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Originally published: 2012-10-11 13:57:48
Last modified: 2012-10-11 13:57:48

Woolly Worm Festival comes to Banner Elk October 20 and 21

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)

Given the rollercoaster ride of recent winters, it is more important now than ever to fall back on one properly proven prognosticator to deliver a prediction for this year’s winter weather. At the 35th annual Woolly Worm Festival, hundreds of worms will battle it out for the honor being the official wiggling weatherman for the 2012-13 winter. The winning worm will not only snag a $1,000 cash award for its dedicated trainer, but will be judged by Tommy Burleson – who attained significant fame due almost entirely to his renowned worm-reading ability – to determine if the High Country is in for another warm, wet, mushy winter like its most recent, or one of the blustery, cold, blizzard-ridden winter seasons of yesteryear.

The 35th annual Woolly Worm Festival will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21, in downtown Banner Elk. Tickets can be purchased at the gate for $5 for adults per day, or $2 per child per day. Children ages 4 and under are admitted free. Tickets can now also be purchased online, by clicking to http://www.woollyworm.com. As always, the festival will feature woolly worm races, dozens of craft and food vendors, inflatables and live music. During the festival, LMC opens up all of its parking for guests of the festival to use at no cost.

According to Mister Woolly Worm, known less commonly as Roy Krege, Woolly Worm Festival judges have achieved an accuracy rate matching that of the most prominent meteorologists by taking the winter forecast from only the most physically fit and mentally-agile worm as determined by the race.

“There is only one real winner. He might only be a silly millimeter ahead, but he is the winner. Then the veterinarian checks the worm out to make sure he is steroid and stimulant free,” Krege explained. “There are different ways to judge the weather from a worm. We start at his head for the first week and work to his tail for the last week. We have 35 years of history, so we can back up our statistics pretty well. We still claim that we are more accurate than any of the weathermen.”

Avery County’s Woolly Worm Festival has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception 35 years ago. The first festival, according to Krege, attracted an underwhelming 50 spectators, whereas, the most recent festivals have drawn upwards of 20,000 people to Avery County over both days of the festival. Many of the visitors claim to have come from other countries, marking a definite trend in global worming. 

“The basic festival is the same, but we have tried hard to get more variance in our food vendors,” Krege said, noting continuing efforts to improve the festival each and every year. “Some duplication is good because there are so many people there. We have tried to make it almost an international food festival. You can get everything from hotdogs and barbecue to Paris desserts and Chinese food.”

Other improvements over the past 35 years include the prizes, which began as a single $100 prize for the winner 35 year ago. Now, the winner of Saturday’s race wins $1,000 for its trainer, with an additional $500 prize for another winner on Sunday. Only the Saturday winner will be used for forecasting. To accommodate the influx of new competitors, the racetrack has also improved, growing to 25 separate race lanes, as opposed to the original five.

While the festival continues to grow, adding new features and improving old each year, the festival’s growth and popularity are not just beneficial to its thousands of guests. Avery County and its citizens are some of the most direct beneficiaries of the work that goes into making the festival happen.

“I know from everybody you hear from that the economic impact is pretty strong,” said Krege, who explained some of the other benefits to Avery County. The festival is organized each year as a joint effort of Kiwanis and Avery County Chamber of Commerce, generating tens of thousands of dollars for each of those organizations to use in their efforts to benefit the people of Avery County. Of course, Avery County Chamber of Commerce uses its proceeds to promote not only the festival, but all of Avery County as a destination for travelers, improving prospects for businesses and entrepreneurs across the area.

The influence of Kiwanis in Avery County is locally focused, allowing for very direct impact. 

“It is part of our charter: we give 100 percent of the money we take to local charities,” said Krege, who also listed several of the Kiwanis projects that Woolly Worm Festival has helped make possible, including playgrounds in Elk Park, Banner Elk and Wildcat Lake, project-specific grants for local teachers and the Reading is Fundamental program, a favorite cause of late Kiwanian Jack Masters.