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Transcript for Groundhog Lodges

Episode published: Friday 02/02/2024

Michael: Hi everyone, and welcome to the final main episode of Season 1 of Every Day is Groundhog Day (Except for the Days When It’s Not), the one and only podcast devoted to the holiday Groundhog Day. I’m your host Michael, and if you’re listening to this on the day it gets released, it is finally Groundhog Day. I hope you’re all excited, I know I am. When this podcast drops, I’m probably on my way to one Groundhog Day celebration or another but as of recording time, I haven’t figured out where. You can be sure, however, that I’ll be posting updates on CountdownToGroundhogDay.com and social media about where I end up going. One other thing I wanted to mention is that I recently spoke to Stephanie Farr from The Philadelphia Inquirer about Groundhog Day and many of the different forecasters who provide predictions during the Groundhog Day season. It was real fun talking to her and the article is out now. I’ll provide a link in the show notes.

Now, onto today’s episode. For your Groundhog Day listening pleasure on today’s podcast, we have an interview with Dr. William Donner who is an expert on Groundhog Lodges and wrote a book about them that was released a few years back called Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German HeritageI talked a little bit about Groundhog Lodges in the first episode of this show. Groundhog Lodges have been around since the mid-1930s and are one of the ways that Pennsylvania Germans have attempted to keep their language and traditions alive. For most of their history, the Groundhog Lodge meetings were strictly in Pennsylvania German with anyone who spoke in English being forced to pay a fine. At some Lodges in recent years, that has been changing and some portions of the program are now in English. They also have traditionally been men only but as we’ll discuss in the interview, that’s maybe beginning to change as well. So, without further ado, here’s the interview with Dr. Donner. Enjoy!

Michael: Today, I’m here with Dr. William Donner, Freyberger Professor of Pennsylvania German Studies at Kutztown University. Dr. Donner wrote the book Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage. Welcome Dr. Donner, thanks for speaking with me today.

Dr. William Donner:  Thanks for inviting me.

Michael: So, I just read the book and I found it very insightful because Groundhog Lodges are a part of Groundhog Day that I was aware of, but I wasn’t entirely sure how they fit into everything. There doesn’t seem to be all that much information about them online. So, the book really helped fill in some gaps in my knowledge and I just saw that you’ve also established a website where you’ve collected videos and articles, so that’ll probably help me as well. Is that something that you’ve been maintaining for a while? Did you start that around the time that you wrote the book?

Dr. William Donner:  That website actually came with a sabbatical, they give us professors every once in a while, a year off or so. So, I had recordings that other people had done, and I also had some recordings that I had done, on a variety of different topics but I do have some recordings of the actual Groundhog Lodge meetings. There’s a technical difference here, every Groundhog Lodge meeting is actually a versammlinge, which is the Pennsylvania Dutch word for gathering or coming together. But if you’re talking to a Dutchman and he uses the word versammlingeoftentimes he talks about events where men and women come together, at Groundhog Lodges it’s only men. They don’t really celebrate the Groundhog Lodge, but they do speak in Pennsylvania Dutch. The organization of the meeting is pretty similar to the Groundhog Lodge meeting, everything is in Pennsylvania Dutch, there are usually skits, some songs, good food, and also some kind of special speech.

So, I have some recordings of the versammlingethe Groundhog Lodges, and then I have a lot of other materials too on that website that I have been collecting since I would say about 2010 and then I put them up, it was 2020 that I got the sabbatical. There are some events that are kind of cool from the Kutztown Folk Festival and then I have some recordings in both English and Dutch of a very popular speaker at the versammlingeand that’s Clarence Rahn and people might be interested in his talks both in Pennsylvania Dutch and if you don’t know Pennsylvania Dutch, I think I have about 30 or 40 of his talks that were in English. So, I’m proud of the website, I think it’s a good reservoir source of information about Pennsylvania German, it’s not just the Groundhog Lodges and versammlingesbut other aspects of their culture and expression of their culture as well.

Michael: Yeah, it sounds like a really good resource. I haven’t had a chance to look at it too much, but I definitely plan on spending some time looking through it. I haven’t had an opportunity to go to a Groundhog Lodge so far. So, the Groundhog Lodges, are they primarily held on Groundhog Day only or around that time? Or are they held throughout the year?

Dr. William Donner:  Well, the Groundhog Lodge meetings are generally in the spring. Now, the first Pennsylvania Dutch Groundhog Lodge that was formed, as you probably know, there were actually earlier Groundhog Lodges at Punxsutawney and in Leicester, those are English ones. This is a Groundhog Lodge that’s only in Pennsylvania Dutch and the first meeting was on February 2, 1934, in a town called Northampton which is about 15 or 20 miles north of Allentown. It was men only and there was a lot of celebration of the alleged ability of a groundhog to be able to foretell whether spring was going to be soon or whether it was going to be a while. It really took off, the Pennsylvania Germans really loved it. But that particular Lodge always meets on February 2nd. What happened was a lot of other people said, “Hey, this is cool. Let’s do it.” So, you had other Lodges forming throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.

Eventually, it got up to, it was over 18 but there were 18 that were officially recognized. One of the more interesting ones was down at Temple University in Philadelphia. What had happened was you had a lot of people from the Berks County, I don’t know if your audience knows this– Berks County, Lehigh County tends to be the center of these kinds of activities, not only Groundhog Lodges but other Pennsylvania German activities. There were professors down at Temple University, they heard about this thing going on and it moved to Allentown, and they thought it was really cool, so they started down there at Temple. Eventually, you had 18 Lodges and actually, there was one I’m not even counting, I think it was down at Delaware State – again, people from this area going to teach at Delaware State and thought it would be really cool to have a meeting where they only spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Anyway, those other Lodges would pick different days, usually sometime in the spring, sometimes in January maybe, sometimes maybe later in February. February 2nd always belonged to that first Lodge that was formed in... it was set up in Allentown, the first meeting was in Northampton, then it went back to Allentown.

Then I think it was about, I'd have to look in my book, but ’36 or ’37, some people were going to the Groundhog Lodges, Groundhog Lodges are for men only, they’re really kind of spin-offs of Masonic lodges, the kind of male-centered brotherhoods that were very popular in this area, I’d say from about 1880 to 1890 until maybe after World War II. You had men belonging to Odd Fellows and Eagles and all sorts of lodges. Anyway, someone came from a Groundhog Lodge meeting and said, “We really should have women.” And so, I think it was about 1936 or so, Berks had its first Versammlinge which included both men and women. There wasn’t all the ritual about the groundhog, but it was in Pennsylvania Dutch, it had a similar form; songs, some food, jokes, and then usually a skit that’s humorous, and then oftentimes a speaker who has a message usually about the contributions of Pennsylvania Germans, the good values of Pennsylvania Germans but phrased within a humorous context.

So, the Versammlingetook off and actually, I think eventually, there were a lot of them, 60 or 70, it was a really popular thing to do in this area. You had a generation of people whose children weren’t speaking Pennsylvania Dutch much, but they’d been brought up on farms where Pennsylvania Dutch was oftentimes their first language, they felt a lot of allegiance to it. So, there was a lot of enthusiasm for it.

Now, I’ll be honest with you, I did most of my research for that book probably about 15, 20 years ago. There aren’t many Pennsylvania Dutch speakers any longer so you’re finding fewer and fewer people coming to these meetings, the meetings are starting to use more English, and the Groundhog Lodges which were pretty strict about no women actually, Lodge Number 1, which I’m on the board of has just this year decided to allow women to come and I suspect they’re going to use more English, a couple of Lodges are using a lot of English so you’re seeing that change going on. Anyway, the Versammlinge technically were men and women together, not about the groundhog, and the Grundsow Lodges were then focused on some ritual, usually humorous about the groundhog’s ability to predict the future and those were, until very recently, men only.

As I said, everything was in Dutch, you were fined if you spoke any English, it would be, I don’t know back in the 1930s, a nickel was a lot, it would be a nickel, then it went up and up and up. I have to say, by the time I was going to the meetings in the early 2000s there were people speaking Pennsylvania Dutch but there were a lot of people in the audience who spoke English. Oftentimes what somebody would do is just put $5 or $10 in a pot and then speak English. But the ceremonies that people who were actually running a festival, the skits, talks, there’s a ferbinnerei where you put up your paw and swear allegiance to the groundhog, those were all in Pennsylvania Dutch.

Michael: You covered a lot of things I was going to ask about, actually. I was going, I noticed that your book came out in 2016, and toward the end, you were mentioning what the future of these Lodges and the Versammlinge were and you said, there are a few different possibilities. One was they continue as is, some might continue as is where they only speak Deitsch and some would be a mixture of English and Deitsch, some might switch to English, and some might disband entirely. I think at the time that you had written the book, only one of them had disbanded. Now, I think, looking at I know there’s an official Groundhog Lodge website, which seems to list all the meetings and different groups, and it looks like a number more have disbanded since that point. Do you know how many are active right now?

Dr. William Donner:  Sorry, I don’t. My guess would be, they’re trying to hang on, so my guess is, I think there are still about ten or twelve. The first one to disband was actually the one down at Temple University in Philadelphia and that probably disbanded sometime in the mid-‘70s. Those professors who came from this area, they had all retired and maybe passed away and you just didn’t have any Deitsch speakers in north Philadelphia. But since then, yeah, there have been some closings and a fair number using English. Now, when I wrote that book, I think it might have been Temple was the only one that had folded and people were still hanging onto Deitsch as the main language, but since then, a couple of the Lodges have started using a lot more English and there’s talk that if you want it to keep on going, you’re going to have to use English.

Same thing with the Versammlinges, the men and women groups. The most active one is the Berks County one. I think when I wrote that book, at least when I was doing research when I wrote that book, I think probably 500 or 600 people came out to it. It was in Leesport, which is in central Berks County. I think last I heard, they’re down to 350 and I know a lot of the Versammlinges, the groups with men and women, a lot of them have folded.

I just want your audience to know one thing. It’s really confusing who the Pennsylvania Germans actually are. The Pennsylvania Germans and the Pennsylvania Dutch are actually the same people. Believe it or not, they fight about which is the better term. The people we’re talking about, if you talk to tourists, if this podcast goes outside of the close region here, people think of the Pennsylvania Dutch or the Pennsylvania Germans as Old Order Amish, but these are not Old Order Amish. The overwhelming majority of people who are Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch were Lutheran and German Reformed which is now the United Church of Christ. They’re liberal, they would fight in wars, they would use machinery, they would adopt new technology. They did not stand out. But they kept that Dutch language and that’s what’s unusual as an ethnic group. They came here mainly, probably some people in 1683 is the first thing, but they started coming maybe 1710, 1720 and big migrations of that group would have been over by about 1800. But they kept that language right up until the middle of the 20th century. If you came to Kutztown University, back then It was Keystone Normal School, you came there in the ‘30s or ‘40s, you would have heard Dutch everywhere in this area. I still meet people who learned English in school, born in the 1920s or ‘30s, they knew only Dutch. Today, that’s not the case in this area. The grandchildren of the people that founded the Lodges, a few of them are speaking Dutch, Deitsch I should say, but also, all of them are speaking English.

So that was a long-term change, but these people are always, if you want, sometimes they’re called “Fancy Dutch,” some people don’t like that, or “Fancy Pennsylvania Germans,” sometimes they are called the “Gay Dutch” or “Gay Pennsylvania Germans.” Church people is probably the preferred term because that refers to the fact that they were part of the Lutheran Church and German Reformed Church and they made up actually about 95% of the Deitsch speakers say, 1900, maybe even until 1930, 1940. But they stopped speaking it and the Old Order Amish do keep it. So, we have some Old Order Mennonites in this area who also go around in horse and buggies, and they do keep the Pennsylvania Dutch language.

Michael: Okay, and that’s also part of why originally, or for most of their history, the Versammlinge and the Groundhog Lodges had that rule, right? About only speaking Deitsch, kind of a way to preserve that heritage and continue that tradition.

Dr. William Donner:  Yeah, I think I talk about this in the book. It struck me that a lot of the people that founded it were brought up on farms in the late 1800s and I think it became kind of nostalgic, remembering their parents and their grandparents. They would have lived in an environment where they spoke English, English was largely being spoken all around them, and they would have spoken Dutch at churches and when they got together with their friends and family, but their children were going to be the first generation that probably were not going to be speaking Pennsylvania Dutch much and Deitsch, they were going to be speaking English. And I think they saw it as an opportunity to come together and connect with what they saw as their roots and the language which was very important to them.

Michael: Could you maybe give a little bit of your background and how you became interested in all of this? I know you touch on it in the book but when did you first start going to these meetings, attending them regularly?

Dr. William Donner:  When I started– Well, we can go back and I do have some Pennsylvania German heritage but growing up in the 1950s in the suburbs of Philadelphia, it was not cool to be German because there had been a war against them. And I didn’t know, Pennsylvania Dutch and Pennsylvania Germans are really different from other German Americans, they don’t always get along with the other German Americans. To me, I didn’t know and thought my mother talked about her mother's ancestors, I thought she was talking about Amish or something, Old Order Amish. I had no idea who these people were.

I started teaching at Kutztown University in 1988 and I was in a Pennsylvania German area and one of the things that professors do, if you want to find out about a group of people, you decide to go and teach a course about them, so I started learning more about who the Pennsylvania Germans really were. My mother was really into it, but I, to be honest, was not. And we had just started a Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center here. Because we really are in the heart of Pennsylvania German land, one of the things I learned is that Kutztown University was actually founded by Pennsylvania Germans, and in the old normal school system, about every three counties, you had a state teacher’s college to try and train teachers. The one in Kutztown was really for Pennsylvania Germans, it was pork barrel politics of the 1860s and 1870s, state legislature wanted to get Pennsylvania Germans behind the educational system, and they said, "Okay, we’ll give them their normal school and they can train their teachers to go out into their area.” So, our university had roots in the Pennsylvania German region and there were some endowments, some grants that were received. One of them was this Freyberger professorship that I have.

There was an old farmhouse in the area, and it had been used by Pennsylvania German families and the university took it over. So, we formed a Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Centre. We had a very good director, a guy named David Valuska, he was a historian, and he was the first director, and I was interested in Pennsylvania Germans, so I came and talked to him. He had very good contacts and he sent me to my first Groundhog Lodge meeting, it was, I think about 2001 or 2002, somewhere in there. I was absolutely enthralled. I’d always thought of Pennsylvania Germans as stodgy, serious, and here were people laughing and joking and having fun and doing all sorts of things. So, I thought it was really interesting.

It turned out, the Lodge members were concerned, they realized there were fewer and fewer people who spoke the language. When I started, there were probably 600-700 people at the Lodge meeting I went to. Now, last year we were under 100 in that lodge. Anyway, when I started there were a lot of people, they wanted to do a history, they wanted to somehow record what they had accomplished. So, you know, I’m the pointy-headed academic and thought, "Oh this is a great opportunity to learn about them,” so I said “Okay, I’d be interested in talking to you, recording your stories and writing a history,” and that was just sheer serendipity, luck. That’s how it started in the early 2000s. And yeah, it took a while for that book to come out, it took a couple of sabbaticals. There was one I think in 2004 and another one in 2012 and then it takes a while to get a book published. You have to go through all sorts of... You have to revise it and revise it and then you send it off to the publishers, so that came out in 2016.

Michael: So, what’s your understanding of Pennsylvania Dutch or Deitsch, do you have a good understanding?

Dr. William Donner:  I’m not a good speaker. I do understand some, I can read some, I can joke around a little bit, but I would not say that I’m fluent. In writing that book I really relied on the Dutch speakers themselves. Some of the things they wrote, and I could translate and make sure I got the translation right, but I was largely and still largely relying on Dutch speakers.

Michael: So, that was something I was curious about. If I did go to a Groundhog Lodge meeting, would I be able to understand? Would I be able to pick up on it without the knowledge? I know you said some of them are moving more toward English now but is it understandable enough even without understanding of the language? Could you pick up on it just from what they’re doing? I know you said there are skits and speeches or texts.

Dr. William Donner:  I think it would depend upon, at this point, which Lodge you went to. One of the things that helped me was because I was talking to people, I got an understanding of the overall structure, and oftentimes, I was involved in the board, so I knew what the skit was about, I knew the speakers and was able to work with them. I’ll tell you this story, I had two sons. One went and was absolutely bored out of his skull to one of the meetings. He was sitting next to two Dutch speakers and oftentimes, if people speak Dutch, they want us to keep speaking Dutch because it’s so hard to find the other Dutch speakers. The other one went and said he had a great time. So, I can't predict. If you’re really interested in going, I can try and find one I know or two that are using a lot of English, but I do know, there is a sense that people who do not speak Dutch, Deitsch are going to have some trouble. But it is a very visual event. They bring in a groundhog and there’s this ferbinnerei where everyone is standing up and there are skits. So, I think you won't be totally lost in it, but it really depends upon which lodge you’re going to. Do you have any familiarity with German? Standard High German?

Michael: I do not. I took Spanish in high school and that’s the extent of my other language knowledge.

Dr. William Donner:  Where do you live?

Michael: I live in New Jersey so I’m not too far from most of these places and as we were talking about a little while ago before we started recording, I did go to see Uni the Groundhog and that whole ceremony is pretty much in Pennsylvania Dutch so you can kind of get an idea of what’s going on but...

Dr. William Donner:  That would probably be– I think they do the Pledge of Allegiance in Pennsylvania Dutch, and they’ll do some standard, you know, they’ll sing “My Country Tis of Thee” in Pennsylvania Dutch so there will be some relationships.

Michael: Does every Groundhog Lodge have a weather-predicting portion? Is that something that happens at the actual meeting or is that a separate event? I know the one, Uni, that’s a separate thing that happens on Groundhog Day, early in the morning, and I know in your book you also mentioned I think it was Groundhog Lodge 16 seems to have a very similar event where they also put the groundhog...

Dr. William Donner:  I think that is Groundhog Lodge 16 that you were... Or maybe, unless you were at the Union Canal, they do something too, that’s a little further west in Lebanon County. But yeah, 16 has, carries, I can't think of it, it’s a creek, I’ll think of it.

Michael: I think you said it was Jordan Creek and the one I went to was a different one, it was...

Dr. William Donner:  That was probably the Lebanon... Yeah, okay. Yeah, usually the weather prediction is made at the actual meeting. What they do is either pretend or, you know, when I was there, by the time, I think fairly recently, once we got the telephone, which would have been pretty early in the ‘30s, somebody would supposedly be calling in the weather report and would be saying, “This is what the groundhog is doing.” But it was all made up. I shouldn’t say that but yeah, it was mostly made up. So usually, there’s some event at the Groundhog Lodge meeting itself, when somebody calls in and talks about what the groundhog is doing and claims that he’s about to make the prediction of how much longer winter is going to last. But the Lodges I know about, the prediction is actually made at the Lodge itself. Sometimes you have somebody calling in on a telephone, they’re probably just in the back room on a speaker but supposedly they’re calling in on the telephone and telling you what the groundhog’s actions are.

There’s some rivalry on this. They think the Punxsutawney person is a phony and a fake and they say theirs is the real groundhog and you can only get a real prediction if it’s in Pennsylvania Dutch, Deitsch, and the English-speaking groundhogs never get it right.

Michael: Yeah, I know that from the Punxsutawney end, they always say that anybody else is a pretender so that does seem to be kind of a tradition maybe amongst all the different groundhogs. And what you were saying about it being all fake or pretend, I’ve been trying to figure out at what point Punxsutawney even started having a real groundhog because I’m imagining that early on it was probably a similar situation where there might not have actually been a groundhog. I know they claim it’s the same groundhog, 137 years or whatever, but I’ve been trying to figure it out, I wonder when they started actually doing their tradition like how it is right now.

Dr. William Donner:  Well, I talk about this in the book but the idea that a hibernating animal actually came from Europe, I think they had bears and badgers, so you’d look on February 2nd to see if they saw their shadow or not to be able to predict the future. That was brought over here, and it was pretty clear in the late-17 early-1800s, you do get newspaper accounts. When Punxsutawney started, I don’t know and when they started bringing in the groundhog, I think they keep her in a library in Punxsutawney or something?

Michael: Yeah.

Dr. William Donner:  They’ve developed... and you know, that would be somebody else’s book I guess, it developed into a huge media event, that movie about them, and even that word “Groundhog Day” has become a meme in our culture for people who are trapped in a circular event and keep doing the same thing after the movie. So, they really have a big media blitz going there. How that evolved, I don’t know. There’s a book by really the leading scholar of Pennsylvania German studies during his lifetime, Don Yoder, and it’s called The Groundhog and Groundhog Day or something like that?

Michael: I think it’s just called Groundhog Day. I did read that one a few years ago and I know his name comes up a lot and you mentioned it a few times in your book. Is he someone that you met or had any...?

Dr. William Donner:  Oh yeah. Yoder was a really top scholar of Pennsylvania German studies. People who know Pennsylvania German studies recognize him. I don’t remember in the book what he says but if anybody had anything to say about Punxsutawney Phil, Don’s book would probably have something. But I don’t know that there’s really been a comprehensive study about Punxsutawney Phil, that could be another PhD dissertation for another student.

Michael: It’s something someone had mentioned it to me, I just always assumed there was an actual live groundhog, and then someone had said they didn’t actually start until maybe the ‘60s or ‘70s. I’ve gone through old newspapers, and they mention it but there’s not necessarily pictures or anything like that. Got me wondering if it was a similar kind of myth thing, “Oh yeah, we saw the groundhog,” and you know, eventually it came to include a live groundhog and this huge ceremony.

Dr. William Donner:  Interview the, I don’t know what they call them, the Lodge keeper, they have some fancy same for them, but do a podcast with some of the people from Punxsutawney and see what they say.

Michael: That’s a good idea. I wonder how much they have to stick to their official lore at this point. So, I was curious, how many Lodges would you say you have attended?

Dr. William Donner:  How many meetings or how many different Lodges?

Michael: So, different Lodges, and meetings. You said you’re normally at Number 1, right, that’s in Allentown?

Dr. William Donner:  I was in Allentown, I’ve been moving all around actually, they were in a little town called Germansville and where are they going to be this year? They’re not going to be in Allentown, they’re going to be nearby. Northampton, when I first started going, they were actually in this town, Northampton, which is where they had their very first meeting, so they’ve been moving around. I would say, I’ve probably been to four or five different Lodge meetings and probably been to, I don’t know, 20 or 30 actual Groundhog Lodge meetings. Most of my data comes from talking to the people who organized the Lodge meetings, ran the Lodge meetings, being on the board of the biggest Lodge, and then talking to speakers and the people who wrote the skits and plays. So, a lot of my information comes from being there, but I would say the bulk of my information actually came from interviewing different people. In my book, I think maybe I reported 20 or 30 people.

Michael: Do any of them have permanent... when I hear the word “lodge,” I guess I think more of a structure, but I guess it refers more to the organization, right? Do any of them have permanent homes or is it something that pretty much moves around, depends on where they can... different halls, things like that?

Dr. William Donner:  Yeah, at least one up in Schuylkill County, actually like the Punxsutawney, they did have a library or something and actually tried to keep a groundhog. So, there may be a couple of cases like that. But ordinarily, the word “lodge” just refers to a group of people who come together. Oftentimes, the ones I know, they come together in somebody’s house to prepare the meetings, actually it’s a lot of work organizing the meetings, they’ll just meet in somebody’s house or maybe a restaurant and usually, they’ll meet in a fire hall or a club or some other place. As far as I know, I’m pretty sure, none of them actually have a permanent place. That word “lodge” really just refers to a group of people who come together.

One of the problems, I don’t know if your listeners know about this but since COVID, and maybe even a little bit before, it is getting harder and harder to find places where you can actually have a dinner. It used to be fire companies did this kind of thing, sometimes, I think they were going to one of the Masonic halls, there would be different organizations, church groups sometimes. But it’s getting harder and harder to find people who really want to cater a dinner and it’s getting more and more expensive, so this is becoming more and more difficult. Most of the Lodges I know about, I think all of them actually, I know something about all of them, they’ve moved around. Usually, they are in one place for five or ten years and then who knows, something happens, and they move to another place, another location, another fire hall, or another facility.

Number 1, the problem is the first Groundhog Lodge, it was in Northampton and then it moved to Allentown for a number of years and then back to Northampton but really, the other Lodges tended to be associated with places. Number 1 was a big old lodge that was kind of sponsoring everybody. That’s one of their challenges, they don’t really locate, they’re not really oriented to a specific location. So, in the last 20 years, since I’ve been involved, they moved around a lot. When I started it was in Northampton, as I said, then it was Germansville, and what’s this town up by where [inaudible] in Schwenksville, and some other places as well. They’ve actually moved around an awful lot.

Michael: So, is Lodge Number 1, is that also the Grandfather Lodge, or is that a separate thing?

Dr. William Donner:  That’s separate. What happened now, this would have been probably the 19– I talk about it in the book, you can get the date there, I think 1970s or so. You’ve got leaders going, Lodges were still going strong then, what you have to do to figure out how strong they are is go back 60 years and look at were people born in that age group likely to have been speaking Dutch. A lot of the lodges were set up in the ‘50s and ’60s and that reflected just the older people who were speaking, turning 50 and 60, and wanting to find a Lodge where they could speak the language that they remember, maybe their first language speaking growing up. The Groossdaadi Lodge was formed I think about 197– late ‘70s, 1980. What they wanted to do was coordinate all the Lodges because they had all these Lodges going on and they felt there should be some effort to bring them all together, give each other the dates when they were going to have their meetings, oftentimes people go to three, four, or five different Lodges to hear about the different things going on.

And so, Groossdaadi, grandfather or big lodge, that was formed to have the leader of each one of the – at that time there were 17 Lodges, the one in Temple had folded – each one of the Lodges come together and talk about their mutual interests, their mutual concerns and also, the dates when they would hold their meetings because you didn’t want two Lodges to hold their meetings on the same day because people would want to go between these different Lodges. They also did things for Pennsylvania German culture. There’s a Pennsylvania German flag and that was really inspired by the Groossdaadi Lodge coming together and saying, "Okay, other ethnic groups have a flag, we need a Pennsylvania Dutch flag.” They started sponsoring language classes, so people could learn a little bit of Pennsylvania Dutch, get a chance to speak it, and maybe the grandchildren of the Lodge members could learn a little bit. So, it was the main organization that kind of formed things.

They actually, at the Folk Festival, I started at the Folk Festival in what was it, 1996 or so? They were really the main group that represented Pennsylvania German activities at the Folk Festival. They were the people we’d go to and say, “We want to have a Dutch speaker, we want to have this kind of event, that kind of event.” So, they were kind of the main, at least to me, one of the main organizations perpetuating Pennsylvania German interests, Pennsylvania German language, and Pennsylvania German culture. They were overseeing Groundhog Lodges, but they were doing other things as well.

The last meeting I was at, I didn’t count how many Groossdaadi Lodges I’d been to, I was at a meeting I think it was in September, the last one they had, and a big issue being discussed there and mostly in English was “How much English should we use?” People were getting up saying, “There’s nobody in the Lodge, it’s really falling apart, and we’ve started using English and now we’re getting all sorts of people. We want children in and they’re not going to do well if you’re speaking in Deitsch but if you speak in English we can bring kids in.” So, there was a discussion, people arguing, “Let’s use more English!” and how will we preserve the traditions that the Lodges have started? So, that was the topic at that meeting, that was the first meeting where I’ve heard that particular subject being talked about a lot.

I suspect – sorry old timers, I hope you’re sitting – one of the discussions coming up next will be women at the Lodge meetings and that seems to be something that’s becoming more and more accepted. As I said, this is the first year that Lodge Number 1, the oldest one, is actually in their invitations going to mention the fact that women are invited to come and actually, at the board, we have a woman on the board which is really unusual. So, that’s something that would be discussed by the Groossdaadi Lodges when they come together. So, it’s really an organization that perpetuates Pennsylvania German interests and also oversees Groundhog Lodges.

Michael: So, you mentioned that this is the first year that Lodge Number 1 is going to have women involved. I know in the book, you mentioned that there was at least one Lodge that was women-only. Is that one of the, what did you say, 17 or 18 Lodges, or is that separate?

Dr. William Donner:  Yeah, that’s separate. That Lodge, it’s interesting. It’s in an area that really, there are some regions that you just get a lot of, I don’t know, ethnic vitality, interest, things like that. Kutztown is kind of that, maybe because of the university, it’s between Allentown and Reading which are two Dutchy areas, but it’s not urban, it’s still somewhat rural. So, this area, it had a really active lodge, I think it’s Lodge number 7 and this woman, Lucy Kern [phonetic] just felt there should be a time when women especially, widowers, this is what she explained to me, actually I spoke at that Lodge, I forgot to count that Lodge in the ones I’ve been at. She felt older women are single and they need a time to get together and enjoy things, hear some Pennsylvania Dutch. They were not as strict about speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. I have to say it was kind of, everybody brings their own food and it was some of the best food I’d ever had [laughs] at this Lodge because these old women were really good cooks.

Michael: Potluck.

Dr. William Donner:  Anyway, they spoke in Pennsylvania Dutch and oftentimes, you would have people from the Groundhog Lodges help cater and do things there, I spoke there at one point. You’d have men speaking there. It wasn’t really a feminist movement or anything, but it was centered around women and doing something for women. I think it was a humorous, okay, men have their thing, we’re going to have our thing. So yeah, there is that Lodge. Now, COVID took it out, I think somebody else is running it, I’m not sure if they’re going to, but I heard they were going to go again this year. Just in that area, they have Lodge Number 7 which was very active, and I think just the women were into it. I think Lucy Kern has retired but what I heard was they’re still planning on continuing it.

Michael: So, at least it has existed recently if it doesn’t exist now or isn’t continuing. I was curious if that was a short-term thing that existed for a little while but it’s good to know...

Dr. William Donner:  Check in the book, but I think it’s been around at least 20 years, longer maybe. I spoke to her I think 15 years ago, and it had been around for 10 years.

Michael: I almost want to say you maybe said in the ‘70s but I might be confusing things. So, none of the other Lodges had involved women in the Groundhog Lodges before this point?

Dr. William Donner:  Well, what they would occasionally, in the skits there were some differences. So, sometimes you’d have men who would dress as women and perform women's roles. Sometimes they would get the wives, I think I mentioned there was a demonstration, I think this was during the Women’s Movement, ’72 or ’73, and a group of women came, and they started picketing and demonstrating that women should be included. I think there’s a picture of that in my book. But that was actually set up, it was for the wives of the board members, and they had agreed, they were going to come and make a playoff on the women’s movement which was becoming active, and why there weren’t women included in the Groundhog Lodges. So, you did have some women involved. I was at a couple of Lodge meetings where they had women playing the roles of women in the skits. There were other times when they had men who were dressed up as women and playing those roles. You did have occasional women. But actually, in the audience, no.

There’s a famous story, I think I mentioned it. In the Allentown Morning Call, supposedly they had one of the reporters dress up as a man and attend the meeting and that would have been about 1970, ’75, something like that. Apparently, she passed and wrote about it and then, I think it was done in good humor. As far as I know, that’s the only woman who came actually as a spectator and she was coming as something else. I remember about I don’t know, four or five years ago, there was a reporter, a woman who wanted to do a story about the Groundhog Lodges and she asked if she could come and I asked the board members and they said, “Yeah, sure she can come.” She didn’t come in the end because she was too busy or too far away or something, but they were loose, things were getting loose. Last year, there was a woman at the Heritage Center who really helped them out a lot, Sarah Edris, [phonetic] and they were really grateful that she helped them get, they have this 8-foot groundhog they have to get out of the Heritage Center and to wherever they were going, and they said, "Okay, we want you to be involved with us.” So now she’s on the board and they talked about... You know, when I first went there 20 years ago, 25 years ago they had about 600-700 people in their hall. They were down to under 100 I think last year and they’re hoping including women will bring the numbers up.

Michael: You mentioned that 8-foot groundhog, you mentioned that in the book. That was kind of why I had that question about whether there is a physical Lodge that is kind of the home for everything? So, I was kind of curious as to where that 8-foot groundhog lives during the rest of the year. You said it lives in the cultural center and they have to...

Dr. William Donner:  The cultural center has a barn and they kept it there. Now, before it was there, I think it was just... You know, these were farmers, they usually had big buildings, barns, and things like that. There are a lot of other ceremonial things; there are smaller groundhogs that they bring in and there are plaques they put on the walls, and those I think would be kept at the house of one of the members. They have a big groundhog... I assume, I don’t know where it was before the Heritage Center, but I think it was in somebody’s barn or storage area. It wasn’t designated to anything special, it’s just that’s where the stuff was being stored. And then the Heritage Center, we got pretty heavily involved once it was established here in Kutztown in 1990, a lot of the lodge members were active in starting out Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, and over time, by 2000 a lot of this stuff had been moved over to Heritage Center storage.

Michael: You mentioned in the book that most of the members were in their seventies, eighties, nineties. Do you see any sort of new membership, like younger membership at this point? I know you were saying there was talk about maybe switching to English to be able to bring in children. But at this point, is it pretty much just what you have and dwindling? Or do you think there are occasionally new people coming in? I guess they would probably have to be children or grandchildren of the original or current members, maybe.

Dr. William Donner:  Yeah, there are a few younger people in their twenties, thirties, forties who learned Pennsylvania Dutch in a variety of ways, almost always as a second language, a few people would have been brought up on a farm. There are not many like that. Sometimes people talk about different things, you might be able to get all those people together to have one Lodge meeting, in another ten or twenty years when a lot of the older speakers pass away. So, there probably would be enough interest and enough fluent speakers to keep something going. I guess what I think is going to happen is still what I said in the book– it’s only seven or eight years, actually writing that book was probably, it takes a while for the book to get written and published, I would say I was writing about a time ten years ago or so.

I think you know, still, it’s going to be different routes, there’s going to be some Lodges which are going to switch over to a lot of English but also use some Pennsylvania Dutch in context. I think some Lodges are going to fold or join together with other lodges and there may be a few that keep Pennsylvania Dutch, they get enough people coming out that they could keep it going in Pennsylvania Dutch. As far as I know, Lodge Number 1, the first one, still plans to be primarily in Pennsylvania Dutch. If they pick up women speakers who speak Pennsylvania Dutch, that might give them a critical mass for some of these to keep on going in Pennsylvania Dutch. As I said, a couple of them seem to be switching more toward English. I wrote about this 20 years ago. I’m not sure there’s one future for Pennsylvania Germans, I talk about the futures, different ways of doing things. There may be some that are almost all Dutch, there may be some that are almost all English, and there may be some that are in between.

One thing, there’s another scholar, Mark Louden who has written, I think I cited in there, a book about the Pennsylvania Dutch language. He talks about people who spoke Yiddish and Hasidic Jews from New York and other places, New Jersey, they use Yiddish, Old Order groups use Dietsch, they use it as an identity marker, they preserve it. I’m told younger Yiddish speakers in that community, the Hasidic community, speak it better than older people because the older people didn’t learn it, they learned it as a second language, and the younger people learned it as a first language. And then you get most American Jews who speak English. Now, their grandparents spoke Yiddish, but they don’t speak it anymore. Louden talked some years ago and said they’re post-vernacular, they’ll use different phrases from Yiddish, this is the more liberal group who don’t use it primarily as a source of identity, they’ll use different phrases to express their identity as Jewish or Yiddish, but they can't really speak Yiddish fluently. He thinks that might be where a lot of Pennsylvania Germans are going.

Some of those words you were talking about, versammlingeI don’t know. In this area, you sometimes hear the word rutsche and you hear it a lot, people who don’t speak any Pennsylvania Dutch will use this word rutsche, it means move around a lot. My kids were brought up in this area, I moved to this area and if someone is cranky or kind of angry or something, you use the word gruschtThere’s a bunch of terms that come here once, that are regionalisms, that people use in this area, and they become identity markets. He’s arguing that these will be preserved in the future because it’s post-vernacular. And that might be, there might be Groundhog Lodge meetings where they use a lot of these common widespread Dutch terms, but they’re also using a lot of English as well. So, that would be what... One all Pennsylvania German, one all English, one mixed, one which would be English but with a lot of Dutchisms that are used in this area by people who speak English. So, that might be one of the possible futures.

Michael: It’ll be interesting to continue watching.

Dr. William Donner:  You’re younger. I don’t know if I’ll be around to see the end but doing an interview in about 30 years and see. There’s a guy Patrick Donmoyer at our Heritage Center who learned Pennsylvania Dutch. He’ll be around in 30 years and I’m sure he’ll know what’s going on so interview him and see where we are in 30 years.

Michael: Okay, yeah, I’ll have to keep it in mind. Do you know what the original inspiration for centering around the groundhog for these Groundhog Lodges was? Was that just coming out of the other, like the Punxsutawney tradition? I know there was the Quarryville one, that’s not related at all to any of these, at least as far as the...

Dr. William Donner:  I talk about this in my book, the founder of the Groundhog Lodges was a newspaper writer for the Allentown Morning Call, his name was William Troxell, but he wrote under the moniker of Pumpernickel Bill. He wrote a dialect column; it was very common in this area up until maybe about 2000. Originally, in 1800 all the papers would have been in High German. By 1900, they were switching over to English, but they had a Pennsylvania Dutch column, not a High German column, but almost all the papers in this region would have had a Pennsylvania Dutch column. Troxell was writing for the Morning Call in Allentown, which is in Lehigh County, and he came up with the idea. Now, he did know about Quarryville, and he did know about Punxsutawney, and you can see in his correspondence, that he’s writing to those places. But there was also an all-Pennsylvania Dutch language event at a couple of other places, Selinsgrove is the one I’m thinking of, Susquehanna University, college probably back then, in 1933 they had some event that was all Pennsylvania Dutch and I think Troxell was taken by that, he was not apparently at that meeting but he knew about it. I think he was thinking about the Groundhog Lodge meetings in Quarryville and Punxsutawney, and he thought, "Let’s have a Pennsylvania German event!”

He was a humorous writer, I think he saw it as partly humorous but also partly about heritage and so he said, let’s have this event. Now, the groundhog, I talk about this in a book. This was a common, I don’t know, myth or legend, or some people believed it. If you’re a farmer, you need to know what the weather, or it helps to know what the weather is going to be like in six weeks; is it going to be spring or is it going to still be winter? We can't tell now very well but they had no idea back then. So, you’d be concerned about what the future was, and these were farming people, they had this tradition that they brought with them from Europe. In the newspapers it was often commented upon, it’s hard to know if people thought it was really serious or even today, just a humorous event. But there would have been notions about what’s happening with the groundhog in this area, this would have been brought over by their ancestors in Europe, it would have been something the newspapers would have been commenting upon perhaps humorously in the 1920s and Troxell knew about this.

Now, I think I mentioned going further back, it turns out Groundhog Day is also Candlemas, which is an important Christian, Catholic holiday where you bless the candles of the church. And it turns out, I think, do the math here, but Candlemas is six weeks after Christ was born and I think they bless the candles because in Jewish practice when Christ was born, you had to wait six weeks before you take him to the synagogue. So, Mary takes Jesus to the synagogue on this day, which is known as Candlemas or Groundhog Day. So, it seems to have had some kind of supernatural religious significance. Also, Don Yoder makes the point, and I can never figure out whether it’s the equinox or solstice, but it’s midway between the winter and the summer, between December 22nd and March 22nd so Yoder thinks it might have something to do with Pagan holidays which looked at the seasonal changes.

So, it was a significant day in lots of respects and I think one of the things that Troxell was doing, again, this is my pointy-headed academic thing but at that time, no one really believed the groundhog, but they wanted people to think the Pennsylvania Germans think the groundhog is there. On one hand, they’re playing a joke on everybody, “You think we’re these superstitious people,” there were 13 members of the board, but really, “We aren’t, and, in a sense, the joke is on you to actually think we’re so stupid, that we actually believe this but on the other hand, we’re going to have fun and pretend that we believe it.” I think it was a legend that had some resonance for people, it had some religious significance. Also, Pennsylvania Germans had a saying that half the food should be eaten at that time. I forget the poem, but I have it in the book. It was very common on February 2nd to say this poem about half the food. So, there’s a kind of cultural significance, there’s religious significance, and there’s to me, this ironic play on what people who were farmers and maybe in the past were superstitious, what they believe in modern time.

I think one of the things Punxsutawney Phil, the reason why he’s so popular is people want to play something in a very rational world, they want to play something which is goofy on the one hand but also ties into our superstitious folk belief that it’s fun to believe for a day, kind of like some version of Halloween. That’s my pointy headed, your listeners are free to say, “This is another dumb academic who is pretending that he knows something.”

Michael: I think that all makes sense.

Dr. William Donner:  Okay, I probably should finish up. If I could just say a couple of things that again, from the academic side, one thing that strikes me about the Pennsylvania Germans in terms of the culture is they keep creating ceremonies which, over time, become traditions. The Groundhog Lodge is something that it borrowed from pieces of American culture, from the Groundhog Lodge beliefs, a lot of stuff borrowed from Masonic lodges, Odd Fellows, the fraternal organizations, and it created something new in 1934, and by 1950, 1955 it actually had become something that was traditional. One of the things that they were always able to do, maybe they can't this next generation, but they would create new ways to kind of express their identity, and those new ways would over time become something that was seen as traditional. So, by the 1950s and ‘60s the Groundhog Lodges, which were new in 1930, were something that was seen as traditional.

The other thing I want to say is, the Pennsylvania Germans were just wonderful to me. I had Pennsylvania German ancestors, but I was raised in Philadelphia. I always had this image of them as being really taciturn and stodgy and things like that. They were all just really kind and nice and helpful, explained a lot of things to me, very supportive, they were just wonderful people. I don’t know if I talk about this in the book, but one of the great things that came out of this research, for whatever it’s worth as research, I got to meet a lot of really wonderful people and grew as a person and felt really good about these people that I got to know so one important part of it is all the great wonderful people that I was able to meet. So, that’s my summary.

Michael: Great! I know you have to go soon so I really appreciate you talking with me, I’m sure we could have gone on for a while longer. But thanks so much for being here today, I appreciate it.

Dr. William Donner:  Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it, it was fun. I always like to talk about these things so thank you.

Michael: Thank you. Bye.

And that’s the interview. Hope you enjoyed taking a deeper look at Groundhog Lodges and learned something. I know I’ve certainly learned a lot. If you want to find out more about Groundhog Lodges and Versammlinge, check out Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage by William Donner. At CountdownToGroundhogDay.comm we’re maintaining a list of all of the Groundhog Day 2024 predictions. Be sure to keep an eye on it to see if a long winter or early spring wins.

That’s it for today, and that’s it for the first season of this podcast. Don’t worry though, I have a bonus episode or two planned and I expect Season 2 of the podcast to premiere sometime in the fall or early winter of 2024. Thanks to everyone who has spoken to me for the podcast this season.

Music for the show was written by the terrific Breakmaster Cylinder. Show artwork is by Tom Mike Hill. Transcripts are provided by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com. If you want to learn more about Groundhog Day, visit CountdownToGroundhogDay.com. Any feedback or voice messages can be sent to podcast@countdowntogroundhogday.com. Thanks for listening, talk to you soon!


Transcribed by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com