Near the Potomac River at the foot of steep, grassy Doubleday Hill, children played with rats in open shoe boxes. Adults roamed around dressed as rats, and even the mayor found amusement eyeballing a white albino rat in a tank on a table.
They were not only tolerating the long-tailed rodents, but celebrating them in a unique, inaugural take on Groundhog Day proudly dubbed River Rat Day.
More than 75 people gathered Saturday morning braving roughly 20-degree air to observe whether “Rat-otomac Willie” would see his shadow. The town provided hot chocolate and cheesy snacks.
“In Williamsport, we like to do things outside the box,” said Williamsport Town Councilwoman Joan Knode, who conceived of River Rat Day and wore a stuffed rat on her brimmed hat.
Curt Gaul, a ranger with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park, said for many years, there were rats in the river bottom because that area was used as a town dump.
“The rats would populate out from the dump and the town kind of became known for them,” Gaul said. “The town began to embrace the ‘river rat’ as an affectionate term.”
The dump eventually was removed due to environmental concerns, he said, but the “river rat” identity remained. It used to be the mascot for Springfield Middle School and other sports clubs in town, and many native residents refer to themselves as river rats, Knode said.
For about a year, the town has been selling “Bring Back the Rat” T-shirts to raise money for community events. Dean Burkett of Williamsport proudly sported his at the River Rat Day celebration.
“This is gonna be the very first one of a tradition and I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said.
Alan Redding, owner of Desert Rose Cafe in Williamsport, served as master of ceremonies, complete with a bow tie, black cloak and top hat. He told the crowd that the river rat had witnessed many things over the years, including horse-drawn buggies, canal boats, river-bottom concerts and “a few bathing beauties.”
“There are many stories about how the river rat came to be, but one thing is for sure. Here in Williamsport, we have pride in our town, we have pride in our community and we are proud to be river rats,” he said.
With that, the crowd cheered and turned attention to the rat. Seeing his shadow would indicate six more weeks of winter. Not seeing it would mean an early spring.
Despite prompting, the rat refused to emerge from the corner of his glass tank. Finally, he poked his head upward, his pink eyes seeming to say, “Enough already,” and quickly retreated. Redding seemed to read the rat’s behavior as not seeing his shadow.
“It looks like spring’s on it’s way tomorrow,” Redding announced. “However, for the first time, I think that Rat-atomac Willie might be lying to us.”
Knode said light-heartedly that she had pre-written a town newsletter supposing the rat would see his shadow.
Shayna Miller, 11, of Williamsport, took a box full of her pet rats to the event, including two named Dumbo and Squeaky.
“I just wanted to show ’em off a little bit,” she said. “They don’t bite. They snuggle with you, sort of.”
Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf said one man who attended brought his middle school River Rat gym uniform.
“You know, everybody that went through the middle school was a River Rat and somewhere or other, they changed to the Cougars,” McCleaf said. “Maybe they will consider changing it back to the River Rat because we are proud of that.”