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Willie breaks ranks, predicts more winter

By Scott Dunn, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Wiarton Willie saw his shadow Tuesday morning before hundreds of cheering people and that means six more weeks of winter .

The albino groundhog was carried in his plexiglass box atop some straw to the stage in front of Wiarton Arena with pomp and circumstance befitting royalty.

There was Willie’s 2016 Shadow Cabinet, which included local Tory MPP Bill Walker and Conservative MP Larry Miller, South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson and others dressed in traditional white tuxedos with purple cloaks.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown also attended Willie's big day.

Chief Vernon Roote of the Chippewas of Saugeen gave Willie an Ojibway name, and Chief Greg Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash joked to the crowd that Willie had done what no one else had, brought the chiefs together with both members of provincial and federal parliament.

The Queen of the Festival and her court, the McLaren Pipe & Drum Band and the town crier filled out the dignitary list on this 60th anniversary of the Wiarton Willie festival.

The little prognosticator was sleepy and Mayor Jackson asked the energetic crowd to help wake him, which they did with calls and cheers. As the sun rose over the bay on a cool, clear morning, Jackson put her ear nearer to Willie and got the word. After conferring with her Shadow Cabinet, she announced six more weeks of winter.

The crowd of at least 300 cheered for more winter. But half the crowd had cried out for an early spring when the question was posed from the stage minutes earlier.

Shannon Best was sure to be happy with Willie this morning. She drove from Windsor to be here for Willie's prediction. She's a snowmobiler and there's no snow in Windsor, just rain she said.

“I was here for the 50th. I'm here for the 60th,” she said while holding a big sign which said “More Snow Willie.” She sported a fashionable pink pug nose with dangling buck teeth, which were handed out earlier by event organizers.

“I love the rodent. I mean the groundhog Willie.”

Willie's prediction capped off events mostly held over the weekend, including family-friendly tobogganing, ice skating, ice carving, maple taffy eating, a formal tea, snooker tournament, dances and dinners.

It's been 60 years since Bruce Peninsula character Mac McKenzie created the legend of a springtime prognosticator as a pretense to throw a party in the dead of winter.

McKenzie, originally from the Wiarton area, had planned a mid-winter party at the Arlington Hotel for a group of government and media friends which included legendary Wiarton Echo editor, the late Bill Smiley. 
Somehow the mock release ended up in the Ontario legislature's press gallery and eventually the Toronto Star's assignment desk.

The Star dispatched reporter Frank Teskey and his resulting story featured a photo of McKenzie's wife's fur hat posing as a groundhog, McKenzie told The Sun Times in 1999.
It also led to the second annual festival, which featured a stuffed brown groundhog named Grundoon after a character in the Walt Kelly cartoon strip Pogo, said McKenzie in that interview. 
The festival gradually expanded to the point where it has become the town's claim to fame. 

A lot has happened over the years, including the infamous public demise of Willie, twice.

In 2006 Willie died after fighting an infection.

McKenzie, ever the card, remarked at a memorial service attended by 300 people in Bluewater Park the following summer that he liked to picture Willie running through endless fields of clover. Ontario's then Lt.-Gov. James Bartleman attended the service.

And famously in 1999, a morbidly comedic deathbed switch-a-roo featuring a stuffed Willie had to do when Willie died two days before his big prediction and no stand-ins were available. He was presented to the world dressed in a tux, with coins over his eyes and a carrot between his paws.



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