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Georgia’s groundhog sees no shadow, predicting early spring

LILBURN, Ga. — Georgia’s groundhog is predicting an early spring.
    Awoken by the ringing of bells, TV camera lights and cheering, General Beauregard Lee emerged from his antebellum mansion at 7:35 a.m. Friday, went around to the back of his house before a crowd of 100 people and saw no shadow.
    Beau’s northern colleague, Punxsutawney Phil, saw no shadow either.
    Tradition holds that it means spring will come early. If the groundhog had seen his shadow, Georgia would have been in for six more weeks of winter.
    ‘‘It’s hard to believe we’ll have six weeks of not bad weather,’’ said Art Rilling, owner of the Yellow River Game Ranch where the Georgia groundhog lives. ‘‘But that’s what he says, that’s what we’re going to live with.’’
    Rilling said ‘‘Beau’’ comes out of the mansion on his own, but just before the annual forecasting event, a ‘‘scattered and smothered’’ supper dish of Waffle House hash browns is placed before his door to entice him to come out.
    The warm winter prompted one change for the Georgia groundhog — for the first time, he’s been sleeping in a hole that he dug in front of his house instead of inside his straw-filled mansion, Rilling said. But the groundhog moved back inside the mansion when weather turned cold again earlier this week.
    No official records of Beau’s forecasts have been kept. His owners claim a 94 percent accuracy rating.
    But one miss can be a biggie. Beau called for an early spring in 1993 and the worst blizzard in decades blasted the South. Still, Beau’s prognosticating prowess has earned him an honorary doctorate from Georgia State University.
    The groundhog attracts faithful fans, such as 13-year-old Sarah Etheridge of Lawrenceville, Ga., who brings her family out to the ranch each year. Groundhog’s Day is her birthday.
    ‘‘I just like coming,’’ Etheridge said. She and her mother, aunt and grandmother braved the dry but cloudy weather of about 40 degrees.
    ‘‘She likes to torture me,’’ her mother, Shirley Holmes, said with a laugh. She was wearing a hat made from a toy groundhog’s head.
    ‘‘We knew he wouldn’t see his shadow — we watched the news this morning,’’ Holmes said.
    Like Etheridge, Groundhog’s Day is also special for Roger and Marilyn Camp of Marietta, Ga., — Friday marked their 44th wedding anniversary. Twenty years ago, Roger gave his wife a necklace with a gold groundhog. They’ve also been to Pennsylvania to see Punxsutawney Phil, but their T-shirts of the ‘‘Yankee groundhog’’ have long since turned to tatters.
    ‘‘I was thrilled he stood out,’’ Marilyn Camp said of the Georgia groundhog. ‘‘Last year he hid.’’
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