Groundhog Day: A Pennsylvania Dutch folk tradition

Submitted photo The late Carl Snyder and his Grundsau Lodge brotherhood celebrate Groundhog Day.

Among the folk calendar days, which are celebrated by the PA Dutch people, there is no more an American folkway as Groundhog Day celebrated February 2nd and almost the heart of the winter season. This native animal dug holes alongside farm fields and woodland forest, seeking to share our nations abundant agricultural expertise by man and beast (plow horse) forewarning pioneers of drastic winters, he creeps out of his cozy den to anticipate the end of winter.

Anxiously awaiting spring planting season with his fellow PA Dutch American Patriots, the native groundhog checks to see if his body will cast a shadow forecasting six more weeks of winter, or rarely, an early spring if he is unable to see his shadow. But his fellow American farmers who had turned the New world into a Garden of Eden to feed much of the earths hungry population would not start until the groundhog witnessed Mother Natures sign of a coming warm spring casting his shadow over a nearby fence line.

However, following ones Almanac, realizing that Groundhog Day was upon us, each prudent Dutchman turned his thoughts to checking his farm machinery and plows so they were in ample condition when dandelions appear in early spring when the earth once again harolds the coming spring season for man and beast.

Perhaps the most famous groundhog weather procaster is Punxsutawney Phil, who has a following of natives in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. But here in eastern Pennsylvania, in the heart of the PA Dutch country, there are numerous Grundsau lodges (Groundhog Lodges) among the seven counties in which our PA Dutch speak the PA Dietsch Dialect and have a dozen or more lodges devoted to this groundhog legend.

However, most of these die hard Dutchmen only conduct their lodge meetings in the native German dialect, a tradition that goes back to Colonial days when the belief in the groundhog as a weather procaster was an American folk belief in primitive times. Since almost all the PA Dutch people were farmers, the date February 2nd and the Grundsau fable was an ideal way in which these peasants were reminded to check their farming equipment, horses and plows for the crucial beginning of spring planting.

A unique Americana folk belief that enabled these agrarian people to become the finest producers of food in the nation. Carl Snyder and butcher, Sterling Zimmerman, two farmers from Lehigh County were two of the most sought-after speakers to share their PA Dutch humor with their fellow groundhog lodge enthusiasts. Two exceptional agriculturalists whose knowledge of PA German folklore, provided them with a superb career in farming.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.