The Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival celebrates this rare art and unique slice of backwoods Florida culture annually on the second Saturday in April.


This post is sponsored by VISIT FLORIDA, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.


Florida’s Local Culture


Most visitors to Florida do not realize that beyond the beaches and theme parks, the Sunshine State has a rural culture all its own. If you look even closer, you will uncover pockets of regional micro-cultures with rich histories and diverse ways of life across the state.

Local culture is often reflected in the hundreds of annual events hosted statewide throughout the year.

Several events spotlight local agriculture, such as the Williston Peanut Festival, the Florida Strawberry Festival in my hometown of Plant City, and annual watermelon festivals in Chiefland, Newberry, Monticello, and Chipley.

A few events even celebrate Florida wildlife, like the Rattlesnake Festival in San Antonio.

Such is the case, with a relatively unknown event we discovered recently in the North Florida town of Sopchoppy.


Sopchoppy


Sopchoppy (pop. 500) is located in the Big Bend region of Florida, between the peninsula and the panhandle. It is about 35 miles south of Tallahassee and only a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Like many Florida towns, Sopchoppy’s unique named is derived from a Native American word, in this case the Muscogee term “lokchapi,” meaning “acorn stem.”

In 1893, the Carrabelle, Tallahassee and Georgia Railroad laid tracks through this part of the state and built a depot. The community of Sopchoppy grew up around the station, and by 1910 it had become the largest incorporated town in Wakulla County.

The busy rail line transported both freight and passengers. Rail cars carried lumber, turpentine, honey, and ice-packed barrels of fish, oysters, frog legs, and sturgeon caviar to markets in the North. Tourists traveled south to the Grand Hotel and Casino at the seaside village of Lanark, while soldiers journeyed to the seaport terminal on the Gulf. At Sopchoppy, passengers could transfer to a mule-drawn tramcar that would carry them along wooden tracks to the mineral springs in Panacea.

Ownership of the rail line changed hands several times over the years, and in 1946 the last train left the Sopchoppy Depot.

In 2010, the City of Sopchoppy restored the abandoned depot and opened the historical landmark to the public as a museum of local history.

Locals fondly call the museum the “Gopher, Frog and Alligator Depot” after the Georgia, Florida and Alabama Railway, one of the previous owners of the line.

The depot has its place as a prominent historical structure responsible for the founding of the town, but it is not the attraction that has brought Sopchoppy its renown.

Sopchoppy’s fame is due to something much smaller and much more slimy, and as you near town it is difficult to miss the sign.

Sopchoppy is home to the Worm Gruntin’ Festival, sponsored by the Sopchoppy Preservation and Improvement Association. This event, celebrated annually on the second Saturday in April, began in 2000 and has grown in popularity over the years.


What is Worm Grunting?


Worm grunting, also known as worm charming, worm fiddling, worm snoring, or worm rooping is a method of driving earthworms to the surface of the earth so they can easily be collected as live bait for fishing.

Although the technique has been practiced for generations in the area, it is not unique to the Florida backwoods. Harvesters in other parts of the globe practice the art, and competitive events are held in distant locations such as Texas, Canada, and England.

Worm grunting involves driving a stake into the ground and repetitively rubbing a steel file across the top of the stake. Vibrations created in the process mimic the sound made by hungry moles and drive earthworms to the surface of the ground. The term “grunting” evolved not only from the sound it makes, but also from the intense efforts of the rooper.

In his final work, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881), British naturalist Charles Darwin theorized: “It has often been said that if the ground is beaten or otherwise made to tremble, worms believe that they are pursued by a mole and leave their burrows. From one account that I have received, I have no doubt that this is often the case . . . .”

Scientists have also observed this behavior in the animal kingdom with birds and turtles tapping the ground to raise earthworms to the surface for prey.

In 2008, Vanderbilt University biologist Ken Catania traveled to Florida, and in a series of experiments with local roopers proved Darwin’s theory to be fact.


Tools of the Trade


In their pamphlet, The Art of Earth Worming. local experts Gary and Audrey Revell share the two main tools and method they use for worm grunting.

“The wooden stob is driven six to eight inches into the ground by the rooping iron. Then by rubbing the iron across the top of the wooden stob you create a vibration which we call ‘rooping.’ The earthworms should surface the ground when the vibrations are sensed.”


Gary and Audrey Revell


Gary and Audrey Revell are local legends, true professional bait harvesters who make their living from worm grunting. Gary is a 4th-generation worm grunter who has honed his craft since childhood.

BBC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and more news outlets than you can “roop a stob at” have interviewed and featured the Revells, and their work provided resources for the Catania study.

There may be other local worm grunters, but if so, their fame does not precede them like that of the Revells. Gary and Audrey are winners of the 2010 Florida Folk Heritage Award, a distinction given to “outstanding folk artists and folk culture advocates who have made long-standing contributions to the folk cultural resources of the state.”

The Revells harvest the majority of their take in the Apalachicola National Forest where the soil and moisture conditions are ideal.

Preparation for a typical day of worm grunting begins before daybreak. At dawn, Gary begins rooping and Audrey begins collecting earthworms that surface by the thousands.

A gallon bucket holds about 500 worms, and the harvest normally yields about six cans of worms in three hours. After collections, the Revells count the worms into blue pint cups for distribution to bait shops.


Worm Grunting Demonstration


The first event scheduled after the festival opening ceremonies was a worm grunting demonstration by Gary Revell. The demo was conducted on the lawn adjacent to the Sopchoppy Depot, not exactly prime soil like that in the national forest.

Revell pounded the stob with his roop several inches into the ground and then began to rub the roop across the top end of the stob. Within minutes, earthworms broke the surface, and the event organizer displayed them proudly to the crowd.


The Worm Gruntin’ Contest


After the demonstration, it was time for the worm grunting contest to begin. Children ages 12 and under amassed on the lawn with stobs and roops in hand. Soon they began repeating the steps they had observed in Revell’s demonstration.

I admit I was skeptical.

This wasn’t really a contest, just a fun activity to let the kids try their hand at worm grunting. There was no way these kids would be able to harvest any worms.

But I was wrong.

Even though these youngsters were trying their hands at worm grunting for the first time, the method worked. And soon, kids were filling their plastic cups with worm harvests of their own.

That said, no one would question that for professional roopers like the Revells, the practice is more art, than science.

When time was called, judges counted the worms in each child’s cup and later announced the names of six winners.

Then, adults were invited on the lawn to try their hand at worm grunting to make sure everyone had opportunity to enjoy the grunting fun.


Other Festival Highlights


Each year, the festival releases original artwork for T-shirts, caps, koozies, and posters. The souvenir tent was so popular that there were no XL T-shirts left when we stopped by the table later in the afternoon.

Artwork from past festivals is on display in the depot museum.

More than 100 concessions and crafts vendors lined the cordoned-off streets.

As a retro roadtripper, my favorite booth was the vendor selling Vintage Vibes Tune Totes from a fully-restored Volkswagen bus. These upcycled vintage suitcases and toolboxes are repurposed into portable, wireless, rechargeable boomboxes. Too cool for school!

Organizers round out the festival with a full slate of optional activities for every interest, including live music, various contests, a college scholarship, and a 5K race. The final event of the evening is the Worm Grunter’s Ball, where attendees dance under the stars and crown the Worm Grunter’s King and Queen,


Video



Sopchoppy Grocery


Just beyond the depot is a living relic from the past and an essential element of the quaint, small-town atmosphere. Walking the aisles of Sopchoppy Grocery, stocked with canned goods, fresh produce, and meats, took me back to the grocery stores of my childhood, a refreshing break from today’s big box stores.

The store also stocks hardware, camping, and fishing supplies, including Sopchoppy earthworms in the iconic blue cups for just $2.50 each.

When visiting or passing through, don’t miss the Sopchoppy Grocery. Stock up on picnic supplies or stop in to say hi.


Sopchoppy Pizza


If a picnic is not your style, just around the corner from the grocery you will find The Sopchoppy Pizza Company. Opened in 2013, not only is it the newest restaurant in town, it is the only restaurant in town.

Having a monopoly as a food outlet in no way affects the superior quality of menu items and service in this top-notch establishment. The signature thin-crust is made with local tupelo honey, and other ingredients are sourced from regional organic farms when available.

We opted for an outdoor lunch in the courtyard, starting with salads and ending with a savory carnivore pizza.

The menu also features appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes, and a nice selection of craft beers on tap.


Other Regional Sites and Activities


The Big Bend region of the Florida Panhandle is home to an abundance of scenic sites and cultural activities. For travelers planning a weekend road trip or weeklong vacation, we suggest the following recommendations for your itinerary.

The Big Bend Scenic Byway


We love to drive America’s National Scenic Byways, and as if by design, the 220-mile Big Bend Scenic Byway passes right through worm grunting territory, bisecting the Apalachicola National Forest and passing through the metropolis of Sopchoppy.

The Big Bend Scenic Byway is the perfect starting point for exploring this regions “wildlife, woods, waterways, and way of life.” The byway website offers a wealth of downloadable PDF resources, including a comprehensive 76-page Guide to the Big Bend Scenic Byway.

Full-color maps of the Forest Trail and the Coastal Trail for hikers are available, as well.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge


Positioned on the migration paths of Monarch butterflies, whooping cranes, and other species, the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is a not-to-be missed jewel on the Florida Gulf Coast. Perfect for picnicking, boating, fishing, hiking, and cycling, the refuge is also a gateway for birdwatchers on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.

St. Mark’s Lighthouse


The 1842 St. Mark’s Lighthouse is a prominent feature within the wildlife refuge. This light is the second-oldest light station in the state of Florida and has witnessed an intriguing history, withstanding hurricanes, erosion, and wars. It remains an active navigation aid for vessels in Apalachee Bay.

The Gulf Beaches


Florida’s white sand Gulf beaches need no promotion, but they are worth a mention here due to their proximity to Sopchoppy and their inclusion along the Big Bend Scenic Byway. Bald Point and St. George Island state parks are two convenient beaches perfect for spending the day and witnessing a Florida sunset.

Harvey’s Historic Truck Display


I have a soft place in my heart for rusty vehicles. They have traveled many miles and keep their untold stories locked in silence. Harvey’s Historic Truck Display is an unofficial roadside attraction that was born when Pat Harvey began chronologically lining up out-of-service Ford trucks from the Harvey family farm. You will find it midpoint between Crawfordville and Medart on the west side of Hwy. 319.

I recommend visiting in the early morning when the sun is positioned perfectly for photography.

Tupelo Honey


Local tupelo honey has been called “the gold standard by which other honey varieties are measured.” Honeybees gather nectar from blossoms of Ogeechee tupelo trees that grow in the moist floodplains of North Florida rivers to make their liquid gold. This rare sweet treat made famous in the 1972 Van Morrison song is sold throughout the region by beekeepers and roadside vendors.

Apalachicola Oysters


The coastal town of Apalachicola is located at the western tip of the Big Bend Scenic Byway, but not to worry if your travels do not take you that far. You can find world-famous Apalachicola oysters at more centrally located boater and biker bars. We highly recommend our two favorite joints: Mad Anthony’s Waterfront Grille in Panacea, and Ouzts’ Too Oyster Bar & Grill in Newport, situated on Hwy. 98 just west of the Lighthouse Rd. entrance to St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge.


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We Would Love to Hear From You


We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever been to a small town Florida cultural event like the Worm Gruntin’ Festival? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!


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The Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival celebrates this rare art and unique slice of backwoods Florida culture annually on the second Saturday in April.


Helpful Links


VISIT FLORIDA

City of Sopchoppy

Worm Gruntin’ Festival

Sopchoppy Grocery

The Sopchoppy Pizza Company

America’s National Scenic Byways

Big Bend Scenic Byway

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail

St. Mark’s Lighthouse

Bald Point State Park

St. George Island State Park

Mad Anthony’s Waterfront Grille

Ouzts’ Too Oyster Bar & Grill

Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel web site Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with the likes of Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. Recently retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, restored classic movies on Blu-ray, HDTV, autumn, sandhill cranes, hot springs, Florida springs, rain and other gloomy weather, log cabins, cracker shacks, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, museums, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, scenic and historical sites, castles, cathedrals, the Civil War, cold sheets, National and State Park Passports, quotes, the Rambos, Dionne Warwick, Steely Dan, Doobies, Diet Pepsi, Fish City Grill, anything Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists. And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.

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