The annual Dick Goddard Woollybear Festival is held every Fall in downtown Vermilion, Ohio, on Lake Erie. The one-day, family event, which began in 1973, features a woolly bear costume contest in which children, even pets, are dressed up as various renditions of the woolly bear caterpillar.
The festival is the brainchild of legendary Cleveland TV personality Dick Goddard, longtime weatherman at WJW-TV. In much the same way Punxsutawney Phil is celebrated in the century-old tradition of Groundhog Day in which he predicts the end of winter, the Woolly Bear Caterpillar is similarly celebrated for its mythical association to winter forecasting. After the caterpillars' eggs hatch in Fall, folklore suggests the severity of an upcoming winter can be gauged by observing the amount of black versus orange in the caterpillars' bands.
In later years, the event organizers have promoted the event as the "Dick Goddard Woollybear Festival" to honor Goddard's legacy.
According to the festival's website:
In 1972 the newly elected officers of the Parent Teachers Association at the Firelands-Florence Township Elementary School in the tiny community of Birmingham in Erie County were looking around for a vehicle to raise funds. They heard about Goddard's idea of a Woollybear Festival. They contacted him and offered to stage the festival with his help.
The first Woollybear Festival was held in Birmingham and attracted perhaps 2,000 people. The parade was short--just the Firelands High School Band, some boy scouts and the local fire department, along with personalities from TV8--and they decided to go around the parade route twice, just to make it look longer.
Attracting 2,000 spectators in the first year, the number grew to an estimated 15,000 by the eighth festival and quickly overwhelmed the town of Birmingham. Of the 13 cities that expressed interest, organizers selected Vermilion as the new home.
The parade in 2006 involved over 20 marching bands, 2,000 marchers, hundreds of animals, and over 100,000 spectators.
The "Woollybear 500" is a race that starts off with the Chief of police and the Chief of fire selecting individual woollybears and racing against each other. The woollybears are obtained by the Vermilion Chamber and details of the training and skills of said woollybears are not divulged to the participants. The race is monitored by professionals from TV-8. No woollybears are harmed in the participation of these races.
One of the little-known facts about the Woollybear Festival is how its date is chosen each year. Goddard has worked for many seasons as the statistician for all home games of the Cleveland Browns. He waits until he sees the team's schedule each fall, then picks the Sunday in late September or early October that the Browns are playing out of town. That becomes Woollybear Sunday.