Still the Same Since ’78: Banner Elk’s Woolly Worm Festival
BANNER ELK, NC (October 11, 2023) ⇒ Lots of things have changed since 1978, but one thing remains the same: People still gather by the thousands the third weekend of October to watch woolly worms race at the Woolly Worm Festival in downtown Banner Elk.
This year’s event – the 46th annual – takes place Oct. 21-22 on the field of the Historic Banner Elk School.
The festival is based on the legend that the 13 fur bands of a woolly bear caterpillar foretell the weather for the 13 upcoming weeks of winter. Brown and lighter colored bands forecast mild weeks, while black bands predict cold, snowy weeks.
Since color patterns vary, people have raced worms the last 45 years with the hopes their worm will win the series of races on Saturday, predict the winter weather, and capture a cash prize that is now up to $1,000. Sunday’s winner gets $500, but no prognosticating honors.
“It is unique; I can tell you that,” says festival chairperson Mary Jo Brubaker. “And it’s small-town America at its best.”
Leading up to the event, local children gather worms and sell them for $1 to the Key Club of Avery High School, which sells them for $2 to anyone who comes to the festival wormless.
Contestants are given names, like Hairy Potter, Woolly Nelson, and Dale Wormhardt, before inching their way up strings on the main stage toward the finish line. Winners of the heat races advance to a championship race.
“People ask us, ‘What do you do at the Woolly Worm Festival?’ and we say, ‘We race worms!’ And they just look at you incredulously,” Brubaker says. “We have families who come every year for a weekend in the mountains and actually have team T-shirts. Usually the leaves are just gorgeous – it’s a beautiful time to be in the mountains.”
Last year the festival attracted 21,000 people from more than 30 states and 15 countries. The races included more than 1,800 worms. Students from Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk volunteer after the festival each year to return the worms to their native habitat.
In addition to the races, bluegrass and country music acts perform both days, including tributes to Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. Local artists sell handmade wares (“It’s a wonderful time to do Christmas shopping,” Brubaker says), and food vendors vary from a French pastry chef to a Boy Scouts troop selling tasty hot dogs. There’s even minigolf for putting enthusiasts.
Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12. Kids 5 and younger are admitted free. The entry fee to race a woolly worm is $10.
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