Area man shares groundhog cheer
Jim Sparger strolls in a leather hat, shuffling his feet with his hands full. He sets it down on the chair and takes a step back.
"It" is a groundhog. Well, it was. Now it's a dead groundhog, stuffed in a stiff perch on a wooden support bearing its name, "Sugar Grove Slim." With a matching leather hat ("See? There's a resemblance," Sparger said) and a miniature banjo, Slim's wide eyes stare out as they do every year at this time, his buck teeth glinting in the fluorescent light.
It's just another stop on Sparger's annual Feb. 2 tour as he and Slim trek though daycares, restaurants, even The Mountain Times, spreading Groundhog cheer. It's something he's done for more than 25 years.
"I want people to know about Groundhog Day and look forward to spring," he said. "I tell them about groundhogs and leave them alone so they don't have to shoot all the rest of them."
Sugar Grove Slim, a present given to Sparger years ago because he has "always celebrated Groundhog Day, because animals are smarter than we are," is polite for a groundhog. It could be because of his stiff situation.
"Take your hat off, that's rude," Sparger said, peeling the leather colored hat from Slim's head.
Sparger heard about Punxsutawney Phil's prediction of an early spring and is skeptical.
"This is Boone," he said. "We're not going to get an early spring unless you consider May an early spring. Don't listen to that Pennsylvania pig up there. He doesn't know what he's talking about."
Slim doesn't respond. He's too busy not moving, a banjo secured firmly to his stiff little claws.
"He's doing 'Old Man Winter' this year," Sparger explained. "He just keeps rolling along. He's doing better than I am. I had to glue one of his ears back once, but I've been putting me back together for I don't know how long."
Slim, he said, has a few advantages over Punxsutawney Phil.
"He doesn't bite," Sparger said. "He had a choice to come with me today or go to Egypt, so he stayed with me. He's not a dummy."
But Slim isn't the only groundhog he sees every year. Sparger says his house has a "groundhog garden," perfect for keeping the critters out of his actual garden.
"I've got a 5-foot (long) spot that's probably, oh, 100-feet wide, and I just put kale and carrots and sprinkle seed in there and lettuce ... they are lazy," he said. "Groundhogs aren't going to walk down a hill and back up for food when it's sitting right there. I have more problems with deer, and I'm hoping the groundhogs will get fat enough for the deer to trip over."
When it's time for Sparger to leave, he passes out white flowers to the women in the vicinity and picks Slim up by the wooden base. He's on his way to Boone Drug, to spread the love, but don't worry, he'll be back.
"Hopefully, next year," he said, "but I don't know who's going to fall apart first."
Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow, meaning an early spring. North Carolina's official groundhog, Sir Walter Wally, did see his shadow and predicts more winter on the way, prompting Twitter outrage. With the hogs contradicting each other, we decided to consult a few additional experts to find out how long the winter will last.
Woolly Worm: The 2010 Woolly Worm champion, Jack (raced by 5-year-old Cole Peurifoy on Oct. 16), had a prediction of its own. Weeks 1 to 4 of winter? Cold and snowy, with a possible ice storm on Week 5. Weeks 6 to 11 say cold, while Jack's prediction for weeks 12 and 13? Severe cold and snow, not exactly on Punxsutawney Phil's radar.
Beans: It's in the beans, local weather phenom and Creston native Joe Mullis said. For each August fog, he puts a bean in the jar, a large one for sizable fogs, small beans for wispy fogs. Big beans?
They symbolize big snows, and small beans mean small snows. And Mullis knew before Punxsutawney Phil's revelation that the news would be good.
"I've been telling them he wouldn't see his shadow," he said.
His prediction? An early spring.
The Expert: For an expert opinion, we went to meteorology Ph.D. candidate John L'Heureux, the face behind popular Facebook weather predictor, L'Heureux's Weather ( http://www.facebook.com/lheureuxs.weather). He's not a fan of the groundhog.
"Over the past 10 years, he's been right three times," L'Heureux said. "So, I don't really believe that the groundhog has indicated whether it's going to be spring or not."
His prediction, however, may give Punxsutawney Phil merit, "depending on your definition of spring."
"I think it will be a lot like last year, where you will probably have a warming trend and spring comes early," he said. "I don't know if people remember March last year, but for the first week it got massively warmer and didn't snow again ... I think something similar will happen this year."
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