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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Wiarton Willie is Everywhere

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One of the joys of passing through small towns is seeing how the celebration and/or marketing of a local icon shapes the landscape. Often the signs and statues commemorate a famous resident, no matter how short a time they actually lived there. For example, if you drive through Hardinville, Kentucky, you’ll notice a monument to Abraham Lincoln in the town square, banners for the 200th anniversary of his birth on the light posts, and an ice cream stand with Honest Abe’s solemn face on the sign, even though Lincoln’s family departed the area when the future president was seven years old.

The honouree doesn’t have to be human. Closer to home, one cannot pass through Wiarton without encountering the name or smiling visage of Wiarton Willie, who many Ontario residents may want to shake their fists at after this week’s blast of winter (Willie’s 2009 forecast called for a long one).

Wiarton’s association with Groundhog Day began in 1956, when resident Mac Mackenzie invited, depending on the source, twenty or one hundred friends up to the town for a party to break the winter blues. A Toronto newspaper photographer showed up and asked Mackenzie where the groundhog was. Mackenzie grabbed a fur hat to sub in for a live animal, a photo was taken and the legend began. This wasn’t the end of sly substitutions, as mourners discovered in 1999 when the corpse of a woodchuck filled in for a recently deceased Willie who had quickly decomposed. Festivities gradually grew to include real, usually albino, groundhogs alongside activities like obstacle courses, parades, and outdoor shinny.

A stroll down Willie’s Way leads you down to the town’s pleasant waterfront park, where you will find recreational facilties, the old train station…

…a statue of Willie (“Willie Emerging”)…

…and a memorial to those groundhogs who rose to the weather-forecasting challenge.

Wiarton Willie will even take care of the trash.  Is the extent of his presence marketing overkill or a town taking pride in the creature that garners it attention from around the world?