the crowds come, they leave, and when Feb. 2 rolls into Feb. 3, Punxsutawney — or, as it is affectionately known by residents, “Punxsy” — fades into the backdrop.
But for the locals, Punxsutawney isn’t a two-minute news clip or a blurb in the newspaper. It’s home.
At the center of Punxsutawney — both metaphorically and literally — is Phil, the 130-something-year-old groundhog who is housed in the “Groundhog Zoo” attached to the Punxsutawney Memorial Library.
According to legend, 2020 will mark the 134th year Phil has either predicted an early spring or six more weeks of winter. Phil boasts 100 percent accuracy in his predictions, despite skepticism expressed by some weathermen.
Of course, being lifted baby Simba-style to accurately predict the weather for over 130 years is a tiresome gig, but Phil’s job is hardly relegated to one day a year. He is always the center of attention in Punxsy. When he isn’t being transported to community events or presentations, Phil enjoys a low-key life in his “burrow,” where he lives with his wife Phyllis and cousins.
The heat-controlled enclosure gives Phil the perfect view of the children’s section of the library and the town’s Barclay Square Memorial Park, a public gathering place with a memorial to “veterans of all wars.”
Phil gets visitors throughout the year, but he can’t be bothered to greet most of them, and spends most of his time sleeping curled up in a ball or on his back, with his buck teeth pointed toward the ceiling.
And Phil gets visitors often. There are tourists every day, from everywhere — California, England, Russia, Texas, Poland, Peru.
Most aren’t traveling hundreds upon thousands of miles just to visit a groundhog in a rural town. Punxsy is typically a pitstop on the way to places like New York or Niagara Falls.
Jane Parente, a librarian who has lived in Punxsutawney her whole life, estimated at least six outsiders a day visit Phil.
“They’re here from overseas. They’re here from, ‘Well, we’re just traveling to this place, and you happen to be on our way that we were going to someplace else, and we stopped,’” Parente said.
The library keeps a visitor’s book, in which travelers write their names, hometowns, date of their visit and, if so desired, a message to Phil. The book is filled with children’s names sloppily written in capital letters and sketches of groundhog paw prints and references to the film “Groundhog Day.”
“Phil, Phil Conners! -Ned Reyerson,” reads one message carefully written out by a young girl named Annabelle from Joppa, Maryland (never mind the incorrect spelling of “Connors” and “Ryerson”).
Those who visit will find that even when it’s not Groundhog Day, it’s still Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney.
Where Phil isn’t in town, he still is. You can’t walk a block in Punxsy without the eyes of Phil following you. He’s in the 33 “Phantastic Phil” statues that began sprouting outside of local businesses and landmarks in 2004, each with its unique name and design painted by a local artist.
He’s practically the sole inhabitant of the local gift shop, where everything Phil is sold — from Phil-embroidered sweatshirts to groundhog cookie cutters to squeaking groundhog dog toys to groundhog slippers complete with fake fur and buck teeth.
He’s in over a dozen different postcards at the local grocery store, Shop ‘n Save (which has a sign outside boasting “GROUNDHOG SOUVENIRS” in bold, blue lettering).
He’s in posters and stuffed animals that peek out of windows in local shops and homes. Clothed in a top hat and suit, he’s on the men’s bathroom door in a burger joint (while Phyllis wears a white dress on the women’s bathroom door). He appears as both his anatomically realistic-self and cartoonish self in local murals and 20-foot cardboard cutouts and billboards. One sign on the south side of town shows Phil hawking GUNS & AMMO.
His picture is framed and carefully placed on the mantle in the local Barclay Bed & Breakfast. He sits in the center of the wall in the Punxsutawney Area High School’s gymnasium, surrounded by state championship banners as he roots for — who else? — the Chucks. His footprints, painted yellow, trail across the downtown sidewalks into local shops.
Numerous businesses and locations around town are named after Phil and his impact — including a diner called Punxsy Phil’s Family Restaurant, a shopping center named Groundhog Plaza and a bowling alley dubbed Groundhog Lanes.
Additionally, local events throughout the year such as the Groundhog Festival, Phil’s Trick or Trot and the Groundhog Picnic & Phil Fest commemorate Phil and his legacy. Even events that don’t reference the groundhog still might pay homage to him — take the Gobbler’s Knob Wine Fest in October, where Phil made a guest appearance.
And Phil isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The town claims to have achieved immortality, and Phil reaps the benefits. Every year, Phil is given a special drink, the Elixir of Life, which grants him seven more years of life and explains why he’s lived over 125 years longer than the average groundhog. Among the ingredients in the secretive drink are the sap of a maple tree and drops of water from Antarctic ice.
At the core of the groundhog lore is the Inner Circle, the top-hatted group of 15 men responsible for taking care of Phil and planning groundhog-related events throughout the year.
The Inner Circle is the most elite group within the Groundhog Club, a network of individuals — both local and not — who are passionate about Phil and Punxsy.
Each member of the Inner Circle has a specific role, and a special name to fit said role.
Most days the members of the Inner Circle aren’t dressed in their top hats lugging Phil around. Instead they work full-time jobs, as chiropractors, roofers and real estate agents.
Dereume, a member of the Inner Circle and one of Phil’s two handlers, described the duty as his “full-time volunteer side job.”
Dereume visits Phil and the four other groundhogs in the zoo every other day, feeding them and cleaning their cage once every two weeks.
While Phil, according to legend, has been around for a while, the other groundhogs in the zoo were rescued by the Groundhog Club — with the zoo acting as a “Home for Wayward Groundhogs,” as Dereume put it. If groundhogs are born too early, their mother will abandon them. The Groundhog Club takes in the abandoned babies, and those who don’t adapt back to the wild are welcomed into Phil’s family.
In addition to taking care of Phil and company, Dereume also gives presentations and, of course, makes local appearances with Phil.
Every week, there’s at least one place Phil needs to be. As Feb. 2 nears, Phil has three to four events to attend a week.
In the town, being a member of the illustrious Inner Circle is a sign of respect. Members are voted into the circle, and it’s the steering forces in the community who show passion and dedication to Punxsutawney who are ultimately asked to join.
Most Inner Circle members were born and raised in Punxsy, and membership into the town’s exclusive fraternity is considered the pinnacle of achievement by some.
Each member has a specific responsibility in relation to Phil and the Groundhog Day festivities.
Inner Circle members Dave Gigliotti and Dan McGinley, or the “Thunder Conductor” and “Moonshine,” are tasked with pumping up the crowd on Groundhog Day before Phil officially makes his appearance. In addition to exciting the thousands of visitors at Gobbler’s Knob, the stage show serves to distract those in attendance from cold, early morning hours.
The show is scheduled down to the minute, and features dancing, groundhog-related parody songs, guest performances and occasionally appearances from B-list celebrities like John Ratzenberger, aka Cliff Clavin from “Cheers.” Like most other Groundhog Day-related events, planning for the show begins months ahead.
Ultimately, though, the Inner Circle knows its place in comparison to Phil, who is the star. They are merely gussied up to make Phil look good.
With an all-seeing eye in the town, alleged immortality and a posse to wait on him hand and, er, paw, Phil seemingly maintains a godlike status in Punxsutawney. By now, Punxsy residents are used to Phil’s strong presence in the community.
“It’s always Groundhog Day,” Parente said. “It’s like the movie — every day you wake up and it’s still Groundhog Day.”
Most community members recognize the nature of Phil and Groundhog Day — describing the lore as “silly,” “fun” or “light-hearted.” You can’t take things too seriously if you want to enjoy living in Punxsutawney.
But on a more serious note, Phil has given something to Punxsutawney that many small towns will never have — national recognition.
Punxsutawney resident and Inner Circle member Jory Serrian recalled a time he was in Ireland, in a town of about 600 people, when he struck up a conversation with two people at a bar. He told them he lived in Punxsutawney, and they immediately knew where he was from.
“You tell someone you’re from Indiana, PA or Dubois, PA, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ You tell them you’re from Punxsutawney? They’re gonna know what you’re talking about,” Serrian said.
As resident Shirley Sharp puts it, Phil makes Punxsutawney a small town with a very large sphere of influence.
Many local business owners depend on that influence to stay in business. Groundhog Day boosts sales dramatically, and the daily flow of visitors into town also benefits local shops and eateries. Local yarn shop owner Victoria Dicken estimates that at least half of her customers are from outside of Punxsutawney.
“If it weren’t for the groundhog, I’d say many of the businesses here would struggle, truly,” Dicken said.
No matter the season, no matter the month, the clock is always counting down in Punxsutawney to the next Groundhog Day.
Residents anticipate the vastness of the early February holiday early on, as the national holiday turns Punxsutawney upside down. While some choose to partake in the festivities, others stay in their own burrows.
“It’s too cold and it’s too early,” said Parente, who has never been to Gobbler’s Knob on Groundhog Day. “When they start having it in July in the middle of the afternoon, I may go.”
Schools close so buses can be used to ship strangers clad in groundhog hats to Gobbler’s Knob, which is located about a mile southeast of downtown. A less-than-five-minute drive from the Walmart at the edge of the borough to downtown Punxsutawney becomes a 20-plus-minute wait in the car. Law enforcement officials from the State Police and neighboring towns of Indiana, Reynoldsville and Dubois are called in to accommodate the massive overflow of people.
Shannon Noone, the manager of the Barclay Bed and Breakfast, said the bed and breakfast no longer accepts reservations for Groundhog Day because the list of those who wanted to reserve a room became too long — so long, in fact, it would take 20 years’ worth of Groundhog Days to accommodate all the guests. Those who reserved their spot before the cut-off will receive a call — likely years later — asking if they’d still like a room.
Groundhog Day wasn’t always like this in Punxsutawney. While celebrated since 1886, the holiday began to gain more traction in the 1950s. However, what began putting Groundhog Day on more people’s calendars was “Groundhog Day,” the 1993 comedy starring Murray and Andie MacDowell.
While the movie itself wasn’t filmed in Punxsutawney, it sparked interest in this small Pennsylvania town and the holiday it celebrates. Before the movie, residents could expect to greet guests in the low thousands. Now, up to 30,000 guests fill the Punxsy streets on a given Feb. 2.
Punxsutawney hasn’t shied away from the fame, welcoming visitors with open arms.
After the official ceremony, visitors make their way back into town from the Knob, and businesses, churches and the historical society provide free hot chocolate to help warm up attendees. Visitors are also welcome to purchase tickets to the events surrounding the Groundhog Day festivities. The theater in the local community center plays “Groundhog Day” on a continuous loop all day, and the town’s mayor performs marriages for those who so desire to get married on Groundhog Day.
The dramatic influx of people is naturally a benefit for downtown businesses. While some residents may grumble about the traffic, they can’t pretend the holiday doesn’t serve as a major boost for the town.
“First, I felt [Groundhog Day] was pretty silly,” said Scott Anthony, the owner of Punxsy Pizza, “but it’s something that as a business person, you come to appreciate, because when Groundhog Day comes around, and you get that boost in business in February, which is a very slow time of year for any restaurant. It’s something that you really need.”
While the town’s pulse certainly beats through Phil and Groundhog Day festivities, life is more than the celebration of a rodent.
To residents, Punxsutawney is family. It’s a community. It’s Americana. It’s home.
And in that home, there are things that make Punxsy, Punxsy. The sound of the train whistling down the tracks, meandering past buildings. The historic churches of nearly every denomination on every corner of every block. The ability to look up at the sky at night and actually see the stars.
Punxsy emulates a sort of small town feel that’s becoming increasingly rare in America.
Tucked in the southern part of Jefferson County, the Punxsutawney area was originally inhabited by Native Americans before white settlers moved into the area. Its original name, Ponksaduteney, means “town of the sandflies,” which were once prevalent in the area.
Today, Punxsy is surrounded by other small, western Pennsylvanian towns. The nearest big city is Pittsburgh, roughly 80 miles southwest.
Demographically, Punxsutawney aligns similarly with many other American small towns. In 2018, over 96 percent of residents were white, and the town is ideologically more conservative.
To residents, Punxsy’s small town-feel makes it worth living in. It’s a place where everyone knows almost everyone, and you can’t stop in the local Walmart without running into someone you know.
Residents frequent their favorite local eateries — diners, pizzerias, sandwich shops, bakeries, bars, a renovated McDonald’s in the center of town, the Subway tacked onto the Groundhog Club building. At any given restaurant, it’s almost guaranteed that a well-read copy of that day’s “Punxsutawney Spirit” lies on a table for another resident to pick up (“Let’s see what’s going on in Punxsy today.”)
Surrounded by forested terrain, the town has deep connections with nature. Hunting and fishing are vastly popular — students get the first day of the deer hunting season off of school.
The “hustle and bustle” of city life just isn’t present in Punxsy, according to Mayor Richard Alexander.
The cost of living is low, and the strong community feel makes Punxsy the perfect place to raise a family, residents argue. To them, Punxsutawney is family-oriented and safe. It’s a place where children can leave their bikes on the lawn and parents can forget to lock the front door at night with no repercussions.
But with all the benefits of small-town life comes some disadvantages, too. Empty storefronts jut out of the 150-year-old buildings, and above the storefronts, rusting air conditioning units peak out of apartment windows. Bold “for rent” signs are splattered across town. While the streets are well-paved, empty alleys and parking lots, filled with potholes and dumpsters, are scattered in the gaps between buildings.
And while Alexander acknowledged that community members may feel — and may be — safe, he didn’t shy away from mentioning the borough’s drug problem. Like communities across the country, Punxsutawney has been hit hard by the growing epidemic of opioids and hard drugs.
Some residents have struggled financially, too. In 2018, the town’s poverty rate was 20.8 percent, compared to the national average of 11.8 percent.
The historic, regal, Victorian-style homes downtown serve as a reminder of what Punxsutawney once was. Once a major contributor in the coal industry, the town boasted a population of over 10,000 in the 1920s.
Punxsutawney’s population has been on a steady decline, however, decreasing by over 43 percent since 1940.
As the coal industry declined, so did the job market. The biggest employer in Punxsutawney is now the school district.
When the “Punxsy kids” graduate from high school, they leave for college if they can. And when most leave for college, they don’t come back.
Punxsutawney was once a town that had dreams of becoming the next big city. In 2019, it’s just clinging to its status as a town.
““I feel that in order for any town this size or even a little bit larger [to survive], you have to have a combination of elderly people, middle-aged people and, most importantly, young people,” Alexander said. “And we’re slowly getting into the there’s more elderly people and middle-aged people, are less young people.
“I can understand why young people go elsewhere because there are very few jobs here. I’d like to see that change and I’ve been trying to work on that — but when you are in a ball game with a metropolitan city … it’s very difficult because the competition is so stiff,” he said.
Perhaps the most telling example of Punxsy’s decline is the state of the town’s historic Pantall Hotel. For over 120 years, the hotel stood as a symbol of sophistication and society.
It now sits desolate in the center of town. A TRUMP 2020 poster sits in the window as sunlight reaches into the boarded-up building, glinting off elegant chandeliers hanging from the hotel’s ceilings.
For residents, the town isn’t the town they grew up with, and it certainly isn’t the town their parents grew up in.
And, just as residents are self-aware about the silliness of the groundhog, they are also aware of the seriousness of the town’s decline.
“You can’t go back to the past to live the past,” said Tom Curry, a lifelong Punxsutawney resident who writes about the town’s history for ‘Punxsutawney Hometown Magazine.’ “You have to use the past as a framework to decide where you might want to go in the future.”
Many residents are deeply involved with the community, and strive to contribute to the revitalization of Punxsutawney. From Gardening Club members who weed the sidewalks of closed shops in the summer to Alexander’s launch of “Shop with a Cop” to help families in need during the holiday season, there’s a push in the community to help the town and others.
Perhaps at the core of that push is Rob McCoy, who was born and raised in Punxsy. For nearly 10 years, McCoy has been the director of Punxsutawney’s Community Center.
The center, housed in the former junior high building, provides residents with luxuries they wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the center — a movie theater, a gym, an indoor basketball court. On a given afternoon, the laughter of children and squeak of rubber tennis shoe soles can be heard echoing through the center’s dimly lit hallways.
The center not only gives residents something to do on a Friday night, but it also provides them with a way to connect with their community.
And the need for the center is acknowledged by the town. McCoy said several years ago, the theater needed to replace its film with a digital system — a switchover that would cost $90,000.
Punxsutawney residents raised $120,000 to save the theater.
McCoy estimates he puts in at least 80 hours a week at the center, and when he’s not working at the center he’s often helping community members in some other way. McCoy said he was raised to help those around him, and while he doesn’t view his contributions as great, they’ve certainly been recognized in the town.
For six years now, the town celebrates “Rob McCoy Day” in the local tavern, The Burrow, on Aug. 3. What started as a late surprise birthday party for McCoy has snowballed into a full-fledged holiday, complete with custom-made Rob McCoy t-shirts.
Just this past Rob McCoy Day, McCoy received the key to the city.
“You’ve got to have a little humor [to live in Punxsutawney],” McCoy said. “You have to smile, and try to have a good day every day.”
As a part of the nonprofit Punxsutawney Revitalization: Investing, Developing, Enhancing (PRIDE), McCoy works to help to see businesses move back into town someday, the population to increase and more tourists to visit when it’s not Groundhog Day.
But ultimately, if Punxsutawney wants to see a revival, McCoy said the people could work to make it happen. If residents could raise $120,000 to save a theater, he’s sure they could do what it takes to save the town.
“[Punxsutawney] has a bad ankle and it’s limping a little bit,” McCoy said, “but I think we can bring it back.”
If anything, what may always keep the town going is Phil. Despite its rich history, culture and businesses, Phil ultimately attracts people to the town — and maybe, they’ll decide to stay.
“Punxsutawney Phil has certainly put us on the map. I mean, there’s a lot of small towns in Pennsylvania that maybe get lost in the shuffle or don’t stand out necessarily. We have that great thing that puts us on the map,” said McGinley, a transplanted Pittsburgher turned Inner Circle member.
“But when you come to Punxsutawney after you come to pay homage to the great prognosticator,” he continued, “you will, I think, be impressed at its charm, its rural settings, its picturesque views and just the nice, rural America charm ….”