Southern Agenda

Inch by Inch

Scoot over, Punxsutawney Phil. In quaint Banner Elk, during the third weekend of October, mountain folks by the thousands witness their own prognosticating tradition: the Woolly Worm Festival. According to local lore, the Woolly Bear caterpillar’s thirteen segments will determine the severity of winter in the Blue Ridge. Each segment represents a week of winter, and a lighter brown means a milder week; the darker it is, the more likely you’ll need to bundle up. In the 1970s, the editor of Mountain Living magazine, the late Jim Morton, wanted to share the forecast with his readers but noticed not all worms looked alike. So he started including them in the selection process that has become an eagerly anticipated event: Attendees can “race” wiggling worms in several heats to the top of a three-foot string. The winner qualifies to become the trusted forecasting worm. “There were at first maybe a hundred people to watch the race,” says Mary Jo Brubaker, the chair of the event, which has been taking place for nearly fifty years. “But after that, it just took off. We have families that come back every year to race worms. They even have team shirts.”