Southwest Virginia legend is a boon for the state’s smallest city
by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer
In Southwest Virginia’s Powell Valley, near the city of Norton, legend has it that a Sasquatch-like creature roams the hills, and it’s at least partially responsible for boosting the local economy.
“With a population of 3,900, we are the smallest independent city in Virginia,” says Norton City Manager Fred Ramey. “Historically, Norton’s economy has relied on service industries for nearby coal counties. But when coal started taking a hit about a decade ago, we soon realized we had better start capitalizing on our natural assets and tourism.”
Enter the Woodbooger.
In October 2011, Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot” TV show paid a visit to Norton. The show spent a week in Southwest Virginia filming an episode that features scenes from Norton, as well as Washington County, Damascus and Saltville.
According to Animal Planet, a 2009 amateur video shot in nearby Gum Hill brought the “Finding Bigfoot” crew to Norton. The video, called the “Beast of Gum Hill,” can be seen on YouTube, and shows a large, shadowy figure crossing the path of a man riding an ATV through a local rocky stream.
“Virginia is certainly considered a Bigfoot sightings hotspot,” says Franky Go of Sasquatch Watch of Virginia, a watchdog group for Bigfoot sightings within the commonwealth. “We’ve had our fair share of Bigfoot reports.”
Ramey says Norton officials began researching and brainstorming how to make the best use of the city’s new notoriety. He says a newspaper article from The Old Post, dated Nov. 24, 1892, referred to a sighting of a Bigfoot-like “Woodbooger” creature, perhaps a name derived partially from the more universally popular “Boogeyman.”
Although sightings of Bigfoot-like creatures have been ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest for centuries, some historians say that most sightings in the South began only after the CivilWar.
They theorize that perhaps some soldiers who decided to isolate themselves from others after the war, and who continued to live off the land, were responsible for some of these early reports of disheveled “creatures” lurking in the woods.
Ramey says that after the “Finding Bigfoot” show aired, two enterprising employees, named Big O and Pickle, began printing and selling Woodbooger T-shirts at Norton’s local hardware store. “It all sort of blossomed from there,” he says. “We then obtained a service mark for the Woodbooger name from the United States Patent and Trademark Office for use in promoting tourism.”
Since then, Norton has embraced this mythical creature, with other local businesses now selling Woodbooger merchandise, the advent of the Woodbooger Grill restaurant in downtown Norton and the establishment of an annual fall Woodbooger Festival.
A geocaching event, known as the Woodbooger GeoTrail, is now also held each September. The event challenges participants to find caches hidden in Norton’s Flag Rock recreation area and surrounding communities.
If you happen to be walking the gravel footpath to the overlook in Norton’s Flag Rock recreation area, you can’t miss the giant Woodbooger statue. It’s located just beyond the parking area. The city erected the statue in 2015 after Norton City Council designated the recreation area as a Woodbooger Sanctuary in 2014.
“We’re happy to say that the legend is alive and well in Norton,” says Ramey. “As a matter of fact, during the last election, I saw some ‘Woodbooger for President’ signs.”