Early spring, Woodstock Willie says

It only seems fitting that a year after a blizzard prevented Woodstock Willie from making his annual weather prognostication, the furry one predicted Thursday that spring will come early this year.

Country singer Bryan White read the official prognostication at 7:07 a.m. in the Woodstock Square before a cheering crowd of about 500 people, the largest gathering in the celebration's 20-year history, according to organizers. The groundhog did not see his shadow, hence the good news.

Before the announcement, White led the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Tree Stub” to the tune of the famed baseball game song. White is from Nashville but was made an honorary Woodstock resident in late December.

People from as far as Batavia, Rockford and even Oregon attended the event.

“This is very good, we definitely want an early spring,” said Woodstock resident Debbie Leeser, who lives a couple of blocks away and attends the celebration every year.

Like many Woodstock residents, Leeser and her husband, Dennis, feel a strong connection to the movie “Groundhog Day,” which starred Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell and was filmed in the quaint McHenry County town in 1992.

“We've watched it probably seven or eight times,” Dennis Leeser said, adding that in the morning he wakes up his wife to the tune of Sonny & Cher's “I Got You Babe,” the same song that woke Bill Murray's character day after day after day after, well you get the picture.

The best part about Groundhog Day is getting to see Woodstock Willie up close, said Jonathon Ortega, of Huntley, who celebrated his 12th birthday Thursday. He and his family make it a tradition to attend the event every year, his mother Monica Ortega said. “I like the music, too,” Jonathon added as a polka band played.

First-timer Paula Welter, of Sugar Grove, came with daughters Kailey, 6, and Rosalie, 16 months. “Kailey really wanted to do this, so here we are,” Welter said. “It seemed like a nice thing to do with them.”

The annual event is meant to spread humor and good cheer, said organizing committee co-chairman Craig Krandel. “This is significant to the town because when there is not much going on, it's a way to attract people. There is plenty of serious stuff going on in the world, and this is something not so serious.”

Celebrations will continue Friday with a Groundhog Day dinner and dance at 6 p.m. at the Woodstock Moose Lodge, and Saturday with several events, including a chili cook-off at noon at the Woodstock Opera House.

For details, visit or call (815) 334-2620.

  Woodstock Willie makes his appearance at the annual Groundhog Day extravaganza in Woodstock Thursday. This incarnation if Willie is just shy of a year old. Laura Stoecker/
  Animal handler Mark Szafarn of Chicago holds Woodstock Willie for the crowd to photograph at the annual Groundhog Day extravaganza Thursday morning in Woodstock. Laura Stoecker/
  The annual Groundhog Day extravaganza drew a crowd of about 500 to the Woodstock Square. Organizers said it was the biggest crowd ever. Laura Stoecker/
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