By KATHY CHANG
MILLTOWN — Despite temperatures peaking at around 60 degrees last week, Milltown Mel shut down an early spring, predicting six more weeks of winter.
“Citizens of Milltown … [it] seems pretty warm on this winter day,” Jack Bicsko, one of the Milltown Wranglers, bellowed on behalf of Mel, noting that residents should not be fooled by the warmer temperatures. “A shadow I see … six more weeks of winter.”
The furry creature’s forecast on Feb. 2 brought an “Oh no!” from a young boy and grumbles from the crowd, who braved the early morning chill to attend the borough’s annual Groundhog Day celebration that was held in the parking lot of the American Legion.
Dressed in black coats and black top hats, The Milltown Wranglers — including Councilman Jerry Guthlein, who is Mel’s handler; Mayor Eric Steeber; and Councilmen Ron Dixon and Francis Guyette — led the procession.
The adults and children who came out were all smiles. They waved American flags, wore Groundhog Day hats, and some blew on noisemakers and shook tambourines.
Groundhog Day anecdotes were given out to the crowd by the Wranglers.
A pink sign read “Be mine Mel, Love Caitlin.”
One of the Milltown Wranglers tapped his cane on Milltown Mel’s domain, and the children in the crowd yelled, “Wake up, Mel!”
The Wranglers brought Mel’s cage up for all to see from his slumber in the tree trunk. Guthlein tapped the cage where Mel was seen scurrying back and forth before his prediction was announced.
This year’s was the first forecast for this Mel. Guthlein explained to the crowd that the former Mel had passed away in August.
A moment of silence was held for the elder Mel, who was credited with an admirable record of 5-1 in his annual prophecies.
Guthlein said the new Mel comes with a lot of Jersey attitude.
“He’s OK at home, but not in big crowds,” he said.
This was Joanna Hess’s first time at Milltown’s celebration. She traveled to Milltown from upstate New York.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Hess said of the anticipation of Mel’s prediction. “I’ve been looking forward to the day. My sister, Carol, is a tenant of Jerry’s [Guthlein] and I grew up in East Brunswick. Every time I had to work, but now that I’m retired I could come.”
This is the second Groundhog’s Day celebration that Norma Hoffman and Ed Chapman, both of New Brunswick, have attended in Milltown. Hoffman held a stuffed groundhog with a sign stating “Yay Spring” on the front and “No Shadow” on the back.
“I’m hoping the sign will influence [Mel’s] prediction,” she said.
Hoffman said they love seeing the vintage attire.
“I believe it’s important to celebrate the changing of the seasons,” she said.
The Milltown Groundhog Day celebration is an evolution of the Guthlein family’s own observance of the holiday.
Guthlein, the owner of the Bronson & Guthlein Funeral Home in the borough, recalled that his wife, Cathy, was sick for a time, and when he went to visit her in the hospital, the movie “Groundhog Day” was always on.
When Guthlein would ask how she was doing, she would always say the same thing: “About the same.”
“You are like Bill Murray,” Guthlein would reply.
He promised her that when she got better, they would go out to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where a Groundhog Day event is held every year. They went years later and ever since have celebrated the holiday. Eventually, they decided that Milltown needed a Groundhog Day event of its own.
Thus, they purchased a groundhog from a farm in Pennsylvania, naming him Milltown Mel. And with the blessing of then-Mayor Gloria Bradford and Mel’s predictions, a borough tradition was born.
This year, the new Milltown Mel is in the minority with his forecast. Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck both emerged with prophecies of an early spring.