MILLTOWN, NJ - Much like the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, Milltown Mel gets two weeks to prep for the biggest day of his career. Groundhog Day falls on Super Bowl Sunday this year and Milltown's furriest celebrity already has his game face on. Mel is cozy and chilling out under his heat lamp while his chief Wrangler John McNamara and the staff of Bronson & Guthlein Funeral Home cater to his every whim as the clock ticks towards February 2. For Mel, a touchdown is not seeing his shadow though ski and snow lovers may feel differently about that.
Sunday marks the 12th Annual Groundhog Day celebration in Milltown. What started out as a small gathering with the former owners of the Bronson & Guthlein Funeral Home Jerry and Cathy Guthlein at the helm, has grown in scope and size. The first few took place in the parking lot of the North Main Street funeral home. Eventually, the Groundhog Day ceremony moved a few blocks away to the American Legion Post #25 on JFK Drive to accommodate the growing number of Milltown Mel devotees who brave the usually cold temperatures and early morning time to be a part of the fun. When McNamara purchased the funeral home from the Guthlein's two years ago, he inherited Mel, his Groundhog Palace and all that comes with it. It's a role he loves.
"I think it is a great thing for the community, for the kids and for the people," McNamara said. "We all come together every February 2. We have fun."
McNamara and the staff of the funeral home are all involved with Mel's daily care. Mel resides at the funeral home year round. His spacious Groundhog Palace is in a fenced in grassy area behind the funeral home. It's where Mel hangs out all spring, summer and fall. When November rolls around, Mel is ready to hibernate. Then he moves into a slightly smaller pen in a large garage on the property. Two weeks before his big day, Mel gets woken up. A heat lamp provides that cozy spring feeling and Mel gears up for his much anticipated public appearance. Groundhog Day is the only time Mel gets to see his adoring fans.
So how does Milltown Mel feel when the heat lamp first switches on? According to McNamara, he can be a little "grumpy" when he first wakes up just like most of us when the alarm clock goes off. After all the fanfare of Groundhog Day, Mel snuggles back down for his winter snooze until March. Groundhog Day lovers can follow Milltown Mel's adventures all year long on his Facebook and Instagram pages.
As legend has it, if a groundhog sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter. If not, an early spring is on the horizon. The tradition of using an animal to predict the seasonal change from winter to spring dates back to the Ancient Christians. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania marked its first Groundhog's Day in 1887. McNamara is quick to tell Garden State residents that they do not have to travel all the way out to Punxsutawney to experience Groundhog Day at its finest. They only have to head over to Milltown. The borough's Groundhog Day festivities come complete with noisemakers, t-shirts and other Milltown Mel memorabilia. This year the Rutgers University Pep Band will be on hand to get the 7 a.m. party started.
"I was surprised at how big it is in the area and at how many people come out," McNamara said of his first Groundhog Day as Mel's main Wrangler.
Now, he's fully invested in what has definitely become a "Milltown thing" as the saying on Mel's official tees say. The funeral home provides t-shirts each year along with noisemakers, horns and other fun Mel giveaways. This year's Mel memorabilia sports a football theme in honor of Groundhog Day falling on the same day as the Super Bowl.
All of Mel's Wranglers dress in black coats and top hats. Milltown's mayor is always on hand to address the crowd and of course there is the reading of the proclamation. McNamara and his team also reach out to the Garden State's governor to come down to experience Groundhog Day Milltown style, but one has yet to make an appearance. Finally, the big moment arrives and McNamara takes Mel out to greet his adoring fans and to see if he sees his shadow.
Last February, Mel bucked his Punxsutawney counterpart and predicted six more weeks of winter. With clouds in the forecast for Sunday, folks will just have to come out to Milltown to see just what Mel has to say for the rest of the winter season.
"We are usually on the same schedule as Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck," McNamara said.
Mel's prediction is typically done by 7:20 a.m. Then everyone heads across the street and into the American Legion for coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts.
"I think that's the hard part for people," McNamara added. "It's early."