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Woolly Worm Festival Sees Great Turnout on Saturday Before Mother Nature Wreaked Havoc Saturday Night and Sunday

Carolyn Thompson saw her woolly worm win this year’s race.

By Nathan Ham

It was not a total loss for the 41st annual Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk this weekend.

Saturday saw a great turnout of festivalgoers, vendors and woolly worm racers that did not let a little rain get in the way of their fun.

“Even through the rain, we had a super crowd, we had a diligent crowd that came prepared for rain and had an excellent day,” said Melynda Pepple, Executive Director of the Avery County Chamber of Commerce. “It was a great festival, a lot of the vendors did excellent on Saturday and we had a full house. We had an excellent selection of artists and vendors, great food and happy people.”

Carolyn Thompson raced the winning worm (Montgomery County’s Best) at the 41st Annual Woolly Worm Festival, now the Official Woolly Worm Festival of North Carolina on Saturday. The race winning woolly worm is also used as the expert weather prognosticator for the winter, based on the colors of the segments of its body. The woolly worms have 13 segments, which coincide with the 13 weeks of winter. The colors of the segments are used to predict the weather and the temperatures each week with black meaning below average temperatures and snow, dark brown meaning below average temperatures, light brown meaning above average temperatures and flick (black and brown) meaning below average temperatures with frost or light snow.

This year’s winning woolly worm was black, black, black, flick, dark brown, dark brown, dark brown, dark brown, dark brown, dark brown, flick, flick, flick.

Things went downhill on Saturday night and early Sunday morning with high winds that caused extensive damage to vendor tents and sent debris flying all across the festival area. At nearby Grandfather Mountain, wind gusts reached as high as 101.7 MPH on Saturday night and had nine hourly wind speed reports have gusts of over 80 MPH. With the safety of vendors and festivalgoers at the forefront of everyone’s mind, the decision was made to cancel the event for Sunday. 

“In our 41 years, we’ve never had anything like this happen. But we were amazed to see how the community came together so quickly to make some tough decisions. The whole concern was for safety,” Pepple said.

Several people involved in the decision-making process included Banner Elk Town Manager Rick Owen, Banner Elk Police Chief Kevin Hodges and other Avery County staff and officials. 

Pepple said that people were hoping that the festival could be ready to go by noon when the High Wind Warning was set to expire and the hopes of improving weather arriving for the afternoon, however with so much debris around, cleaning up in time for the festival to continue on Sunday just was not a possibility.

Ray Russell, the founder of RaysWeather.com, had a vendor tent at the festival and saw the first-hand damage from the high winds.

“What a mess we found at Woolly Worm Sunday morning. Wind Saturday night tore up the festival ground, vendor goods were strewn everywhere. Our tent was in good shape, but we are so sorry for those who lost so much,” Russell posted on his website.

Pepple said that even with the rough weather that happened this year, people told her that they would definitely be back next year and other years on down the road.

“That’s why we’ve had people coming for 41 years. Same vendors, same guests, they always come every year so they were sad but at least we did have Saturday to offer,” said Pepple.

Carolyn Thompson alongside Avery County native Tommy Burleson.

This debris pile remained on Monday afternoon as staff and volunteers helped clean up the mess left behind after high winds hit the High Country Saturday night.