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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Wormgrunting. . . Not a Living for Everyone

 4/20/2007

Miami Herald (Miami, FL)

By Monica Hatcher

SOPCHOPPY, Fla.  In this tiny wooded hamlet about 33 miles southwest of Tallahassee, Fla., worm grunting is an industry that has all but vanished except for a few stalwart practitioners like Gary Revell.

A fourth-generation "grunter," Revell has been scaring up and harvesting worms for 50 years in the Apalachicola National Forest, the last 37 of them with his wife, Audrey.

Once a year, during the town's Annual Worm Gruntin' Festival which took place April 14.  Revell takes the day off to become a local attraction, sharing his wit and earth-worming wisdom with visitors. Each year, the crowds seem to grow, drawn by the unusual tradition that was once a major industry in Sopchoppy, population 475.

While it seems almost everyone knows someone who used to be in the business, Revell and his wife are among only a handful who still grunt every day. Equipped with little more than the tools their great-grandparents used a stob, a rooping iron, gallon cans and a croaker sack in which to carry it all they wade through saw palmetto and wiregrass looking for a promising patch of earth.

GIMME A GRUNT

The process of grunting itself is relatively simple, if not a little mysterious.

It involves hammering a short, wooden stake, or stob, about six to eight inches into the ground. On his knees, the grunter takes up a heavy iron shaft called the roop. Applying pressure, he draws it back and forth over the top of the stob, sending vibrations into the soil.

No one is quite sure why, but the vibrations lure the worms to the surface in droves, sometimes as far away as 30 feet.

"You can get anywhere from a handful to 5,000 worms a roop," Revell said, adding he does about 200 roops on a typical work day.

Audrey finds the worms and tosses them in the cans.

Rooping also creates the grunting noise for which the practice is famous. In the still of the forest, it can be heard from far away.

UNIQUE SOUNDS

"It sounds like the bellow of a bull gator," Revell said, adding that each grunter has his own identifiable timbre.

After the worms are cleaned, counted and packed 20 to a cup with a sprinkling of saw dust, Revell sells them to live bait stores throughout the region, sometimes shipping them across state lines via Greyhound bus.

Revell sells worms at about 6 cents a pop. While he won't discuss other financial details, it's likely his operating costs are low and go mostly toward packing supplies and gas to drive the worms to market. He also must pay an annual permitting fee to work in the state forest.

The family enjoyed easy grunting for years until word leaked in the early 1960s that worms could be harvested for a profit. Revell said it was like the gold rush came to Sopchoppy.

STICKY MEMORIES

"Almost everybody was doing it," recalled Willie Skipper, 78, who sold hotdogs with his family at the festival Saturday.

He himself started grunting in 1962, until he had enough of the grime and the "sticky milk" the worms left on his hands.

"I was always looking for something better, you know, but I stayed in it for six years," Skipper said.

Hannah Harrell, 64, remembered summers harvesting worms with her grandfather, who also grunted for a living.

"If you didn't go worming every day, you weren't eating," she said.

Even people who didn't grunt full time often took to the woods for supplemental income.

MEDIA COVERAGE

After a while, the overabundance of worms in the marketplace drove prices down, and crowds shrank. Still, grunting was still widely practiced enough in the `70s to catch the eye of CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt.

In 1972, he interviewed bait-store owner Myron Hodges, who claimed to make a quarter-million dollars a year buying worms from grunters on the cheap and reselling them to bait stores across the South. True or not, the IRS and the U.S. Forest Service found the story particularly interesting. They stepped in to regulate the industry, bringing an end to the golden era of worm harvesting.

The Revells warn that worm grunting is not for everyone.

"Unless you've lived and knew this stuff from your childhood, there's not much chance of surviving it," Revell said. "You got to be a determined person to withstand the hardships of this occupation."

 
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