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Gwinnett's groundhog says spring is near

Annabelle Henry, 7, of Stone Mountain, at left center, Hailey Pruitt, 7, of Sugar Hill, center, and Evie Henry, 5, right, of Stone Mountain, cheer while urging General Beauregard Lee to show himself at sunrise on Groundhog Day at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn.

Annabelle Henry, 7, of Stone Mountain, at left center, Hailey Pruitt, 7, of Sugar Hill, center, and Evie Henry, 5, right, of Stone Mountain, cheer while urging General Beauregard Lee to show himself at sunrise on Groundhog Day at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn General Beauregard Lee shows himself on Groundhog Day at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn. The groundhog did not see his shadow, meaning he predicts an early spring.

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Gen. Beauregard Lee sees no shadow

Gen. Beauregard Lee, Gwinnett's resident weather groundhog, predicts an early spring by not seeing his shadow on Feb. 2, 2012.

Gen. Beauregard Lee, Gwinnett's resident weather groundhog, predicts an early spring by not seeing his shadow on Feb. 2, 2012.

Were you Spotted?

LILBURN — Like lightning, Gen. Beauregard Lee leapt out the front door of his tiny two-story Colonial mansion without fretting over his shadow.

It was good news for more than 100 onlookers who gathered Thursday morning outside the famed groundhog’s domain, awaiting the forecast for the next six weeks.

As “Georgia’s Official Weather Prognosticator,” Lee wasted no time showing the crowd the annual forecast. According to lore, if the groundhog see a shadow, there will be six weeks of winter ahead.

Since the Dec. 22 winter solstice, Atlanta’s average temperature has been above normal on 34 days, exactly normal on two days and below normal on only six days, according to the National Weather Service.

An early spring prediction is “always a crowd pleaser,” said Art Rilling, CEO of Yellow River Game Ranch, one of the most celebrated Groundhog Day events in the country.

Cricket Elliott-Leeper, a representative with the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Gen. Lee is the South’s answer to the similar tradition up north involving a Pennsylvania groundhog.

“It doesn’t matter what that daggum’ groundhog up north says,” Elliott-Leeper mused. “That other critter don’t know nothing. We got our own weather patterns here in the south anyhow. Gen. Lee is where the buck stops.”

She said that Lilburn’s local celebrity mammal “has got attitude.”

And camera shyness apparently.

As the crowd hushed its chanting and the TV cameramen dimmed their glaring lights, the critter kicked open the wooden door of its mansion at 7:35 a.m., bolting for the nearest shrub.

“You’ll have to mind Gen. Lee,” said Rilling, his voice booming through a sound system. “He’s not used to all the new landscaping we put out in front.”

Located at “Weathering Heights,” the groundhog’s mansion is complete with all the modern-day amenities of a luxurious life including a scaled-down satellite dish in the front yard.

“He’s got a good set-up,” said Angie Haynes, an onlooker. “That’s a slick-looking groundhog house.” Haynes brought her daughter, Shelly, 8, along for the early morning spectacle.

Many others brought their young ones as well, like Cindy Dodd of Dacula. She and 3-year-old Benjamin were both “very excited” as they awaited the main event.

She said Benjamin was having a lot of fun. “They gave him a sticker, a pen and a groundhog finger puppet,” Dodd said, adding that both of them were “pulling for an early spring.”

Misty Dailey, who brought Carsyn, 3, and Reagan, 6, said the family has always been a big fan of Groundhog Day. “We’ve always read about it and saw it on TV, so we thought we’d come out for once and see it here in person,” Dailey said.

Kimba Armbrust-Kohler brought children Taran, 10, and Lucy, 6. “This just gets bigger every year,” she said. “It’s a big deal.”

Claire Wilkinson came to the event accompanied by Hailey Pruitt, 7. It was their second time at the gathering. “It’s somewhat of a tradition,” Wilkerson said. “Something nice to do with the family.”

Groundhog Day attendee Sonny Guntermann knows all about tradition. “I’ve been here eight years in a row now,” said Guntermann, who donned a plush groundhog baseball cap.

Guntermann said “it’s the excitement and all the happiness” that brings him out year after year. “It’s especially amusing to see all the kids out there enjoying it. They’re having a blast.”

Rilling said that’s the idea behind the annual event.

“It’s a bigger deal than you can imagine,” Rilling said. “There’s people out there that think the world of that groundhog, and I don’t blame them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.