In honor of Groundhog Day, this author thought our readers might like to don their beaver silk top hats like this c. 1890-1905 one in our collection and learn about the lowly creature. We've all seen them, usually by the side of the road, quietly eating, while we worry that they will suddenly get the urge to run across the road in front of us. Although run might be the wrong word--it often looks more like a fast waddle.
The groundhog, Marmota Monax, has many nicknames, some familiar, like woodchuck, and others less so. Here are just a few: wood-shock, whistle-pig, whistler, thickwood badger, marmot, monax, moonack, weenusk, red monk, and land beaver. A couple of the names might derive from Native American words--Moonack is an Algonquian word for digger, and Wuchak is another Algonquian or Narragansett name. You can imagine that "Wuchak" might sound like woodchuck, which of course brings to mind the old tongue-twister--how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" I always wondered what "wood chucking" actually involved!
Groundhogs are mostly herbivores and eat berries and many agricultural crops. This, along with their propensity for digging tunnels that can topple foundations, can make them unpopular. As such, one New England community even had a “Woodchuck Committee.” The Report of the Woodchuck Committee found in the Journals of the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the State of New Hampshire, June 1883, lists some of the critter’s egregious crimes:
"First of all, the woodchuck has so many aliases that mankind may easily be misled by the confusion of names. That the woodchuck is a notorious character is apparent by the load of names under which it waddles."
"It is a thief by nature and a freeloader by profession, and there has been no instance brought to the knowledge of your committee where nature was ever suppressed or profession lowered on the part of these devastating quadrupeds. The same might occasionally be said of the human race, but there is no exception on the part of the woodchuck."
"The predatory habits of the animal make it the common foe of mankind, for it is a sneak-thief, first, last, and all the time. As the woodchuck cannot be sued for trespass or imprisoned for larceny, the only thing left is to fight it to the bitter death."
"The animal, so they say, takes its bed about October 1, and forthwith rolling itself into a ball becomes torpid and to all appearances dead. Unfortunately for the farmers, this interesting habit only goes into effect at that season of the year when nobody cares a snap about the woodchuck or the clover crop....Your committee also believes that this torpidity has nothing to do with a smitten conscience. The woodchuck is not only a nuisance, but also a bore. It burrows beneath the soil, and then chuckles to see a moving machine, man and all, slump into one of these holes and disappear."
In their defense, they do have some redeeming qualities. The groundhog is obviously well-adapted to digging, with its long, broad claws and short, powerful legs. Their digging can mix up the soil, and their burrows can provide homes for critters such as skunks and red fox that eat mice and grasshoppers that destroy crops. Perhaps Longmeadow farmers didn’t find them all bad?
Looking for a period Longmeadow reference to groundhogs, we were excited to find one in the index to volume 7 of the transcribed Stephen Williams diaries (1716-1782). The passage from February 26, 1771, reads, "this day it raind considerably- & ye Ground hog being coverd with ice-ye water rain freely-Brooks were greatly raisd & considerable Damage done to Bridges and Damm/..." Wait.. a groundhog covered with ice?
Alas, as faithful readers will know, transcribed documents often contain errors, and this was no exception. When compared to the original handwritten script, it was apparent that the transcriber added a word that was never there. The original wording actually made more sense than the transcription: "this day it rain'd considerably & ye ground being covered with ice-ye water rain freely- Brooks were greatly rais'd & considerable damage done to bridges and damms..." No “hog” in sight…just ground. Drats! The notorious evader was taunting us from all the way back in 1771 and had eluded us yet again. Just when we thought we had a groundhog reference he disappeared! Does this mean six more weeks of winter?!?
Nevertheless, the tradition of using woodland creatures to predict seasonal changes began in Germany where the forecasting animal was the badger. The belief is that if a groundhog emerges from its den during its hibernation and sees its shadow, that winter will continue for 6 more weeks. He will then retreat back into his den to finish out the long sleep. Although there is little agreement about what constitutes an early spring, by most measures the famous Phil's accuracy is poor. And can anyone tell me why the people who pull Phil from his "burrow" wear formal gear? By the way, we do recommend the Movie "Groundhog Day" released in 1993 starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. The movie is a story of redemption as Bill Murray's character, named Phil, relives Groundhog Day over and over until he is a man changed for the better. Who doesn't love a happy ending?
-Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society board member