Famed groundhog's forecast: Spring is in

LILBURN - It took two tries to rouse Georgia's forecasting groundhog from his winter bed Thursday morning, but a crowd of onlookers didn't seem to mind the delay when the rodent's prediction called for an early spring.

General Beauregard Lee finally stumbled out of his four-pillared mansion at 7:36 a.m., his shadow nowhere to be seen.

The groundhog seemed hesitant to leave his doorway once he finally poked his head past the threshold, but took off running behind his house after a minute, hiding from a crowd of more than 200 onlookers.

"We didn't anticipate that," General Lee's owner and Yellow River Game Ranch CEO Art Rilling said. "We were sitting a little tight when he didn't come out. We'd have gone three or four times if we'd had to."

A volunteer placed a plate of sweet potatoes from Waffle House outside of General Lee's door while children with pompoms held "Go Beau!" signs and shouted for the prognosticator to wake up. TBS producer Eric Langford vigorously rang a bell at the edge of the groundhog's manicured lawn.

The station is making a show about General Lee, and Langford said he wants to know why people wake up early to return to the Groundhog Day celebration each year.

"The people are what make this event," he said. "Is it a weather event, or just a people event? People just love this groundhog. I want to figure out why."

Tammy Case, who came from Conyers to spend the early morning hours of her birthday with General Lee, said she had always gotten jokes about sharing her birthday with the holiday and finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. She said she never doubted that the groundhog would make an appearance.

"I'm hard to get out of bed, too," she said. "It was more exciting than I thought it would be. It's the fact that he only comes out today. I knew he would."

Laura Valentine, who has seen Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil five times, traveled from Rome with her two boys, Dane and Blaine, to watch his Southern equivalent.

Valentine said she has more faith in General Lee than Punxsutawney Phil. Lee reportedly has a track record of 90 percent in his predictions.

Dane, 7, said he had told everyone at school where he was going that day and that his mother would be sending pictures of General Lee back with him.

"I haven't ever seen a weather forecaster who's a groundhog," Dane said before General Lee emerged. "It looks like the governor's house. He's a weather forecaster; he should have it."

Dane was hoping General Lee would see his shadow, promising six more weeks of winter, so he could have a snowball fight. But Gaye Auman, a Stone Mountain resident, was pleased that spring was on the way. With January's mild temperatures, she questioned whether Georgians have even seen winter this year.

Her daughter, 7-year-old Grace, doesn't quite know the difference between a beaver and the furry rodent she came to see, but she did know why she was awake and outside the house of General Lee on Thursday morning.

"That beaver didn't see his shadow," Grace said. "It was pretty cool. I got to see the groundhog."