The sound and the scurry

Abbeville, Ga., is home to the Wild Hog Festival, while Coalinga, Calif., boasts the Horned Toad Festival and Derby. Not to be outdone, the town of Brevard is preparing to launch its first-annual White Squirrel Festival.

The event’s theme? “Go Nuts!” Of course.

Brevard is one of reportedly only four areas in America where white squirrels — a variant on the Eastern gray squirrel — can be found. Just how the creatures arrived in this WNC mountain community is open to speculation; one of the more colorful explanations, however, involves a white-squirrel-stocked carnival truck (or train, depending on who’s telling the story) that wrecked near Brevard in the 1940s, on its way from Florida.

In fact, one of the many activities scheduled for the White Squirrel Festival will be a children’s writing contest on the creature’s potential origins, points out Margaret Woodard of the civic organization Heart of Brevard, the festival’s main organizer.

“I mean, did they come over on the Mayflower or what?” Woodard asks with a laugh.

Woodard cites the white-squirrel-anthem contest as another potentially hysterical festival event. “The winner will have the honor of performing their anthem on Squirrel Radio, WSQL 140 AM.”

Squirrel Radio? Why not? Brevard is actually rife with white-squirrel-related items and venues, including downtown’s White Squirrel Shoppe, home to mugs, T-shirts, candles, suncatchers, note cards, napkin holders, license plates, ornaments and all manner of other squirrel gewgaws.

And while the festival has been a long time in the making, it’s hardly been for lack of interest in the town’s pale-furred subjects.

“For years and years,” says Woodward, “everyone’s pointed out that we’re famous for white squirrels — so why not celebrate that?”

Indeed, somewhat of a cult seems to have sprung up around these adorably aberrant rodents. There’s even a White Squirrel Research Institute (affiliated with Brevard College) that lovingly documents the critters’ population fluctuations and prepares sector maps to assure the best squirrel watching.

Meanwhile, a link on the institute’s Web site (tornado.brevard.edu/whitesquirrel) intriguingly titled “The Florida Connection” (“Are we talking about a white-squirrel drug ring here?” a friend asked) introduces browsers to “Melanie.” It’s speculated that this lovely little critter from Orlando — not to be confused with Xpress A&E Editor Melanie McGee, who also hails from the Sunshine State — is derived from the same parental stock as the Brevard white squirrels.

Woodard points out that true white-squirrel aficionados can even adopt one of the animals through a Heart of Brevard program; squirrel “parents” receive a birth certificate and two letters per year from their adopted creature, not to mention 30-percent discounts from certain local merchants.

Just how frequently can these distinctive animals be spotted during a casual walk about Brevard?

“There’s one that lives on the courthouse lawn,” notes Woodard, “and one that lives at the Womble Inn. You just want to stop your car. They’re so beautiful.”

Other squirrel-centric festival activities will include white-squirrel drink specials; a build-a-squirrel-feeder competition; photo ops with “Pisgah Polly,” a white squirrel rehabbed by naturalist Jennifer Burgin; a white-squirrel-spotting walking tour; and the unveiling of artist Katherine Wilson’s white-squirrel sculpture, carved from native North Carolina marble.

For those who need still more, there’ll also be an antique show, craft and food vendors and, of course, a full lineup of music. (Stellar singer/songwriter Beth Wood, a former Brevard resident, will fly in from Texas for the event.)

“Everybody has put blood, sweat and tears into the festival,” Woodard says, going on to list the inaugural event’s wide range of organizers and sponsors (everyone from Wachovia Bank to — naturally — the White Squirrel Shoppe).

Everybody but the stars of the show, that is.

While the elusive snowy rodents are presumably tending to their nuts, Woodward notes that the festival’s human participants are e-mailing each other “at odd hours of the night [to] say, ‘What do you think of this?'”

Other odd-animal festivals

That time-honored tradition of towns “adopting” an animal and building a festival around it is obviously still going strong. While Brevard celebrates its prized white squirrel, other locales across the country have made their own noteworthy nods.

Here’s a few real head-scratchers:

McCrory, Ark., residents get excited about their annual Mosquito Fest each June; optimistically, event organizers are seeking to expand this year, their 13th.

June is the also the month that Douglas, Wyo., holds its annual Jackalope Days, while Eagle Lake, Texas, chooses to have its Prairie Chicken Festival in April.

In September, Morgan City, La., launches something called the Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival (www.shrimp-petrofest.org/main2.htm), which begs the question: Is this a protest of the effects of toxic waste on marine life or a celebration of it?

The National Trout Festival (www.kalkaskami.com/trout), held each April in Kalkaska, Mich., is a bit perplexing, since it seems mostly to consist of various pizza-eating contests.

And speaking of Michigan: The town of Seney’s Owl Days Festival in February offers the following enticement: “Dissect owl pellets to learn what these birds of prey eat.” Guess winters get pretty long up there.

The ultimate in bad taste, however, has to be the Rocky Branch, La., Road Kill Festival, offering “food” (no thanks) and, “to top it all off,” boasts www.Southfest.com, “a male beauty pageant.”

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