Winter beans

Tom Payne, resident bean-keeper at Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, shows his jar Wednesday with pennies that help him predict winter weather. Photo by Rob Moore

If you're the type that keeps a bean jar, you already have a prediction about what the rest of the county is wondering: When will the snow stop?

Folklore-followers have their guesses about what the rest of the season might hold, while their science-based counterparts analyze the weather models carefully.

Their methods differ, but they agree on one prediction: more winter weather is still to come, possibly in a snowy blast this weekend.

At Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, resident bean-keeper Tom Payne has two beans left. Technically, his "beans" are pennies, which he found easier to handle.

The basic legend is that each foggy morning in August correlates to a snow in the winter. Some people have different standards for the amount of fog and size of beans, but Payne keeps it basic.

He evaluates every fog and snowfall by looking directly outside the front door of the store.

Payne took out half a bean for Monday's snow, since it didn't fully obscure the grass.

He hasn't kept written records, but Payne said that during the last 10 years, he has erred less than 5 percent of the time, and three years have been perfect.

He called the results "astounding," and said that the only major error occurred four years ago when the jar overestimated by five snows.

"Of course, there are always skeptics, and I myself was skeptic," Payne said, "but as I said, the beans don't lie."

Joe Mullis of Creston, who has followed the bean-jar tradition in Ashe County for more than 20 years, takes the analysis further.

He goes into the same spot at 3:45 a.m. every August morning to examine the fog hovering in the valleys and drops a large bean into the jar for heavy fogs and a smaller bean for light fogs.

Mullis started the winter with 10 large beans and seven smaller beans and is now down to one.

"It's what the Indians did, and it's what the old-timers did, and it was just passed on down throughout the generations," Mullis said. "I guess I'm just an old-timer. I always went by the old ways."

Those "old ways" include 94 different signs that Mullis looks for to determine the winter's strength, such as whether he sees the black squirrel, a Native American sign of a bad winter.

He also evaluates factors such as the thickness of animal fur, how the grass lays and where bees create their nests. The methods might sound wacky to some, but believers like Mullis swear by them.

Other traditional weather forecasting techniques include the wooly worm, which suggests a strong winter if it has a heavy coat, has wider black bands than brown, is unusually slow or is crawling before the first frost.

Some believe that a colder winter will occur if ants build high mounds, berries are heavy on holly and dogwood trees, chimney smoke moves toward the ground or a turkey cooked in fall has a purple or dark blue breastbone.

Professor Daniel Caton in the ASU Department of Physics and Astronomy doesn't believe the traditional hype.

"It's kind of amusing, but I don't pay a whole lot of attention," Caton said. "I don't know whether the data are there, because you know, what do you call fog, and where? There are so many microclimates around here."

That issue - what constitutes a foggy day - is exactly the difficulty that John L'Heureux has with the bean-jar technique.

L'Heureux, creator of the Facebook page "L'Heureux's Weather," graduated from ASU last year with a major in geography and a minor in physics and now attends N.C. State University.

He has embarked on a scientific analysis of the bean jar prediction theory, with no conclusive results so far. But he said he believes the theory could lead to something if guidelines were set about what types of fog would qualify.

But until L'Heureux or anyone else can prove the bean jar theory right or wrong, Payne will be filling his bean jar each year as he has for the last 12.

"Being farmers, they were certainly aware of what was going on, and there's a lot of credence to all these little old adages," Payne said.

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