On Thursday morning shortly after 8:10 a.m., Balzac's most famous celebrity will emerge from his burrow at the Blue Grass Nursery, Sod and Garden Centre, to let eagerly awaiting attendees know if they're in for an early or late spring.
The 'Prairie Prognosticator' will have his moment in the sun – or shade – during his annual appearance this Groundhog Day, Feb. 2.
If the furry forecaster dons his shades, it means he saw his shadow, meaning a longer wait for winter to end is in store. But if Billy doesn't see his shadow, it means locals can expect an early spring.
The annual Groundhog Day event, put on by the Balzac Business Community Association and hosted at the local gardening centre, has become a time-honoured tradition in the rural hamlet, according to Steve Neubauer, a member of the association's Groundhog Day organizing committee since 2004.
“This is our 20th annual breakfast, and here at Blue Grass, we’ve been hosting it since 2011, so 13 years here," he said. "Prior to here, it was held at the Balzac Community Hall, but we outgrew that facility and there were safety concerns, with cars parking over the railway tracks and stuff. So since then, it’s been held here at Blue Grass.”
Neubauer said the continued allure of Groundhog Day is the yearning for spring people tend to develop at this time of year, in the middle of what's usually a cold and dark winter.
"It's about 40 days after Christmas and that’s how the whole thing developed," he said. "People are looking forward to spring."
While Billy is celebrating his 20th birthday this year, Neubauer noted that Groundhog Day observances were actually recorded in Balzac as early as 1978, meaning the hamlet's Feb. 2 traditions date back at least 45 years.
Not only is Balzac Billy's big moment celebrated locally, but it's even become Calgary's biggest Groundhog Day event of the year. TV news crews from the city often broadcast the event live, as do many Calgary-and-area radio stations.
When COVID-related restrictions meant the public was not allowed to attend the Feb. 2 event in 2021, the event's livestream was viewed by over 10,000 people.
“We seem to get the crowds every year, other than with COVID of course, which threw a wrench in it the last two years,” Neubauer said. “But we still made it and we’re looking forward to hearing Billy’s prediction this year.”
Though relying on a groundhog's prediction may not be the most scientific way to predict the arrival of spring, Neubauer noted Billy's accuracy has historically been higher than other well-known groundhogs.
“There have been studies done – people have taken the time to look at the main ones, like Punxutawney Phil, Shubenacadie Sam, and Wiarton Willie, and back when that was done, Balzac Billy came out with the highest percentage," he said.
“At that point, he was 83.7 per cent accurate.
Neubauer said early risers are invited to show up bright and early to this Thursday's event, which gets underway with a Stampede-style pancake breakfast at 7 a.m.
In addition to the flapjacks, he said local country band Jeske will also be back to provide live entertainment. They’re the ideal choice, as they play a song called
The Balzac Boogie," which was written in the 1970s about the hamlet.
“All the locals who attend, they look forward to hearing that again,” Neubauer said, adding Airdrie Rodeo Royalty and Miss Rodeo Canada will also be in attendance.
While Billy's last few predictions proved incorrect, Neubauer said Blue Grass staff are crossing their fingers this year for a correct prognostication from the local celebrity.
“An early spring is what we’re hoping for," he said. "We’ve had two negative [predictions] back to back, and we’re blaming that on COVID.”