NEWLAND — The Woolly Worm festival is this weekend, and the annual affair is one of the largest single event tourism draws to the county, along with the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

In the run up to the main event, the festival is on the road at the county’s elementary schools to showcase what the festival is all about: worm races and putting smiles on faces.

The races at the schools are modeled after the main event’s several-dozen heat affair in miniature. Kids race their caterpillars up regulation woolly worm string in a few rounds to narrow it down to the best worms of the bunch before competing in the final. There is also a teacher round.

All the other kids get to watch the action and cheer on their favorite worms.

Newland Elementary School was the first on the list this year. Dwight Teague’s appropriately named “Speedy” was the champion worm for the day, but there is more to these races than competitive worm athletics.

“The schools are the most important part of this whole thing,” Woolly Worm Dude Jason DeWitt said. “My job is to go out and see the media, the radio stations and the TV stations. Before I call them to organize those appointments I contact the elementary schools.”

Every elementary school student gets free admission to the festival, which is the largest fundraiser for the Avery County Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk, both of which are nonprofits.

Kiwanis’ mission is to support local children and uses the funds it gathers to support causes that benefit them directly.

“Woolly Worm gives back to the schools with the Woolly Worm grants, so I think it’s really important to recognize them because they give a lot of money to our school system,” NES Principal Monet Samuelson said.

Samuelson added that the school appreciates the time taken to come host the event and that the kids love the races.

DeWitt noted an elementary school in Tennessee has also requested an appearance from Merryweather the Woolly Worm and DeWitt.

“Of course we’ll show up,” Dewitt said.

The woolly worm is a major piece of local folklore, with the colored segments of the champion worm at the main event purported to predict the winter weather. There are 13 segments on each insect, one for each week of winter.

The worm also has the honor of being read by local celebrity Tommy Burleson.

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