Sure, he’s stuffed. But he’s no stiff.
No, he can’t talk. But if he could, it would be in Pennsylvania Dutch.
As a weather prognosticator, he’s never been wrong. Now, how many meteorologists and almanacs can say that?
His name is ‘Uni,’ short for Union Canal. But it might as well stand for ‘Unique.’
“He’s a patriotic groundhog,” said Jim Rittle, Uni’s current caretaker. “And he’s a religious groundhog. With his new cell phone, he’s an up-to-date groundhog. He’s been modernized.
“It’s just fun,” Rittle continued. “It’s serious because everyone involved gets a kick out of it. At meetings, it’s one joke after another, but they’re all in Pennsylvania Dutch.”
In addition to being Uni’s handler, Rittle is also the vice president of the Union Canal Groundhog Lodge of Eastern Lebanon County, or Union Kanaal Grundsau Lodsch #17. On Saturday, Feb. 1 at 8 a.m., Rittle will escort Uni to Myerstown Recreation Area, located at the corner of Railroad Street and Route 501, for his only public appearance of the year.
There, Uni will man his boat in the Tulpehocken Creek, which was once a portion of the old Union Canal in Myerstown, and he will predict the onset of the spring season. If Uni sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter, and if he doesn’t, it’s an indication that spring is just around the corner.
Meteoroligists are calling for cloudy skies on Saturday, with a slight chance of rain.
Dating back to 1981, Saturday will mark Uni’s 39th attempt at forecasting the coming of spring, and he’s never been wrong. He’s 39-0!
On the calendar, the official start of spring is March 20, or 48 days after Uni makes his prediction.
“Generally speaking, he’s in the water, which would make him Uni in the Union Canal,” said Rittle. “There’ll either be six more weeks of winter, or spring will be right around the corner. It doesn’t make much difference. It’s a joke in itself. But he’s never been wrong.”
This year, Uni’s public appearance will come a day early. The traditional Groundhog’s Day in Pennsylvania is Feb. 2, which falls on a Sunday.
The change is not expected to affect the accuracy of Uni’s prediction.
“I went to borough council to get a permit for the event,” said Rittle. “The one lady on borough council asked me why we were holding it on the first (of February). Groundhog’s day is on the second. I told her that Sunday is a religious day and that Uni is a religious groundhog. He goes to church on Sundays. He doesn’t work on that day.”
More than a hundred people are expected to line the banks of the Tulpehocken Creek on Saturday, in anticipation of Uni’s performance. Everyone is welcome to attend the free event.
“Local tradition is important,” said Rittle, 80. “People will ask us, ‘What about Punxsutawney Phil?’ We don’t know him. He’s not Pennsylvania Dutch. He’s English. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“Uni is close to 40 years old,” continued Rittle. “They shot a groundhog on a farm and stuffed him. To my knowledge, he’s been coming down the pike ever since.”
The Eastern Lebanon County edition of the Groundhog Lodge is one of 17 located in eastern Pennsylvania. Each lodge hosts its own unique event on Groundhog’s Day.
But the real purpose of the lodges is to honor and continue the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.
“Each lodge celebrates Feb. 2 differently,” said Rittle. “Our lodge is the only one that floats him on a boat. It’s a heritage thing. We’d like to keep it going and keep the German language alive. All the ones who understand the German dialect are dying off, and the younger ones aren’t learning it.
“In the last year or maybe two, we took on four or five new members,” Rittle continued. “At this point, the future is good. As long as I’m around, it’ll be here. But probably somewhere down the line, it’ll die off.”
One of the requirements for membership in the Groundhog Lodge is the ability to speak Pennsylvania Dutch. Rittle speaks it fluently, a skill that was passed down to him by his parents.
“I learned it from a kid up,” said Rittle, in English, but with a heavy Pennsylvania Dutch accent. “My parents spoke it. When they didn’t want you to know something, they spoke Dutch. If I wanted to know what they were saying, I had to learn it. I aced German in high school with it. I kept it and remembered it.
“Back when the first Pennsylvania Dutch people came over here, they had a Groundhog’s day,” added Rittle. “They used to use a badger, but when they came here, they couldn’t find a badger, so they used the next best thing. It came over from Germany, but now we celebrate it more here. They don’t celebrate it any more.”
Because there are very few things more traditional than a mammal in a boat.
Is there a Lebanon County tradition you think we should cover next? Reach our newsroom using the contact form below.
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