Disciples and doubters celebrate legend of Bigfoot at North Carolina festival

Updated 7:10 PM ET, Sun September 9, 2018

Marion, North Carolina (CNN)A huge crowd of people had gathered on the lawn of the McDowell County Courthouse Saturday when an ape-like creature in a T-shirt bounded through the cheering onlookers and joined Marion Mayor Steve Little on stage.

"This morning I have this special proclamation," Little said, holding up a document with his signature and a gold seal at the bottom. He read aloud.
"I do hereby proclaim today, Saturday, September 8, 2018, that Bigfoot is the official animal of the city of Marion, North Carolina," Little said, as the costumed Bigfoot clapped enthusiastically.
Thus began the inaugural Western North Carolina Bigfoot Festival in this town near the Blue Ridge Mountains about 40 miles east of Asheville.
Mayor Steve Little presented Bigfoot with a declaration naming him Marion's official animal for the day.
Converging on Marion were thousands of believers and skeptics alike, united in their celebration of a cryptozoological mystery that has fascinated people for decades.
"Bigfoot is real," said festival organizer John Bruner, "and we want to bring awareness to that and bring more people to the table to get this mystery solved."
Bruner is part of something called the Bigfoot 911 research team, which investigates purported Bigfoot sightings and evidence. He has lived in Marion all his life and said he decided to stage the festival after the town's business association approached him with the idea.
"And, at the same time," he added, "we want to have fun and fellowship with our fellow citizens and our visitors."
If you ignored the Bigfoot T-shirts, the Bigfoot artwork and the occasional costumed Bigfoot, the festival seemed like any a small Southern city might hold at the tail end of summer.
Festivalgoers posed for photos with this sign.
The day started with a 5K before three blocks of downtown Marion's Main Street were closed to vehicles for the day. Vendors from North Carolina and beyond sold everything from knit hats to jewelry. There was barbecue, Chick-fil-A, funnel cakes, shaved ice and plenty of beer for parents who sought refuge in the shade as their kids frolicked in bouncy houses.
The legendary Bigfoot -- or Sasquatch, if you prefer -- is most commonly associated with the Pacific Northwest. But sightings have been reported all over North America -- including in Marion, said Little, who has lived in the town for decades.
Folks around this town of 7,500 report one or two sightings a year, he said.
"For years there were people who would talk about, 'Oh, I saw a great big old footprint out in the woods — it's bigger than a coyote, and it wasn't a bear.'"

'Do you believe it?'

Bruner's fellow Bigfoot researchers set up a tent with evidence they'd spent years gathering. All day people waited in line to examine photographs, video footage, audio recordings and casts of purported Bigfoot feet and hands.
Researcher Lee Woods, who has spent a decade chasing Bigfoot, displayed two casts. The first was a massive foot, 14 inches long and 7 inches wide. The other was less identifiable. It looked sort of like a clump of plaster and pine straw, with what appeared to be an extra toe.
"It's either 6 toes, which is a deformity, or it's a hand, and that's the knuckles," said Woods, pointing.
"He's knuckle-dragging," he explained. "They walk upright, but they will drop on all fours and knuckle-drag like a gorilla, and then stand up and take off."
Bigfoot researcher Lee Woods brought two casts he'd collected over the years.
At a nearby table, researcher Tim Dills displayed a series of photos he captured on trail cameras set up in the woods. One appeared to be a picture of brush, but Dills pointed to what he said was a face in the foliage.
Two men studied the photos before walking away.
"Well, do you believe it?" one asked.
"Not yet," his companion replied.
Sitting on a curb nearby was Colby Wollack, who said he definitely considers himself a believer. "There's too much land out there, and there's so much evidence," he said.
His wife, Monica Fortenberry, couldn't help but crack a smile. She was skeptical.
"There's just no way that there is something of this size out in the woods anywhere," she said. "It's either a bear, or it's not."
From left: Montgomery Fortenberry, Monica Fortenberry and Colby Wollack
Between them was Monica's brother, Montgomery. He doesn't quite believe in Bigfoot — the evidence didn't convince him — but said he considers himself an "enthusiast."
"I think it's a great hobby and I think people should keep doing it whether they believe in it or not," he said. "I like the idea of it, even if it's never proven. I think it's still a good story."

'Gone Squatchin'

In the afternoon, throngs of festivalgoers regrouped on the courthouse lawn for what organizers dubbed a "town hall."
But instead of discussing municipal issues, one Bigfoot believer after another stood up to share stories of their encounters.
One person mentioned seeing an aging Bigfoot whose fur was graying. Another shared an account of seeing a female Bigfoot and her baby dash into the woods at around 30 mph. Multiple people mentioned "yellow eyes" and a foul odor akin to the scent of a dead animal.
Still others described hearing a roar.
The McDowell County Courthouse, where many of the day's most popular activities were held.
"It wasn't a growl and it wasn't a scream," one person said. "More like a guttural, gibberish thing."
"You're looking at something that don't exist," said a man from Virginia.