By Jan Todd. Reprinted from The High Country Magazine, October 2017
Where can you see people, from all walks of life, age three to ninety-three, jumping up and down and hollerin’ for caterpillars on a string? Nowhere other than the annual Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk. This year’s festival promises to be the best one yet, as it celebrates its fortieth anniversary and honors and remembers two very special people who have been instrumental in the history and success of the festival.
At last year’s festival, 75-year-old Roy Krege, known as “Mr. Woolly Worm,” announced his retirement from years of promoting the festival and acting as emcee of the races. Then, Jim Morton, founder of the Woolly Worm Festival, passed away suddenly in April of this year. The Woolly Worm Festival concept in itself is unique, but what has contributed most to its success has been the dedication and personalities of Morton, Krege, and the many others who have volunteered their time and talents over the years.
Jim Morton was the son of Hugh Morton, who owned Grandfather Mountain and established the park as one of the state’s leading tourist attractions. Jim served as chairman of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, was an accomplished photographer, conservationist, and advocate for Banner Elk and Avery County. He played basketball in high school and at UNC Chapel Hill, and some of his former teammates were lifelong friends.
The idea for the Woolly Worm festival was conceived among these friends. Tommy Burleson, native of Avery County and close friend of the Morton family, remembers spending hours with Jim, sitting on the rocks at Grandfather Mountain, gazing at the stars, and batting around ideas. “I used to work at Grandfather Mountain with Jim,” he said. “We’d be up there every morning, checking on Mildred the Bear, then working the gate. After the park closed, we’d check out on the campgrounds, then just hang out.”
Kinney Baughman, another friend of Jim’s, added, “Jim had gone to a planning meeting in Banner Elk, and he proposed that the town have an annual event of some type, to generate publicity for the merchants. It was during the mid ’70’s, and lots of towns started having festivals. For instance, my hometown is Wagner, South Carolina, and the town down the road from us had a festival called the Chitlin Strut. People would go and eat chitlins. Then not far from there, Springfield had a Frog Jumping Contest. That’s the kind of thing towns were doing back then. So Jim decided that Banner Elk needed to have a festival. Then the question was, what to build a festival around?”
“There were always a lot of woolly worms around in the fall, and there was folklore that woolly worms could predict the weather. Around that time, my old biology professor from Appalachian had done a study to see if there was any truth to that. That had been in the local news, so Jim picked up on that idea,” Baughman continued.
Then, as Tommy Burleson recalled, Jim and friends were sitting around one evening, watching a couple of woolly worms crawl up stalks of milkweed. “We started wondering which would make it up to the top first. It was like a light went off in Jim’s head. He said, “Hey, we could race these things!” Jim had a lot of his dad in him. He was very creative. He knew he could make an event out of something like this.”
The actual mechanics of the race took some time to formulate. Baughman described, “What is the best way to race a woolly worm? We tried all kinds of things. We tried putting them in a box, setting up lanes, but they’d just crawl all over the place. They wouldn’t go in a straight line. We puzzled over this for awhile! Jim was obsessed with it. Then one day we were out in the yard, and one of us got a blade of grass, and put the woolly worm on the blade of grass, and that worm crawled right up it. That’s when we decided to try racing the worms up a string.”
Baughman continued, “A guy named Sid Bartholemew designed and built the first board. It was 4’ by 8’, and had five strings. Sid was quite a character, and a very, very talented artist. He ended up moving to California where he became a set designer. He worked on the sets for Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse, the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” “Shallow Hal,” and several other movies.” In fact, he even won an Emmy for his work in the late 1980’s.
Once the racing component was determined, Jim Morton approached the Avery County Chamber about the festival, and they took over the planning of the event. The first one was held in the gymnasium at Lees McRae, and about fifty worms were raced that year.
Mr. Woolly Worm
One of the food vendors in attendance that first year was Roy Krege and his wife, Marion. Krege was a member of the Kiwanis Club in Banner Elk, an organization that serves the needs of children through local service projects and fundraising. To raise money for the Kiwanis Club, the Kreges were making funnel cakes at the inaugural event.
Krege recalled, “Funnel cakes were not something seen around here at that time. We used to run a camp up in Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains, and the funnel cakes were real popular up there. So at the first Woolly Worm Festival, we made funnel cakes, just using a regular frying pan, and away we went.”
As the Kiwanis Club joined forces with the Avery Chamber, Krege became more involved in the festival the second year. “I told Jim we needed to put a little more excitement in the event,” said Krege. And thus began his role that evolved into “Mr. Woolly Worm.”
Over the years, Krege developed his character as the face of the Woolly Worm Festival, the official spokesperson, woolly worm expert and advocate. In the weeks leading up to the festival each year, Krege would be seen on TV shows, in elementary school assemblies, wandering through area restaurants and shopping centers, garbed in his trademark outfit. Wearing pink pants loaded with decals, a yellow jacket and glowing orange hat covered in woolly worms, orange shoes that made the glorious Autumn leaves seem pale in comparison, and a necklace holding a small cage with several of the live caterpillars, Krege turned heads all over the High Country.
“I’m a nut,” Krege admitted. “I thought the outfit ought to be colorful, so I came up with the pink pants. At the time, my daughter was working at Don Iverson’s shirt shop, The Pink Gorilla, and she made me a shirt with these different decals on it, and it was rather noteworthy. Iverson ended up as the official shirt maker for the festival, and he makes a different one each year. My favorite pair of pants had a big decal on the tail end, and I’d always give a big a bow to show that off. I think I had more pictures taken of my backside than my frontside. I guess I should be embarrassed about that,” he laughed.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” Krege reminisced. “For the weeks before the festival I’d go to different restaurants, dressed up like Mr. Woolly Worm, and I’d have three woolly worms with me. I’d go from table to table talking about these things, and most people didn’t have a problem at all, but sometimes you’ll get people pretty “squirmish”, and I’d immediately back away from them and tell them that these critters had been certified by the health department, and had all of their shots, that sort of thing. It’s amazing how much people enjoyed that.”
“I got kicked out of one restaurant in Boone. The assistant manager was there, and came up and told me I couldn’t be in there, even though I’d been doing it for years. I explained that the owner had always welcomed me there, but the young guy was insistent so I left. He was doing right, he was doing his job. But then late, late that night, I got a phone call from that guy, and he was almost crying. He was apologizing to me, and had obviously heard from the owner. I got a good laugh, and whenever I go in there to eat now, I still see him, and we have fun talking about the time he kicked me out of the restaurant.”
During his talks and presentations, Krege often had live woolly worms crawling on him. He used to allow a few to wander on him while announcing the races onstage at the festival. “I’d have six or eight worms crawling on my shirt, on my head and face. But one day I was announcing the race and talking like crazy, and I bit down and realized that a woolly worm had crawled into my mouth. So that was the end of that woolly worm, and that was the last time I had worms crawling on me while I was announcing a race!”
“Mr. Woolly Worm” helped bring national, and even worldwide exposure to The Woolly Worm Festival and the little town of Banner Elk. Krege said, “We got a lot of publicity from Channel 5 over in Johnson City, and then more tv stations started covering the event, bringing their weather trucks over. Mostly we’ve been on regional shows, but we were on the Today Show several years back.”
He explained, “My daughter and I went trouncing down the street in New York, wearing the Woolly Worm garb. It’s kinda interesting, in New York, no matter what you have on or what you don’t have on, people don’t pay much attention, just figure you’re another screwball walking down the street. But we did get the attention of the Today Show crew, so we were able to talk about Banner Elk and the festival, and got some publicity for our area.”
“Then Paul Harvey did a “Rest of the Story” segment on the festival. He was one of the greats,” said Krege. “Terry Chappell, a local guy from Banner Elk, became a Harlem Globetrotter referee, and toured the world with them. He was in Istanbul, Turkey, and on the radio he heard about the racing of the woolly worms in the United States in Banner Elk. Terry was really excited and called to tell me about it.”
“We’ve also had the British Broadcasting Company here, and they did two different tapings of the Woolly Worm festival. One of those years, there was a guy from Britain who was going to Duke University, and he happened to be the big winner of the race that year. You’d think we faked it, but we had nothing to do with it!” exclaimed Krege.
A Worm is a Worm, Except When It’s Not
Everywhere he goes, Krege educates people about the woolly worm. In fact, they aren’t actually worms. They’re caterpillars, the larval form of the Pyrrharctia Isabella, and they transform into a Tiger Moth. Also known as a “woolly bear,” these caterpillars are hatched in warm weather, and spend their winters under bark or inside crevices in logs or rocks. In the spring, the woolly worms spin their cocoons and emerge as full grown moths.
“The woolly worm is the only insect that we know of that has thirteen distinct body sections,” said Krege. “There are 52 weeks in the year, four seasons, and each season has thirteen weeks. So when you see these worms stretched out, the different sections are different colors, and we can use those to predict the weather, week by week.”
“The first week of winter is at the worm’s head, and the last week is his tail. If the band is solid black, that means we’ll have ice or natural snow during that week. If it is nice, dark, chocolate brown, that is very cold, twenty degrees and lower, good for making snow. If it is light brown, that is normal winter weather for us. Light brown means that in the morning you’ll have frost on your car, and by 10:00 in the morning, it’ll be warming up and you’ll have a nice day. Then at 5:30 or 6:00 you need to be finding your coat, your scarf, your gloves, and wrap up. We want to have a lot of dark brown and black so we’ll have a lot of snow for our ski season.”
Can the worms really predict the weather? Krege answered, “My latest figures say we’re about 87% accurate over the 39 years. I challenge any weather forecaster, including those with million dollar computer systems, to match the accuracy of nature, with what the Woolly Worm says.”
The theory behind the Woolly Worm race is that the healthiest worm, judged by its speed, is the best representative of the species to predict the upcoming winter weather. Every worm is a bit different, yielding a variety of forecasts, so the stripes of the race winner are deemed to be the authority.
Off to the Races
Jim Morton officiated the first Woolly Worm race. His friends Tommy Burleson and Kinney Baughman, involved in the early planning stages, both missed the first few festivals. Baughman, an Appalachian State graduate, was in Europe playing professional basketball for Belgium. Burleson, an Avery County native, played on the Olympic Basketball team in 1972, the year with the controversial final match against Russia. Burleson was a member of the N.C. State championship team in 1974, and was playing in the NBA during the early years of the festival.
When Baughman returned from Europe, he joined Morton at the Woolly Worm festival as “Director of Races.” Baughman, who is 6’8”, explained, “I was tall, so I could pick the worms off at the top of the strings. I did it for a couple of years, then Tommy Burleson took over.”
These towering judges became a trademark at the Woolly Worm races. Roy Krege said, “Tommy Burleson is 7’2” tall. When he is standing on the back of the flatbed truck where we race the worms, he is the only one that can see straight on to the finish line. He has a unique perspective. A lot of times we have worms that are close as they can be, hair over hair and neck over neck, and Tommy is watching closely to see which one is the winner.”
“People love seeing Tommy at the festival,” Krege added. “He still loves to talk about basketball, and everyone likes to have their pictures made with him.”
Burleson has served at the festival since his return to Avery County in the early 1980’s. “Jim asked me to help out, and I was happy to do it,” he said. “The festival exemplifies family values, and provides families an opportunity to spend time together and have a good time. The money from the festival goes to good causes, strong local programs helping people. Plus, I just enjoy doing it.”
Burleson described the set-up of the race. There are twenty-five strings on the current race board, and worms are raced in heats. On Saturday, the first day of the festival, there are usually between fifty and sixty heats. Winners come back in late afternoon for the semi-final and final races.
“The strings are 32” long for warm weather, and they’re set high up so that the audience can see. I call the unit of measurements “worlongs” instead of “furlongs.” A furlong is an eighth of a mile, and a worlong is 4 inches. So we race ‘em for 8 worlongs. We tried a furlong, but that was just too long,” Burleson joked.
He continued, “When the sun is out and it is warm, the worms move much quicker. When the weather is cold, we go down to a 22” track.” Burleson had some advice for racers. “What you want to do is get the worm warmed up in your hand just before the race. I’ve seen people blow on the worm in their hand, to keep it warm. Then when they put it on the string, the worm is active and its little feet are moving.”
Krege added to the advice. “You want to make sure your worm is comfortable. Worms have a natural defense mechanism. When they feel threatened, they ball up. So sometimes, if a person just picks up the worm out of its cage and tries to put it on the string, it’ll ball up and fall right off. So they need to be warmed up a bit. Let ‘em crawl around the rim of a cup, or up your arm. I mean, if I’m in bed asleep, so to speak, I don’t want to get right up and run a race. The woolly worm is the same way.”
The secret for a smooth launch? “After you’ve warmed up the worm, stretch him out a bit, and make sure his head is going up in the right direction,” said Krege. “There are always some people who put their worm on the string upside down!” he laughed.
Krege added, “A lot of people will blow on the worm to get them started. Blowing on the worm has become quite an art. You have to blow them on the back end, but don’t blow too hard, or they’ll fall off the string. People have even started bringing straws. Some people will have long straws and puff their worms all the way to the top!”
Judges watch the contestants carefully throughout the race. After the race begins, people are not allowed to touch the worm, the string, or the board. “We used to have people get excited and bang their fists on the board, but that would send some of the worms flying,” said Burleson.
Once the final race is complete, the winning worm is examined by a veterinarian before being declared the official winner. Krege elaborated, “We want to make sure to make sure that no bodily damage has been done to the worm. Some people wanted to shave the worm, kind of like a swimmer who shaves in order to move through the water faster. We don’t allow that. We do a small urinalysis to make sure there are no illegal steroids or stimulants.” After the examination, the prize money is awarded and the winning worm is read for the weather forecast.
In addition to acting as an official race judge, Tommy Burleson has taken over “reading” the worm. “Charles VonCanon was the first Grand Marshal of the race, and he used to do the readings. He taught me how, so I’m doing that now,” said Burleson.
Charles VonCanon was mayor of Banner Elk for twenty-eight years, and a direct descendent of one of the founding members of the town.
Of course, there are many funny and touching stories about the festival over the years. After all, a worm race is involved.
Tommy Burleson remembered one race when there was one worm way ahead of the others. “The guy racing the worm looked back at his friends, salivating, all ready to win his thousand dollars, then he turned around and accidentally flicked the string and the worm went flying over his shoulder!”
Krege told another story. “Charles VonCanon used to tell about one young boy that raced his worm all the way to the finals. Just before the final race, the boy said a little prayer. Then his worm took off like crazy, and was doing great. Back then, we had just two worms in the final race. Then all of a sudden, the boy’s worm just stopped. We went up and asked him what was happening, and the boy said he didn’t know, but he really needed to win this race, because his mother was very sick and not expected to live much longer. So the boy said a little prayer again, and that worm just took off and won.” Krege still gets choked up when he remembers that race.
All in the Name
One tradition that has existed since the beginning of the festival is naming the worms. Contestants often name their worms after Nascar drivers, racehorses, athletes, celebrities, or politicians.
Kinney Baughman said, “I remember one year, Jim was being interviewed about the festival. It was the year that Hurricane Hugo came through the area. The reporter asked if Jim could offer any advice for success during the race. Jim answered, “Just don’t name your worm “Hugo.” Ironically, the winner that year was named Hugo.”
“We do try to keep the names respectful,” said Roy Krege. “Some people will give their worms long names, about 4 words or so, and that gets hard for the announcers, especially when the worms are getting near the finish line and there are some neck and neck. We’re running up and down, trying to pronounce all of these tongue twister names. It can get pretty funny.”
Some people will bring their other worms to the festival, while others will buy them on-site. “There was one year that, two or three days before the festival, we hadn’t seen but a dozen worms around. That happens some years,” said Krege. “So what we did that year, we put a “bounty” out for worms, saying we’d pay a dollar apiece for worms. Then what happened, we had so many people bring worms that we had to call in security, the Sugar Mountain police, to come to the Chamber office. It was getting scary. People were bringing all kinds of worms, and wanted us to buy them, but we just couldn’t buy that many!”
Now, the Chamber will buy up to 1500 worms, for a dollar apiece, with each seller limited to 25. The Chamber collects these worms on Fridays, when the vendors check in. The worms are then given to the elementary school PTO to sell at the festival for a dollar each, to raise money for their organization. “Critter cages” are also available for sale, to keep the woolly worms safe and happy as they accompany their people enjoying the festival.
More than Just a Race
The worm races are definitely the highlight of the Festival. Kinney Baughman commented, “You haven’t experienced excitement in the raw until you’ve seen thousands of people screaming and yelling and jumping up and down for a worm to crawl faster. It’s its own unique form of excitement.” This is one of the reasons that the festival was voted one of the top ten best festivals in the nation, according to Krege.
The top prize on Saturday is $1,000, with the winning worm having the honor of forecasting the weather. On Sunday, the top prize for the individual competition is $500. In addition, there is a corporate worm race, where local businesses enter their woolly worms to compete for a trophy to display, and bragging rights for the year.
Melynda Pepple, Executive Director of the Avery County Chamber of Commerce and main coordinator of the festival, said that the other big draws to the festival are the craft vendors, food, music and entertainment. “The craft portion is a juried event,” she said, “with all of the items handmade. We have two hundred vendors, offering everything from fine to rustic woodworking, furniture, quilts, scarves, handbags, wreaths and decor, jewelry, pottery, glass, beeswax candles, stone work, bear carvings, painters. We’ll have people making their crafts on site, wood carvings, glass blowing, that kind of thing. The vendors come from all over the United States.”
“We’ll have 30 food vendors. This year we’ll have Captain Jim’s Seafood, our first seafood vendor, plus of course all of the typical festival food, kettle corn, barbecue, hot dogs, apple fritters, funnel cakes, all that yummy stuff. Auntie Ruth’s Doughnuts are huge, and they always have a long line. We also let non-profits, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, come in and cook, and raise money for their organization.”
Throughout the day, musicians and performers take the stage in the food section of the festival. “We’ll have cloggers, an Elvis impersonator, bluegrass, music of all types. On Sunday morning, we always have some great gospel singers,” said Pepple.
This year, the festival will honor Roy Krege and remember Jim Morton. A Woolly Worm Festival historical booklet is being written, and will be available at the festival. The “Three Worm-a-teers,” Adam Binder, who has served as “Mr. Woolly Worm in Training” for several years, plus Jason DeWitt and Shawn Strickland, will take the stage to fill the shoes of Roy Krege. Will the shoes be orange? That is yet to be determined. “They’ll have their own look,” said Krege. “I don’t know what they’ll come up with, but it will be fun to watch.”
The Three Worm-a-Teers will travel the area prior to the festival, promoting the event on television and elsewhere. They’ll do educational programs at the schools, as volunteers for Kiwanis, traveling to Charlotte, Hickory, Johnson City, and Winston-Salem.
Pepple emphasized that all of the money raised goes back into the community, into schools, non-profit organizations, and tourism. After the festival, organizations can go on-line and apply for grants for worthwhile projects.
Perhaps it is the altruistic motives that have attracted so many amazing people to be a part of the Woolly Worm Festival over the years. Roy Krege reflected, “I’m thankful that the festival is in good hands, and will continue to be a great success. When you’re able to touch all the lives of people attending the festival, and then you’re able to turn all of the proceeds over to very worthwhile causes, helping people go to college, helping reading programs, giving every kid in the county free books to read, stuff like that, you say, “Wow.”
“To be able to touch so many lives is fabulous,” he concluded. “One of my heartfelt verses is that if you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be a servant to all. If all of us could treat one another in that manner, what a difference that would make. God don’t make no junk. Everybody and anybody we meet is special, and if you make them feel special, well you’ll feel special yourself.”
Want to go? The 40th Anniversary Woolly Worm Festival will be held October 21-22 in Banner Elk. Gates open at 9am on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $6 for Adults, $4 for Children aged 6-12, and free for kids 5 and under. Tickets may be purchased online or at the gate.