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The Surprising Way Groundhog Day Changed the Town of Punxsutawney

3 minute read

On Thursday, in the dead of winter, one groundhog will bravely emerge from his burrow to make the year’s most-anticipated weather forecast: Legend has it, if he sees his shadow on Feb 2., Groundhog Day, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, that’s supposed to mean an early spring is on the way.

That rodent is “Punxsutawney Phil,” and he’s the star of Animal Planet’s new documentary A Groundhog Day Story (airing Feb. 2). As the exclusive clip above shows, the rodent gave his small Pennsylvania town international name recognition — but Phil depends in turn on a group of top-hat-wearing volunteers who take care of him throughout the year.

One of those volunteers is Bill Deeley, a retired funeral director and President of The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, who is gearing up for his 32nd Groundhog Day ceremony at Gobbler’s Knob, the wooded area where Phil makes his legendary prediction. As Deeley puts it in the film, “Phil is everything to Punxsutawney.”

These days — though the central Pennsylvania community is deeply invested in the timber, coal, and oil and gas industries — Punxsutawney benefits year-round from its association with Groundhog Day. (Deeley points out to TIME that those fuel industries likely root for the furball’s forecast to suggest a longer winter with more demand for heat.) And that relationship has been in the works for more than 100 years.

In the 1880s, Punxsutawney benefited from the nearby presence of a major coke oven — a plant that turned coal into a material that could be used for making metals. A train ran through the area that would transport the coke to steel mills in Pittsburgh, but the townspeople wanted to figure out a way to make the place a destination, not merely somewhere a train passed through.

One other attraction in Punxsutawney came to mind: the area would often draw visitors for large groundhog hunts, in which teams of men would run up and down the hillsides, digging up groundhogs to cook for an early dinner. (Farmers didn’t want groundhogs digging holes in their fields, for fear that their cows could step in them and break their legs.) Many began to look forward to the tradition as a break from the winter doldrums, but an editor at local newspaper The Punxsutawney Spirit named Clymer Freas began covering these events with over-the-top, literary descriptions about what he called “The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club,” hoping that they were flashy enough and unusual enough to put the town on the map and boost newspaper sales by attracting investors.

On Feb. 2, 1886, the publication declared that, as of press-time, the groundhog — which it called “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” — had not seen its shadow in the “Weather Capital of the World.”

Newspapers started publishing his accounts nationwide. In the mid-20th century, a former Punxsutawney Groundhog Club president who was in the radio business spread the word to local affiliates and arranged for them to carry live feeds of the Groundhog Day ceremony. The event’s popularity exploded after the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, which inspired thousands of people nationwide and worldwide to travel to attend the festivities.

But the truth is, while the town claims that “Phil” climbs out of his burrow to whisper his forecast to Deeley in “groundhogese,” biologists say he’s only doing what groundhogs do naturally around this time of year: climbing out to get a head start on mating season.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com