BUTLER — He wasn’t there in person, but Punxsutawney Phil was well-represented during last weekend’s first-ever Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the world’s first Jeep.
Chris Phillips, a Punxsy native now living in Chicora, about nine miles east of Butler, was among the more than 1,100 Jeep owners and drivers seeking to break the Guinness record for the longest Jeep parade.
Amid the souped-up, tricked-out Jeeps in the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival parade, Phillips said he wanted his Jeep — a 2007 Wrangler — to be different from the rest.
“Well, being a native of Punxsy, that was actually an idea my sister (Jo Ann Gillespie, of Rossiter) came up with,” he said Friday. “I wanted to kind of stick out. These guys had their souped-up Jeeps, and my sister’s idea was, ‘Why don’t you decorate your Jeep like Phil?’
“You wouldn’t believe the response,” Phillips said. “We were like celebrities. People just went crazy.”
Last Friday while preparing to head to the parade’s staging route, Phillips said he had a Phil hand puppet; banners; posters; Phil hats; a “gigantic stack” of membership cards to hand out on the route; and several Mardi Gras necklaces with Phil pendants.
The items came courtesy of Groundhog Day Event Coordinator Katie Bullers.
“Boy, people came rushing on both sides, wanting to take pictures,” Phillips said. “It was really something.”
The first-ever Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival — which will now become an annual event, according to the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau — not only featured the Jeep parade and cruise in downtown Butler Aug. 12, but also a festival Aug. 13 and 14 at the Butler County Fairgrounds.
Phillips said the Wrangler is his fifth Jeep, but he also owns a CJ5 to run around his rural property and a “tricked-out” Cherokee with brush guards and cargo baskets.
“I’ve always owned Jeeps, always,” Phillips said. “I love the universality of them. I’m a big hunter/fisherman, and I use the four-wheel drive. Where I live is in the woods, and I have a quarter-mile driveway. If you don’t have good four-wheel drive, you’re not going to get up here.”
Becky Smith, the Main Street manager for Butler Downtown, said the city’s population is about 15,000 people, but last weekend, that number definitely saw a spike from visitors from around the United States and the world.
Also, a spokesperson at the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau believed that the parade of about 1,100 entries had obliterated the standing Guinness World Record but was preparing documentation and materials to send to Guinness for verification.
Having formerly worked at Punxsutawney Area Hospital for about seven years, Phillips moved to the Butler area in 1980 for a new job.
As the clinical coordinator of a department at Butler Hospital, he has Punxsy Phil items in his office.
“And when Groundhog Day comes, I really deck out my office,” he said, adding that the hospital threw a huge Groundhog Day party — with items purchased by Phillips — a few years ago in the cafeteria.
A week later, Phillips said he’s still amazed by people’s response to his Punxsy Phil-decked Jeep.
“People were coming up to me, taking pictures,” he said. “Phil is a big deal, but I couldn’t believe that it was that big of a deal.
“Everybody was asking, ‘Are you from Punxsy?’” Phillips said. “I said, ‘Of course, I am, born and raised.’”