Goodbye, Bill. Hello, Billie.
Unadilla, the groundhog capital of the Nebraska, welcomed a new mascot this year — Unadilla Billie — during its annual Groundhog Day celebration.
It seems Unadilla Bill, a stuffed groundhog who has been the mascot for over 34 years, was getting a little worse for wear.
“Last year was Bill’s last forecast,” said Bob Brandt, CEO of Countryside Bank in Unadilla and one of the founders of the Unadilla Groundhog Day celebration. “And, you know, nobody likes a winter. He’s forecasted for a long time. And every time he makes a mistake, people get on him. And he was getting a little weathered and torn and probably needed counseling.”
Every year, Unadilla held a ceremony on Groundhog Day with Unadilla Bill to see if there will be more winter. The celebration culminates with a Saturday Groundhog Day parade on Main Street in the Otoe County town about 35 miles southeast of Lincoln.
Unadilla Billie made her debut by not seeing her shadow, which, according to lore and tradition, means an early spring.
Unadilla had been informally celebrating Groundhog Days with a king and queen contest for years, but in 1989 it became official, Brandt said. That’s when Lt. Gov. William Nichol signed a proclamation stating that Unadilla was Nebraska’s groundhog capital, according to History Nebraska.
The town then named the mascot after Nichol.
The highlight of the annual celebration is the parade, which this year drew more than 50 entries, including Gov. Pete Ricketts and gubernatorial candidate Brett Lindstrom. And, of course, it featured the official Groundhog Day automobile — a Ford Falcon that was introduced on Groundhog’s Day in 1959 by Popular Mechanics magazine.
In addition to the good news about an early spring, the crowd had something else to celebrate: the opening of Mal’s Bar. The town had been without a bar for four months, Brandt noted.
Susan Cao, a senior University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology major, had heard about the celebration from friends and decided to check it out.
“People were very friendly,” she said. “A lot of people were talking to each other, laughing, making conversation, and pointing out some candy kids might have missed so they could grab it.”
Another important aspect of the celebration is the money it brings to the community. Brandt said. The town normally raises around $15,000 through the event’s king and queen competition, he said. Donation jars are placed at the town’s businesses, and whoever receives the most donations is crowned king and queen.
Over the past 10 years, Unadilla has raised $300,000 to help make improvements at its park, arboretum and community center, Brandt said.
But the celebration has another benefit, Brandt said.
“It’s kind of the way we can showcase our community, and hopefully, I think, take more pride in it.”