Kincardine’s John Makela captured the first Wiarton Willie



By Barb McKay


Wiarton Willie has a Kincardine connection.


It was local resident John Makela who captured the first live albino groundhog who has become synonymous with Groundhog Day in Bruce County.


It was 1980, and Makela was living in Wiarton at the time, operating the Mutual Life office downtown. The concept of Wiarton Willie had been around for many years, started 1956 by Mac McKenzie who “looking for an excuse for a winter party,” Makela said.


After the first couple of years, McKenzie had the event coincide with Groundhog Day. The first groundhog was not a groundhog at all, but McKenzie’s wife’s fur hat. Then came a trio of puppets, SandDune, MulDoon and GrunDoon, who predicted the start of spring. Then, one day in 1979 while Makela was at his office, a realtor in the office next door told him he had spotted an albino groundhog in the field next to his house.


Makela and the realtor set out to the field.


“I got between the groundhog and his hole with a fishing net while my friend distracted him with a riding lawnmower,” Makela recalls.


The groundhog was taken to Harmony Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Tobermory and he made his appearance in 1980 as Willie. Back at the sanctuary, however, Willie escaped and was able to allude his caretakers, and Makela found himself in search of a new Wiarton Willie. He placed an advertisement in the local paper and before long a square dance club from North Bruce answered the ad. They had seen an albino groundhog at a farm in their community. So, Makela set out with a fishing net and a live trap.


“I found him hiding behind a drive shed and I just reached around and grabbed him,” he said.


The annual festival became known as the Groundhog Festival and McKenzie, Makela and others acquired white tuxedos and top hats for the occasion. Network television stations would send crews to televise the event. Makela was the Willie’s handler and frequently had to give chase after the little rodent when he would make his getaway following the prediction.


It wasn’t just on Groundhog Day that Willie would escape. Makela said there was nearly a dozen times where he would have to track down the groundhog after he managed to break free of his cage. One year, Willie enjoyed freedom for several months after fleeing his cage at the old fire hall. A local resident came into Makela’s office one spring day to notify him that he had just seen Willie downtown, on top of a van. By the time they reached the street, however, the van was gone.


A short time later, the van returned. Its owner had been transporting items to his new antique shop several kilometres away. After he had parked in the laneway a white groundhog ran out from under his vehicle and into a neighbouring field.


A few months later, Makela was returning home from a convention and passed the field where Willie had run off. The hay crop had been cut and off in the distance Makela could make out a solitary white groundhog. He went home and retrieved his fishing net and live trap and returned to the field. Sure enough, Willie was still there. As Makela approached him, the animal didn’t budge.


“I got between him and where I thought was the hole,” he said. “I dropped the trap and ran up to him and he was just paralyzed. It was almost as though he was saying, ‘I’m tired, take me home.’”


At one point over the years there were three albino groundhogs that held the title of Wiarton Willie at the same time. Makela handed them over to Sam Brouer, who ran the Wiarton Willie Hotel and had built a compound for the groundhogs. Makela said the animals were not tame by any means but Brouer’s three young children were able to play with them.


Makela remained involved with the Wiarton Groundhog Festival until 1992. A decade later the festival became the Wiarton Willie Festival and McKenzie appeared with Willie to announce the prediction every year until his passing late last year.


On Friday, Wiarton Willie did see his shadow which, if you believe Willie’s prognostication, means we are in for six more weeks of winter.