The Hidden History of Groundhog Day

Punxsutawney Phil meets his adoring masses in 2020, when he called an early spring. What will he say this year?

Early Wednesday morning, way out there in the small town of Punxsutawney, a portly aging man in top hat and tails will unceremoniously yank a grumpy groundhog from his winter den and present it to a roaring crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. The man then will whisper to the groundhog in a secret, shared language, what he calls “Groundhogese”…

And, for the 136th year since 1886, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous rodent besides a mouse named Mickey, will have predicted the weather. Happy Groundhog Day. While I write this on Friday and don’t yet know what he said, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Phil tells the guy he sees his shadow (even if it is overcast) and we get six more weeks of winter. In this snowy, icy, bitter cold winter, he’d completely lose his credibility otherwise (like the groundhog has any, but you know…).

Though Phil’s batting average isn’t high—the National Climatic Data Center says his accuracy is only 39%, worse than a coin flip—his forecast of six more weeks of winter is the safe one. In 136 tries, that’s been his call more than 100 times. 

As a naturalist, however, I love a holiday named for an animal, and I’m tickled that the national media just might have made room among the top stories, like Russia on the cusp of invading the Ukraine and President Biden on the cusp of nominating a Black woman for the Supreme Court.

And I love that it’s based in some natural history.  Groundhogs—also called woodchucks—are in fact hibernators, sleeping the entire winter away in underground burrows, their heart rate plummeting from summer’s 80 beats per minute to winter’s five. Five beats per minute! In February, males arouse themselves from this slumber to scout their territory, searching for the dens of potential mates. Finished scouting, they go back to sleep for another month or so.

Pennsylvania Dutch farmers settling in the New World brought their German tradition of seeking out a hibernating animal—for them it was badgers, while Brits used hedgehogs—on February 2 for weather prognostications.  Coming here and seeing groundhogs roaming in February likely began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

But the choice of February 2 is no accident. Those same German settlers also commemorated the Christian Candlemas, the day when clergy blessed and distributed candles to combat the dark of winter, and lighted candles were placed in windows. Candlemas comes at the exact midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, and superstition held that if the weather was fair this day, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy. “If Candlemas be fair and bright,” said the superstition, “winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.” 

Candlemas itself has an origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc, one of four cross-quarter days, the halfway marks of seasons. Echoes of ancient cross-quarter holidays have stayed with us through the ages in May Day, Halloween, and Groundhog Day.

Today, we are halfway through winter, as farmers used to remind themselves by repeating the adage, “Groundhog Day, half your hay.” Pace yourself; make sure you’ve got enough for winter’s second half.


Seems there was a long-ago tug of war over which calendar would mark the seasons, one where cross-quarter days begin them, the other where solstices and equinoxes do. Midsummer’s Eve, another pre-Christian holiday captured so wonderfully by Shakespeare, occurs on the summer solstice, now the beginning of summer.  But way back when, the solstice was the midway point of the season.

Portions of that ancient calendar have stayed with us, embedded in our cultural DNA. When that top-hatted gentleman pulled Phil out of his burrow up there on Gobbler’s Knob, he reminded us of olden days when a completely different calendar ruled– and Wednesday was suddenly Imbolc, the very first day of Spring.

No matter what Phil called this week, let’s be honest: he’s got better chances of getting his prediction right than the Flyers have of winning the Stanley Cup. Paws down, sadly.

P.S. The name Punxsutawney is so evocative. I knew it had to be a Native American name, but only just last week checked into it. Turns out it’s a Lenape phrase meaning “town of mosquitoes.” Ssh, don’t tell the Chamber of Commerce– not quite the image they’d want to invoke.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The First Thanksgiving Menu: Venison, Lobster, and… Passenger Pigeons?

The versatile and colorful Indian corn, widely used among Native Americans for porridge, bread, and more, was likely consumed during the 1621 Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, however, might not have been.

As we gather with family for Thanksgiving feasts this week, it will be especially poignant, as for many families (like my own), this is the first live Thanksgiving dinner in two very long years. 

Most likely a turkey will occupy a place of honor in your feast; for me, the reveal of the roasted turkey on a platter is the singular moment of the day. For those with classic American tastes, the gobbler will be surrounded by mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, candied yams, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and so much more. (My Italian-American friend grew up with a Thanksgiving dinner of Italian wedding soup, lasagna, and only THEN the full turkey dinner– wow.)

As we gather on  this historic day, let’s pause for a short history lesson that answers a question historians have been arguing about for decades: just what did the Pilgrims eat on that first Thanksgiving back in 1621? The answer might surprise you.

Remember, the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of one year of the Pilgrims surviving the foreign New World landscape of eastern Massachusetts, plus a celebration of their first harvest, and the Wampanoag Indians graciously shared the feast with them– over three very long days.

So first, what they didn’t eat on that day: mashed potatoes, candied yams, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce. Since white potatoes originated in South America and their close cousin the sweet potato is Caribbean in origin, neither had yet spread to North America, and both would have been absent in 1621. Pumpkins are American fruit, and the Wampanoag likely taught the Pilgrims how to roast them in the fire, filling their insides with other vegetables, but there was no pumpkin pie; the Pilgrims lacked flour and butter, so no pie.

And while cranberries are a key crop in Massachusetts even today and the Pilgrims were surrounded by them, the recipe for cranberry sauce is more than 50 years in the future, as the Pilgrims lacked a key ingredient here too—sugar was incredibly scarce. So they ate dried or raw cranberries. 

Without cranberry sauce, yams, and mashed potatoes, Kathleen Wall, historian and food culinarian at the Plimoth Plantation, told Smithsonian magazine in 2011, “That is a blank in the table, for an English eye. So what are they putting on instead? I think meat, meat, and more meat.”

So turkeys, right? While wild turkeys are, despite their name, a distinctly American bird—Ben Franklin famously thought it would be a better national symbol than the eagle—and while turkeys certainly inhabited the area where Pilgrims dined with their Wampanoag guests, turkeys were likely not on the table that first Thanksgiving, as there are reliable diaries and eyewitness accounts of the event at the time, with mention of lots of foods but– what!?– no mention of turkey.

We know venison was one huge component of the first Thanksgiving. In fact, records indicate Wampanoag hunters brought five deer to the feast, their contribution to the celebration. 

“Wildfowl was there,” continued Wall, and she suspects goose or duck were at the center of the table—though she also discovered in her research that swan and passenger pigeons would have been available too. “Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them,” she told the magazine. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.”

And some of the birds were boiled first, then finished in the fire. Boiled passenger pigeon? Yikes. In addition to wildfowl and deer, the group probably feasted on eels and shellfish like lobster, clams, and mussels, all staples of the coastal Wampanoag. “They were drying shellfish and smoking other sorts of fish,” says Wall.

Wait, so lobster may have been present at the first Thanksgiving! (Perhaps we begin a new tradition?)

Wall thinks it is possible the birds were stuffed, just not with the same bread as today. Instead, the Pilgrims stuffed the geese with onion and herbs, and “there is a wonderful stuffing for goose in the 17th-century that is just shelled chestnuts,” says Wall. There was bread present, but made from maize and not wheat. Multi-colored Indian corn was a staple, ground not only for bread but for porridge too. 

Like all eastern woodlands people, the Wampanoag, had a “varied and extremely good diet,” says Wall. The forest provided chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts, and those would have been incorporated into that 1621 feast.

Of course, the modern Thanksgiving feast features too many desserts—I’m looking forward to our friend’s annual pecan-and-chocolate Derby pie. But the 1621 feast contained neither pies nor cakes; melons and grapes, available and seasonal, likely would have finished the meal.

And to wash it down? Wall thinks they simply drank water; beer and wine was not there. 

The turkey-centric meal is more a product of the 19th than the 17th century, but the first event did feature two very different people speaking very different languages sharing food and creating community– not a bad model for the day that evolves into Thanksgiving. 

Happy Thanksgiving, Roxborough.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

The Lenape and the Land

A typical Lenape village, with wigwams, the Lenape name for their homes.

Pennsylvania school kids are still mistakenly taught that our state’s history begins in 1681 with William Penn and the naming of our state, Penn’s Woods. Of course, the land already had a name, Lenapehoking, and it was hardly new: for some 10,000 years before William Penn, the Lenape inhabited Lenapehoking

On Thursday evening, November 4 at 7:00 p.m., in celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we will present “The Lenape and the Land,” a free virtual conversation among three members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania: Chuck “GentleMoon” Demund, Chief of Ceremonies, Shelley DePaul, Chief of Education and Language, and Adam DePaul, the nation’s Storykeeper. This event concludes the our five-part Thursday Night Live series, where visitors have dropped in from as far away as Florida, Maine, and Saskatoon. 

The conversation intends to share the extraordinarily surprising story of the Lenape and their relationship to the land.

Living in small towns across the region, the Lenape territory stretched from Maryland and coastal Delaware through eastern Pennsylvania, included all of New Jersey, and swept north deep into upstate New York. It was the Lenape who famously “sold” the island of Manahatta to the Dutch in 1626 (almost 60 years before William Penn was granted Pennsylvania), and the Dutch who built a wall around New Amsterdam to protect themselves from the British and the Lenape; the island of course is Manhattan and Wall Street marks the boundary of that wall. 

And the Delaware River of course had a name then as well: Lenapewihittuck. It is appropriate that their tribal name is embedded in the river’s, as the river was the main artery that flowed through Lenapehoking; one writer called it their Main Street. “Delaware” is a name the English bestowed on the river after their Lord de la Warr. 

In addition, many sources routinely identify them as the Lenni-Lenape. Adam DePaul notes that “this term is an anglicized grammatical error that basically translates as the ‘original people people.’” Though he acknowledges that though many Lenape identify as either Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, “the best word to use when referring to us is simply ‘Lenape.’” 

Most accounts of the Lenape– and actually of most Native Americans– present them as living passively on the land, treading lightly, hunting a few animals here and there, using every part of that animal, having little or no impact on the land. Early American writers thus dubbed the New World “pristine,” “untouched,” and that most ridiculously and horribly loaded word, “virgin.” The “noble savage” myth dehumanizes the Lenape as completely as the “fierce warrior” does. All this mythology still permeates our understanding of First Nations, as we never give them their deserving three dimensions. So let’s muddy these waters completely.

Most importantly, Lenapehoking was never a pristine, untouched, virgin forest. Hardly. The big surprise of modern Lenape scholarship, arrived at from studies of both paleoecology and forest ecology, is that the Lenape practiced a highly skilled and remarkably common form of fire ecology, one actively practiced by many indigenous people across the Americas. 

In short, they routinely burned Lenapehoking. The forest was continuously sculpted by native hands to create a wide variety of desired benefits. Most importantly, fire favored the growth of oaks, chestnuts, hickories, and walnuts, trees that offered so many other benefits, especially mast, the forester’s name for nut production. Blueberry bushes, the fruit so nutritious, also respond to burning, producing more fruit in the year right after a fire. 

“Fire enhanced their production of mast and fruit,” says Penn State forest ecologist Marc David Abrams, who has been researching fire ecology for 40 years, “not only to feed themselves, but to feed the animals they were hunting; it was a win-win.” More mast meant more deer, turkeys, passenger pigeons, rabbits, and bears, animals they wanted and needed for food, bones, fur, and feathers. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. The ash resulting from fire was nutrient-rich, offering many plants the ability to grow healthy and fast, and some of the plants that came back after a burn were medicinal plants with important healing properties. Fire cleared out the underbrush, allowing hunters to cover more land more easily while giving them better sightlines to find and shoot prey. Ticks and other harmful pests overwintering in the undergrowth were even killed in a spring fire, and these fires prevented the buildup of too much brush on the ground, which would lead to major conflagrations.

Of course, these were not the wildfires making headlines in so many climate-challenged places. No. These more modest fires quickly burn off the leaf litter, the moist soil preventing the fire from completely destroying the soil’s upper layers. The fire moves quickly through dry leaf litter, and taller trees keep their branches well above the flames, the thick bark protecting the tree charring but surviving.

Acorns and chestnuts cannot sprout and grow underneath their own dense canopy; they require more sunlight hitting the soil than a dense forest offers. Thus, burning cleared out gaps in the forest for acorns and nuts to sprout and grow. If the Lenape did not burn, the forest would have matured, and growing underneath the oak trees would be the late-stage successional trees of maple, beech, birch, and hemlock, fine trees all, but with lower wildlife value and fewer nuts for themselves. So the Lenape kept forests frozen in mid-succession. Dr. Abrams researched an old growth forest in West Virginia that was being logged, and found burn scars in many of the cut stumps indicating indigenous people would burn a section of forest every 8-10 years or so, a number backed up by research from others in the field.

So Penn’s Woods neither belonged to Penn nor was a pristine wilderness. Lenapehoking instead was a highly managed and yet sustainable forest artificially kept in a lower stage of succession in many areas, propping up the plants the Lenape needed nearby, especially chestnuts and oaks. Among their many qualities, the Lenape were exceptional ecologists continuously molding the land to fit their lifestyle.

That’s just the beginning of the story; we hope you’ll register for “The Lenape and the Land,” and learn more about the first Philadelphians.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director


The Hidden History of the Schuylkill Center

Today’s Schuylkill Center– an island of preserved open space in a large developing city– might have turned out differently. Did you know that the farmland that became the Schuylkill Center was short-listed as a site for the United Nations in the 1940s? Later, planners wanted Roxborough’s Cathedral Road to continue down our driveway and end at a bridge over the Schuylkill River to the Main Line. In a reprise of his popular lecture, executive director Mike Weilbacher presents the hidden history of the Center’s land, and the many mysteries behind things that never were.

20 Years of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center: Opening Reception

Founded in 2000 as an opportunity for artists and audiences to explore and interpret the natural world and current ecological issues, our environmental art program has brought hundreds of artists to the Schuylkill Center to present contemporary art work in the gallery and on our trails. This exhibition celebrates the art program’s history by inviting previous exhibiting artists to reflect on the work they did at the Schuylkill Center, and looks to the future of environmental art with newer, related work. The opening reception will include refreshments and remarks from the artists and curator.


More details about the exhibition can be found at: