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Furry forecaster waking early to look for shadow

LILBURN - General Beauregard Lee, the South's famed winter prognosticator, has such a large girth that he can barely fit through the new, wider door of his "Gone With The Wind" replica home.

For much of the winter the groundhog forecaster stays indoors, but on this day each year he emerges from his 10-by-6-foot mansion to look for his shadow and foretell the weather for the coming six weeks.

But even with all the talk about the groundhog's 90 percent prediction success rate, Yellow River Game Ranch CEO Art Rilling said General Lee is still modest about his fame.

"He hasn't got a swelled head," Rilling said. "He has a swelled stomach, but his head is still small."

For 26 years, General Lee has looked for his shadow in the early morning hours of Feb. 2. Tradition has it that if a groundhog sees his shadow on the holiday, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he does not, spring will come early that year.

Gerald Birdow, a weather service specialist with the National Weather Service, said forecasts this morning call for rain before 6 a.m.

If General Lee does see his shadow, he said, it will be a "vague" sighting because of clouds and the wet weather. Even with Atlanta's mild winters, Rilling said General Lee's predictions are important to the area. Last year, he said, the groundhog predicted an early spring. There were only six days with below-freezing temperatures in the six-week window, and one with temperatures in the 80s.

The General Lee tradition started in Georgia when Yellow River Game Ranch employees went by the groundhog's living quarters early one Feb. 2 only to see him wandering around outside.

"He was out," Rilling said. "We thought, maybe there's something to this."

The next year, no one arrived at the game ranch early enough to see if General Lee had emerged. Since then, the hoopla surrounding the animal has grown to make sure that someone is there to see his holiday prediction.

General Lee, who holds honorary doctorates in weather prognostication and Southern groundology and has been honored by the National Weather Service and five Georgia governors, is wakened by a bell ringer, the cheers of an eager crowd and a steaming plate of hot food that is placed in front of his door.

He is the nephew of the original General Lee, who served as the state prognosticator for 10 years before retiring.

While the groundhog - whose name originated when the game ranch was in Stone Mountain, where a Confederate memorial is carved into the side of a mountain - has been putting on weight, Rilling said he isn't showing any signs of age.

Employees are always nervous that General Lee will choose not to come out one Groundhog Day, but Rilling said as his predictions hold true, the furry weatherman is getting more and more consistent attention.

"It carries on past the day, if he gets credit or blame," Rilling said. "Above that, he's like all weather forecasters. They don't like to admit they're wrong."