VERMILION — Ohio’s largest one-day festival returns this weekend to celebrate a caterpillar.
The 46th annual Woollybear Festival returns Sunday to Vermilion, bringing with it a host of local television personalities and tradition.
Longtime host Cleveland weatherman Dick Goddard of WJW-TV will be the grand marshal of the parade — the Wonderful, Wacky Woollybear Parade, to be precise — and will of course announce the upcoming winter forecast at the end of the day.
The festival kicks off at 9 a.m. with the YMCA’s annual World’s Greatest Kids Race at the Vermilion High School stadium.
At 10 a.m., the Woollybear 500 preliminaries will be raced. WJW-TV/Fox 8 personalities Big Chuck and Lil John will preside over the event.
King and Queen Woollybear — always children —will be announced and then the winners of the best woolly-bear costumes for animals will be judged, until the parade begins at 1:30 p.m. Live music will start at 3:45 p.m., the Woollybear 500 will be 5 to 6 p.m. and the finale comes when Goddard makes his prediction of the coming winter forecast.
“With the Woollybear Festival, it’s all about tradition. It’s a day when all ages can be a kid for the day,” said Sandra Coe, executive director of the Vermilion Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the festival.
More than 80 merchants and about 45 food vendors will be set up in the Victory Park area of town, south of the railroad tracks, with others lining Main Street through downtown. There will be activities for children like a bounce house and midway-style games.
Every step of the event includes many of Goddard’s partners at Fox 8, whether as judges, or announcing contest winners or riding along in the parade with dozens of marching bands and civic organizations and local politicians.
A perennial highlight is the pets-dressed-as-woolly-bears contest, an event close to animal activist Goddard’s heart, and the Woollybear 500, which pits locals with found woolly bears trying to beat their friends’ and neighbors’ woolly bears.
“I’ve had a few people in the Birmingham and Wakeman area posting pics of their woolly bears they’re bringing,” Coe said. “They’re finding them looking under leaves and logs.”
What is a woolly bear?
Sometimes also called a woolly worm, a woolly bear is a nickname for the Isabella tiger moth larvae. The caterpillar’s short body is active in the fall, looking for shelter to ride out the winter. Its body of short bristles had bands of orange or rusty brown and black.
According to legend, its colors can predict the coming winter weather. The forecast is all about the black: the wider the black bands, the harsher the weather.
They tend to winter in dark, protected places like under rocks or in logs but at this time of year can be found on back porches or crossing roads, looking for their winter homes.
After producing their own natural antifreeze all winter, they emerge in spring as a moth.
The legend of its ability to predict the weather was long a folk legend but in 1948 the curator of insects from the American Museum of Natural History in New York made a lighthearted trek to the woods to test out a theory.
He and his wife gathered all the woolly bears they could find, averaged their colored segments, and predicated the winter weather. Finding it surprisingly accurate — given the highly unscientific method — he continued making the fall trips with friends for nearly 10 years, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. They even dubbed their group The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.
Vermilion’s event draws huge crowds. Last year, an estimated 150,000 people attended.
“The Woollybear is something people remember. It brings back great memories and everyone feels like a kid for the day,” Coe said.