Banner Elk hosts 45th annual Woolly Worm Festival

Carli Johnson, Reporter

On a blustery fall weekend, Banner Elk celebrated the 45th Annual Woolly Worm Festival. Thousands of visitors flocked to the tiny mountain town to enjoy one of the High Country’s most unique events. With sunshine all day Saturday and a cloudy Sunday, visitors and vendors enjoyed a picture perfect weekend filled with food, games, crafts and, of course, woolly worm racing. 

After a canceled festival in 2020 due to COVID-19 and a rainy weekend in 2021, this year’s festival brought in record breaking numbers according to Anne Winkleman, executive director of the Avery County Chamber of Commerce. Winkleman estimated a total of 20,000 visitors from all over the country. Her measurement for the biggest year yet — the Famous Brick Oven Pizza of Banner Elk ran out of food at their food truck “for the first time in history.” 

Opening at 9 a.m. Saturday, visitors lined up to get their woolly worm registered to race early as spots fill up quickly. With over 1,000 woolly worms racing, many visitors bring their worm trained and ready for a long day of racing. Others, however, took the chance of purchasing an untrained worm at the festival. 

The winning worm has to brave through multiple races up a 3-foot string in order to be crowned victor. The champion worm is deemed as the winter weather forecasting agent and their trainer wins the cash prize of $1,000. According to local folklore, the 13 segments of a woolly worm represent the 13 weeks of winter and the winning woolly worm’s coloration determines the upcoming winter forecast. 

After a long day of racing and suspense, this year’s winning worm climbed to first place with the help of their coach Emma Denton of Gastonia. Denton’s worm Porta Potty anticipates a cold start to the winter with dark segments in the beginning and lighter brown toward the end, which means milder winter weather toward the end of winter.  

Carrying a tupperware container filled with leaves and sticks, she said each of her roommates brought woolly worms they found at home. 

“They all did pretty well,” Denton said. “Home-grown woolly worms for the win.”  

Denton is a third year student at App State. This is her second year attending the festival and first year racing. The name of her worm came from the location in which she found it, near a porta potty. 

“Number 2 comes in number 1 today,” said the announcer when the whistle blew and Porta Potty was deemed the winner. 

The festival is put on with the help of local businesses and is headed by the Avery County Chamber of Commerce. All proceeds from ticket sales go back into the community of Banner Elk. 

More than 160 vendors lined the festival grounds. With the selection of arts and crafts, food, live entertainment and games, visitors had an abundance of choice in entertainment. Families bounced around from booth to booth getting to know vendors and buying their products. Even a handmade mini golf set was set up in the center aisle for kids to enjoy. 

Nan Stricklen Drum of Woolly Worms and Stuff has been a vendor at the festival since 1988. Her booth sells handmade woolly worm pins, stuffed animals, slap bracelets and woolly worms themselves. Drum said the woolly worm festival has become a family gathering for her, having her children and grandchildren travel from all over the country to celebrate the festival. 

Carli Johnson

Her son, Shawn Stricklen, dons a bright orange suit covered in woolly worm paraphernalia that he wears every year. Stricklen helps call the races and brings smiles to everyone’s faces. 

Eleven-year old Eleanor lives in Florida and was visiting her grandmother. The pair sit on a hay bale in front of the stage anxiously awaiting their race. Wilkinson’s worm, named Inchy, has been in training all week. Her favorite part of the festival is the racing, said Wilkinson.