How a small town in Ontario is mourning the loss of its furry icon

The death of one of the nation's furry weather prognosticators has divided a community — leaving some locals worrying a tradition will disappear.

Local mayor says residents are working feverishly to commemorate Wiarton Willie

Wiarton Willie as seen in his enclosure in the summer. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The nation's surprisingly long-lived furry weather prognosticator has died at the age of 13, but a younger replacement understudy is ready to step into the spotlight.​

Wiarton Willie's annual spring prediction drew national attention every Groundhog Day to the small town in South Bruce Peninsula in southwestern Ontario, where he was found lifeless in his pen on Saturday.

The albino pug-nosed celebrity lived three times longer than the average groundhog, which can normally reach the age of four.
Wiarton native Melanie Hepburn's daughter Sophie next to cartoon Wiarton Willie, with the real pug-nosed ground hog posing behind her. (Submitted by Melanie Hepburn)

Janice Jackson, the mayor of the town just 200 kilometres north of London, said two-year-old Wee Willie is in much better shape for his appointment than his successor was before he died.

"I could see that (Wiarton Willie) was frail and moving slower than normal. I was worried about him. I could see that he was declining and a little frail," she said.

The public is invited to commemorate Willie at a memorial service planned for Saturday in Wiarton's Bluewater Park.

Bigger and better 

Town residents and festival-goers celebrated the weather prognostication for the last six decades with four groundhogs, who all lived to see past their 10th birthday.

There are two main events surrounding the folklore -- a gathering on the morning of Groundhog Day and a grand celebration organized by the town's business community the weekend following the prediction. 

Jackson said that community volunteers took a temporary hiatus last year – which didn't stop residents and tourists from celebrating at town bars and restaurants.

"It takes a tremendous amount of volunteers and it was the same group of volunteers year after year, and at some point, you just get tired and you have to take a break, so we did have a lapse last year," she said. "The group ran out of gas."

However, Jackson said the town is working feverishly to commemorate its furry ambassador through a bigger festival and new events committee.

"We have a new young whippersnapper of a Willie stepping into the spotlight. We have a brand new committee full of energy and ambition, and I believe this festival is going to be the best one we've had in many, many years."

Legend has it that if Wee Willie sees his shadow on February 2, winter will last another six weeks. If not, then spring will come early. 

Children climb on the statue of Wiarton Willie's likeness in Bluewater Park in the Town of South Bruce Peninsula. Town officials say Willie will be honoured here after a memorial service and funeral on Saturday. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

Resident concerns

Melanie Hepburn, who is from Wiarton and owns a bookshop there, said she missed the tradition last year when festival organizers decided to cancel the grand celebration.

"In the past it's been very great but it's petered off," she said. "Now, hearing of Willie's passing, we just hope there's a future or the whole prognosticator (event) will pass on. There certainly is a fear."

Despite the sea of Wiarton Willie signage across town, Hepburn said her book club is concerned the town of Wiarton will lose touch with the tradition that helped put it on the international map. 

"I think Wiarton has something very special. [The festival] means home."