FRENCH CREEK – That famous time of year – when French Creek Freddie will signal if locals are in for a long winter or an early spring – is fast approaching.
The Groundhog Festival’s two-weekend festivities will kick off Friday, Jan. 25 at the Banks District Volunteer Fire Department in Rock Cave at 4:15 p.m. with a potluck dinner that will feature “critter stew” made by Dale Hawkins at 4:30 p.m.
Jo Ann Hawkins, one of the co-chairpersons of the festival, said the stew will incorporate animals such as bear, antelope, elk, rabbit and ground “hog” sausage.
“When it’s all in the stew, it tastes the same to me, but some people can’t get past the thought of it in their mind,” Hawkins said. “Once you get someone to try it, they always get seconds and venture back year after year to eat it again.”
The potluck will feature live music and an open mic jam session with Jerry Haymond.
Hawkins said they started making the festival two weekends long two years ago in 2017 because there were so many people that wanted to participate in activities.
“Originally it was only one weekend,” Hawkins said. “Along the way, we got so many people that wanted to do all these different activities, and we grew so much that we couldn’t possibly fit everything into one weekend.”
On Saturday, Jan. 26, there will be a social with food, a bake sale and a cake walk at 4 p.m., featuring live music from Steve Peters, The Forgiven Disciples, The Shelter and more.
Hawkins said more music was added to the festival so there would be entertainment for people while they ate and socialized.
“It’s nice to eat, listen to music and just to see the people laughing and talking,” Hawkins said. “That combination of things is my favorite thing about the festival – the fellowship that comes with the Groundhog Festival.”
The Gospel Sing will take place Sunday Jan. 27 at 2 p.m. at the Rock Cave Baptist Church. On Monday, Jan. 28, there will be a breakfast at the Banks District Volunteer Fire Department at 7 a.m. The breakfast will include biscuits and gravy, and the proceeds will be split by the Veterans Wall Memorial and Banks District Volunteer Fire Department.
Jumping ahead to Friday, Feb. 1 – the day before the emergence of the famed rodent himself – there will be a soup-and-sandwich lunch and a meet-and-greet with the southern Upshur County volunteer firefighters.
Groundhog Day is Saturday, Feb. 2, and the Lions club will have their annual pancake breakfast from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Banks District Fire Department.
The gates to the West Virginia Wildlife Center will open at 9 a.m., and the gathering to see French Creek Freddie will take place at the Amphitheatre at 10 a.m.
Co-chairperson of the Groundhog Festival and the secretary for the West Virginia Wildlife Center Judy Channell said since the center is running on their winter hours, admission is free.
“I have been with the center since 2009, and Groundhog Day has grown so much that there is no longer room on the walkway where Freddie actually lives,” Channell said. “We would get around 300 people and that meant only about 100 people could actually see, so in 2012, we moved it to the Amphitheatre and it has just been phenomenal.”
Channell said because Groundhog Day falls on a Saturday this year, she anticipates around 400 people to attend. She said the center has a few things planned for the time before Freddie emerges, including live music, handing out certificates to people who traveled the farthest, the youngest person in attendance and oldest person in attendance – to name a few.
There will be free hot chocolate and snacks, and the center will utilize the building across from the gift shop to provide space for a few more educational activities.
“We have some activity sheets like coloring sheets and stuff that the kids can take home, but we also have some Groundhog Day crafts that they can either take it home and do it or we’re going to have a couple of young ladies who are going to be there to help, and they can actually do the little Groundhog Day craft right there if they want to.”
At 10:30 a.m., the center will stage their wood chucking contest, which includes prizes in three age ranges and prizes for the winners.
“It’s just a great atmosphere,” Channell said. “It’s just something fun to do for everybody, and some people might not have gotten that up close to a groundhog before and that makes it an educational experience too.”
At 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. the ground “hog” sausage cookoff will start at the Banks District Volunteers Fire Department with judges Lew Dobbins, Terry Matthews and Ron Roth.
Feb. 3 will be the final day of the festival, beginning at noon with the Aletha Chapter 82 serving food at the Banks District Volunteer Fire Department. From noon until 4 p.m. there will arts and crafts and live music featuring The Shelter, Praying for Change and Soldiers of the Cross.
For the first time, there will also be a Groundhog Festival Summer Community Celebration that will take place July 13 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to help raise money for the next Groundhog Festival. Expect a groundhog hole tournament, horseshoe tournament, 3k run/walk, a car show, 50/50 raffle and prize punch. Activities for children include mini-golf, bowling and much, much more.