Friday, October 28, 2011


History of the Woolly Worm Festival

  When Jim Morton first put a blade of grass in front of a woolly worm, he had no idea that the fuzzy critter at his feet would lead to a festival that draws nearly 20,000 people, 140 vendors, 1,000 worm trainers, and national media crews to the town of Banner Elk.
Morton was one of the founders of the Woolly Worm Festival. "October of 1973 was my first autumn in this area," says Morton. "That was when I first learned about the woolly worm's role in local folklore. A gentleman who worked at Grandfather Mountain told me about woolly worms being used to forecast winter.
   Morton, who is always interested in area lore, tucked the knowledge into the back of his mind. "Some years later, I was invited to a meeting where they were trying to get some ideas together to possibly form a merchant's association in Banner Elk. It was a preliminary gathering. I was not a merchant, but I accepted the invitation to go to the meeting. I told the people who were there that I thought Banner Elk would benefit by having an annual event of some type. I know, at Grandfather Mountain, the Highland Games and Singing on the Mountain were very important to our publicity efforts.
"The day before the meeting, I had done a woolly worm publication that I worked for. I'd done the forecast using the very first worm that I found that year because we were getting close to deadline. When I finally found a woolly worm, it was completely brown from end to end."
   Fate then took a role as Morton was reminded of the worm. "I come home from this meeting, and right there on my porch was another woolly worm with a lot of black on it, and only a minimal amount of brown." Morton then realized that when you forecast with woolly worms, you don't know which worm to trust.

"I was immediately struck by the need to have a process for selecting which woolly worm to believe. We also needed an annual event for Banner Elk. The two problems solved each other."
   Morton says that a Woolly Worm Festival Association was formed, since there was no chamber of commerce. Contributing merchants chipped in money to have posters printed, and the Festival Association sponsored it for the first six years.
   The first festival was held at the traditional location of Banner Elk Elementary. "The first year was cold and windy, but sunny. We discovered then that woolly worms don't go very fast on a cold day. We only had eight heats that day, with 63 worms."
   There were only three to four vendors, a far cry from the current 140. "It was a small event, but everybody seemed to have a really good time," says Morton. The first event also spawned a tradition of the festival being featured somewhere in the national media. WCYB TV sent a camera crew to cover the event, and the footage was picked up and run on NBC News nationwide.
   That publicity jump-started the event, and 300 to 400 people turned out the next year, even though it was raining. C.J. Underwood from Channel 3 in Charlotte came up to serve as Master of Ceremonies. Though the event kept growing, it didn't turn a profit until the Avery/Banner Elk Area Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Club took over operation in the seventh year
   Morton also conceived of the method of racing the worms, because when he was trying to collect a worm, he was "scared to pick it up" because he thought it might sting him. So he plucked a blade of grass and set it in front of the worm and the worm proceeded to climb the blade of grass. He then discovered that the worms would climb a string if they were in the moving mood. They didn't seem particularly motivated to race across a flat surface.

  The woolly worm race is three feet of nylon from mark to mark. There's as many theories about what makes a good-running worm as there are worm trainers who enter the race. Morton says that larger worms don't necessarily fare better, and that the true winning talent is this: "It does help to check that your woolly worm has an instinct for climbing string," he says, with all the wisdom of a man who has seen more than ten thousand worms work their way to the top or fail. "They are moody," he adds.
   Morton says that the festival has grown beyond anyone's dreams who were at the original meeting more than twenty years ago. "The only thing that's the same is that we still race worms up a string," he says. "Everything else seems quite different. There's lots of vendors, traffic, people, and it takes an army of volunteers to coordinate it all."
There's still one thing that would make the event better, in Morton's opinion. He'd like to see the winning woolly worm achieve the same weather-predicting stature of the official groundhog, Paxtahawney Phil, who in February determines whether there will be six more weeks of winter. "We want to become even more recognized as the official source of woolly worm predictions," Morton says.

About Woolly Worms
   The woolly worm (also spelled “wooly worm”) is actually a caterpillar or the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth. The tiger moth belongs to the arctiidae family, which has 11,000 species of moths around the world. The tiger moth is a beautiful creature with bright colors such as scarlet, yellow, orange, and white and rich hues ranging from black to beige. Equally as bright and beautiful, the woolly worm may have a burnt orange color in the middle and it may be black on both ends. Some woolly worms, however, are completely black or completely brown.
   In some parts of the world, it is believed that the severity of the winter can be predicted by the intensity of the black on the Isabella tiger moth’s larvae (caterpillar). In the American Northeast, it is believed that if the woolly worm has more brown on its body than black, it will be a fair winter. If the woolly worm has more black than brown, the winter will be harsh.
   The furry woolly worm can be spotted during the fall months in great numbers inching along the ground. While you will notice them in great numbers during the fall months, the woolly worm actually has two life cycles, so they can also be found inching around in June and July.

   Woolly worms may look small, but these dazzling creatures have 13 segments and three sets of legs. They have tiny eyes, but they make their way around mostly by feeling around and touching.
  Once the woolly worm has found its home for the winter, it will create a natural organic antifreeze that protects the interior of its cells. Everything else will freeze, but the woolly worm will still survive. The antifreeze protects the creature in freezing temperatures that can dip as low as –90 degrees Fahrenheit. The wooly worm is also protected by shelter. It chooses its places to hide wisely. It crawls under logs, boulders, boards, rocks, and other dark places. The woolly worm will remain in its “frozen” state until May, when it will emerge as a brilliantly colored moth.
   Prior to settling in for the winter, the woolly worm will survive by eating a variety of plants such as cabbage, spinach, grass, and clover. And to protect itself from predators, the woolly worm will curl up into a ball, exposing only its bristles, which can be quite irritating to the skin.
   Also called the “woolly bear,” mostly in New England and the Midwestern United States, the woolly worm has a pretty good weather prediction rate. Scientists would prefer not to acknowledge it, but the woolly worm has a 80-85% accuracy rate for predicting the weather. The worm has held its record for accuracy for more than 20 years.
   If you want to see the woolly worm in action, don’t seek them out at night. Remember, worms are nocturnal for the most part, not caterpillars. The woolly worm is very active during the day. It is not uncommon to spot them in groups of hundreds, all of them with one common goal – to find a place to hide.

   According to Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension Educator in Horticulture, “Woolly bear caterpillars overwinter as larva. In the late summer and fall they tend to prefer to feed on either violets or the weed called lambs quarter so what you can do is provide it with those things to feed on. They then start to look for a place to spend the winter. The other requirement in order for this caterpillar to turn into a moth is cold. The cage that you have would be best if it were covered with some type of metal screen instead of fabric netting. The reason for this is that the cage with the caterpillar inside will need to be buried in the ground next to the foundation of the house and then covered with leaf litter. It needs to be left there over the winter and if in a fabric covered cage rodents might get inside and eat the caterpillar. You can think about burying the cage when the weather starts to get cold. Leave the cage in the ground until about late April or Mid May. Dig it up and there should be a pupa inside which will transform into a 1-2 inch white colored moth.”
Always The Third Weekend in October
   For 34 year the town of Banner Elk has welcomed both old and new friends to the annual Woolly Worm Festival. This family event co-hosted by the Avery County Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Organization of Banner Elk welcomes more than 23,000 people to the community to make family
memories and also to win the prestigious title of predicting the High Country weather and the chance to win the $1000 bounty! Come early because the fun begins at 9:00 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, with entertainment all day. Bring your dance shows because you never know when a line dance will begin. Great music by local groups and check out the wace stage for impromptu guests.
The added time at the festival gave festival goers more time to take in the over 140 food and craft vendors with their handcrafted items, plus rides, musicians and dance teams.
   The added time at the festival gave festival goers more time to take in the over 140 food and craft vendors with their handcrafted items, plus rides, musicians and dance teams.
   We will have many returning vendors who make worm houses and pins, face painting and also include artists who do photography, pottery, stained glass and much more. “It’s a great festival, as it has something for everyone,” says Roy Krege, also known as Mr. Woolly Worm, one of the many volunteers helping to organize the event and add to its success.

   Participants wishing to race their worm may register at 9:00 a.m., and shortly after that races begin. 25 worms are in each heat, “but please come early as race entries fill up early and we want,” says Director of the Chamber, Susan Freeman. Saturday’s winning Woolly Worm holds the esteemed honor of predicting the winter weather season and the Woolly Worm wins prize monies of $1000, which we hope the winning worm shares with its owner. Sunday’s winning Woolly Worm $500.

How to Race a Worm
 Closer Look at the Woolly Worm

   What is small, furry looking and found crossing roads this time of year?
The answer, of course, is the woolly worm. This perennial little critter is a familiar site in the fall, and it is not uncommon to see dozens if not hundreds in one day.
   The woolly worm, in fact, is so common that it is easy to forget how complex and amazing the wee beasties truly are.
   First off, the woolly worm is not a worm at all - they are caterpillars, the larva of the Isabella tigermoth. The name "worm" has stuck, at least in the South. People in New England and the Midwest call them "woolly bears."

Here are some interesting facts about the woolly ones:
   When disturbed, the worms curl into a tight ball, with their "fur" (more about that later) bristling.
   The worm has 13 segments to its body, which traditional forecasters say correspond to the 13 weeks of winter.

   Woolly worms have three sets of legs, one each on its first three segments. There are some "false legs" behind those (non-working ones), and a leg for propping in the back.
   Scientists don't believe the worms have weather forecasting powers. They argue the varying colors are caused by temperature levels and, possibly, moisture, during the early days of their life. Of course, over the last 20 years the worms have an 85 percent record for accuracy. Maybe the scientists are jealous.
   Woolly worms eat plants such as grass, clover, dandelion, spinach and cabbage.
   There are two generations of worms each year. The first appear in June and July, the second in September. It is the second generation that are the "weather prophets."
   Where are the woolly worms racing when they cross a road? They are looking for places to hide. As cold weather arrives, they curl up under boards, logs, boulders and other safe places.
   Here is something truly remarkable. Once settled in, the worms hibernate, creating a natural organic antifreeze. They freeze bit by bit, until everything but the interior of their cells are frozen. They can - and do - survive to temperatures as low as -90F.
   This ability to adapt to cold shows up particularly in the Arctic, where the woolly worms live in a strange state of slow motion. Most caterpillars live for two to four weeks before becoming moths. The Arctic woolly worms, however, spend at least 14 years in the process!
  The woolly worm we see now will winter over and emerge as moths in May. They will then lay eggs - the summer, or first, generation - and die.
Woolly worms have very tiny eyes, and limited range of sight. That is why sometimes you will see them rearing up, possibly mid-race, to feel around and seek out, by touch, the next place to go.
-by Jim Thompson

Regarding The Races...


   First, no person is more likely to have a winning worm than any other person. There is no home-field advantage, no preferred age for the person who sets the worm on the string; although worms raced by children do seem to win a bit more frequently.
   Second, selecting names for the Woolly Worms is a delightful way to learn how amazingly creative your friends and family members can be. Consider these clever monikers: "Merryweather", "Patsy Climb" and "Dale Wormhardt".
Finally, there is no other experience in life that can produce the absurd euphoria that comes from cheering for a caterpillar to climb a string. It is so indisputably ridiculous that it is completely liberating!
   And the $1,000 first prize that accompanies the prestige of having your worm used to pronounce the official winter forecast doesn't hurt either.
   The Woolly Worm races begin around 10 a.m. Each heat consists of 20 worms and races continue all day until the grand final around 4 p.m. The winning worm on Saturday is declared the official winter forecasting agent.    The Sunday worm races are for prestige, fun and small prizes.
   In addition to the Woolly Worm Races, the festival features crafts, food vendors, live entertainment and much more. Last year's festival attracted an estimated 20,000 fans, 140 vendors and around 1,000 race entrants.

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