Thanks to our proximity to Toronto’s ravine system and the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Leasiders have grown accustomed to sharing their habitat with a variety of wildlife – everything from hawks, raccoons and foxes to deer, skunks, and coyotes.
While these animals often provoke wonder and excitement – and sometimes fear and anger – none has ever come close to creating the kind of drama and notoriety achieved by a lowly groundhog named Butterball, who 70 years ago captured the attention not only of Leaside but the entire country.
Butterball was the pet of Toronto Star nature writer Hugh Halliday, who lived at 25 Le May Rd., just west of Bayview Ave. The animal was clearly not your average groundhog. According to Halliday, he could dance, stand up straight like a soldier, and liked to sit on Halliday’s typewriter.
One day in August 1951, Butterball decided to leave the Halliday residence and go exploring.
Discovering that his pet was gone, a distraught Halliday posted notices throughout Leaside and Davisville Village describing the animal’s features and behaviour. Details included the fact that Butterball was 10 inches tall, had a small cut on one of his ears, had “no enemies and readily performs for strangers.”
The Toronto Star and the Canadian Press picked up the story, triggering hundreds of responses from people claiming they had spotted the missing rodent. One report had him as far away as Heath Street.
Local children formed search parties and scoured the neighbourhood looking for Butterball. One group included children of Frank Teskey, coach of the St. Anselm’s Atom Bombers hockey team. Another consisted of boys from the Randolph Road area.
Despite the publicity (newspapers from cities as distant as Regina and Vancouver carried the story), Butterball continued to elude capture. Eventually, the Randolph Road boys found him at the Shipway Iron and Wire factory at Millwood and Southvale, where he spent the night under a steel pile. He had been gone two days and had travelled over a mile from his home.
During that time, Butterball had been attacked by at least a dozen dogs at various places and had fought them all off. A Leaside boy named Ralph Strutt witnessed one of these attacks. When a large black dog started harassing Butterball, Ralph recounted how the feisty groundhog “turned around, his hair bristled, he showed his teeth and he charged. He made that dog run for his life.”
Once found by the boys, Butterball became quite friendly – entertaining and playing with them until his owner was notified and retrieved him.
Newspapers covered Butterball’s “rescue” as extensively as his disappearance. The Toronto Star put the story on its front page, giving it two columns and two large photos. The headline in the Regina Leader Post enthused “Butterball Comes Home.” The Windsor Star exclaimed “Butterball Licks ’em All.”
A celebrity had been born.
Thus ended the saga of Butterball the Groundhog – another fascinating episode in Leaside’s colourful history.
*On Sunday, April 10, the LHPS is hosting the official launch of its own specially brewed “Heritage” beer. The launch will take place at the Amsterdam Brewery on 45 Esander Drive – from 2-4 p.m. All are welcome.
This article was guest contributed by Ted DeWelles, Leaside Heritage Preservation Society.