Famous Fall Festivals
“Every October, visitors and residents look forward to these two long-lived festivals that celebrate the nature, heritage and people of the High Country.”
By Steve York
Valley Country Fair… as Authentic as It Gets!
Country fairs have historically taken place with the onset of harvest season to show gratitude for the bounties of nature and to celebrate a shared community spirit. That shared community spirit also included giving back to those who were most in need.
In modern times, some such events have become more commercialized, and often at the expense of losing that shared community spirit. But Not So here in our smaller mountain communities. And especially Not So for the Valle Country Fair.
Held each year on scenic highway 194 in the picturesque setting of Valle Crucis, across from the Valle Crucis Conference Center, this fair continues to be as authentic as it was some 42 years ago.
Fair historian Dedy Traver has been part of the event since its inception. “In 1978 Polly Capps gathered a small group of us folks from Holy Cross Episcopal Church to consider having an old-timey country fair to celebrate how country folks used to do things, to help bring the church and community closer together, and to raise funds towards building a new church parish hall,” recalled Traver.
The first Fair was held in 1979 at the Apple Barn at the Valle Crucis Conference Center and has since moved to the open field across from the Center. According to Traver, after that first event their Priest said that if this was to become an annual Fair, future proceeds should only be used for church outreach programs. And, with Polly Capps helping to drive momentum, the Valle Country Fair officially became an annual community-wide fundraising celebration. The event is expected to draw up to 12,000 visitors this year on Saturday, October 16.
Live local bluegrass, gospel and country bands, cloggers, square dancers, storytellers, children’s games, pumpkin bowling, handmade country crafts, Brunswick stew, barbeque, hot dogs, burgers, chili, roasted corn on the cob, sausage and onions, apple cider, apple butter, jellies and jams, and an average of 165 juried exhibitors have topped the menu of food and entertainment each year.
Homemade jellies are in huge demand with regular Fair patrons coming back year after year for their favorites. “We normally have 55 to 60 cases of homemade jams, jellies, relishes and pickles for sale and several that you can only find at our Fair! Our biggest seller is Pittsburg Relish, which was a recipe from my grandmother,” boasts Traver, the official ‘Jelly Queen’ and overseer of the Jelly-Jamboree Booth.
As for the Fair’s famous apple butter, “I head up what’s called the Apple Butter Gang,” noted Fair apple master, Walter Pitt. “These are 18 to 20 people who work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. the Friday before the Fair and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fair day making and jarring apple butter. Back in 1993 we made it in a single 20-gallon copper kettle. This year it’s four 40-gallon kettles and two 30-gallon kettles to produce 120 gallons. Yet, even that much apple butter won’t be enough to fill demand,” added Pitt.
Tracey and John Heiss are current Fair Chairpersons, a role that changes out every two years. “John and I became members of Holy Cross when we moved here four years ago. We first attended as volunteers for the Fair in 2019. Now, as Chairs, we oversee all aspects of running and coordination of the Fair while engaging the community for support and boosting awareness. It feels good to be part of a something that truly cares for the welfare of those in need here and in surrounding communities,” Tracey noted.
Several church membership-operated concessions give 100 percent of their proceeds to the Fair. Other exhibitors are asked to “tithe” ten percent of their revenues. In 2019 the Fair channeled $60,000 to High Country charitable organizations. Generally, some proceeds are disbursed via grants to area ministries and some are retained to assist families in crisis by the Church outreach committee throughout the year.
Like many other events, the pandemic forced organizers to put on a Virtual Fair last year. “We had no idea if it was possible. But, under the experienced leadership of past co-chairs Bob and Julie Gates, we were able to exceed our fundraising goal for grant recipients,” noted Traver.
From that very first Fair in 1979, giving back to the community has been the shared spirit of the event. As previous Fair Chair Beryl Scuitti always said, “The purpose of the Valle Country Fair was NOT how much money we raised, but to show people that we can do God’s work and have a great time!”
Learn more about this year’s Valle Country Fair at www.vallecountryfair.org. Nonprofits in Avery and Watauga Counties may apply for grants by contacting the Church’s Mission & Outreach Committee at www.vallecountryfair.org/funds.
The Annual Woolly Worm Festival…44 Years and Counting
Let’s imagine it’s the late 1970s. You’ve been invited to attend a Banner Elk town meeting for the purpose of forming an official merchants’ association.
During that meeting, you (we’ll call you “Jim”), suggest an annual event to help boost the community’s tourism profile and tourism dollars. “Great idea! Any suggestions for an event?” local leaders ask.
So, you stand up and say something like, “As a matter of fact, I do!” At that point you begin to describe an event in which people take a bunch of fuzzy “worms” and try to race them uphill on a skinny string while yelling wildly for a winner. You call it the “Woolly Worm Festival.”
Now, if you didn’t also happen to be Jim Morton of the beloved Grandfather Mountain Morton family, they may not have taken you seriously. But you were. And they did.
So, why a Woolly Worm festival? In short, Morton had been researching about how autumn’s woolly worms (Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillars) had a reputation for predicting winter weather via the degree of black and brown coloring on their 13-segment bodies.
And, since Morton was also familiar with Pennsylvania’s world-famous Groundhog Day festival starring “Punxsutawney Phil,” he suggested a similar event, only substituting the woolly worm for the groundhog.
There was one problem, however. In some cases, the caterpillars’ predominant colors varied from worm to worm. So, instead, he suggested holding a race with worms climbing up a three-foot length of twine. The worm that made it to the top first would become that year’s official winter weather prognosticator. And that’s pretty much how the annual autumn Banner Elk Woolly Worm Festival began.
The first year’s event in 1978 drew a modest crowd. But, thanks to regional and national TV news coverage and a lot of local support, it has grown to attract up to 20,000 festival goers annually.
Woolly Worm is held on the grounds of the Historic Banner Elk School each third weekend in October and is co-sponsored by the Banner Elk Kiwanis Club and Avery County Chamber of Commerce. This year’s event falls on Saturday, October 16 and Sunday, October 17.
“We have a hundred or more volunteers each year,” noted Avery County Chamber of Commerce Director, Anne Winkelman. “Volunteers come from Chamber members, our Kiwanis Club co-sponsor members, the Civil Air Patrol and community supporters. Festival planning is a year-round project. In fact, we’ll get applications for next year during this year’s festival,” Winkelman added.
But, of course, there’s much more to the Woolly Worm Festival than caterpillar races. The two-day festival includes a rich variety of 160 to175 craft and food vendors, rides, live music and entertainment, plus a host of children’s activities to assure a fun time for all ages. And no one knows that better than Kiwanis’ own Mary Jo Brubaker, official Chairperson of the festival.
“I’ve been involved in the festival for at least 14 years and Chairperson for eight,” Brubaker recalled. “My main reason for being involved is how the festival benefits the community. In fact, Lees-McRae did a study a few years back estimating a three million dollar economic impact on this area. But the best part for me is how all the proceeds go straight back towards improving the lives and schools of Avery County children, for boosting local tourism and for encouraging community economic development,” Brubaker added.
Festival goers are always excited to see “Merryweather,” the giant Woolly Worm mascot, mingling with the crowd. And all anxiously await Saturday’s official weather prediction from the winning worm announced by the “worm whisperer,” Tommy Burleson.
But, of course, there is another local celebrity who’s been synonymous with the event. And that’s the original Mr. Woolly Worm himself, Roy Krege. “I started announcing the second year of the festival and came up with a special shirt from Don Iverson’s t-shirt shop. My wife, Marion, found a colorful pair of pants and Don added decals. I was declared ‘Mr. Woolly Worm’ for 39 years,” recalled Krege.
His role was to call the races, announce the winners, and award Saturday’s $1,000 prize and Sunday’s $500 prize. “That was always the highlight for me,” added Krege.
After Krege retired in 2016, Jason DeWitt, Adam Binder and Shawn Stricklen have admirably shared the Mr. Woolly Worm role. But all will admit that Roy Krege made Mr. Woolly Worm a legendary festival icon. And all will gratefully honor the memory of Jim Morton for his crazy idea about creating a festival around a fuzzy worm climbing a string.Details at www.woollyworm.com and www.averycounty.com.