The city’s version of the forest legend, Woodbooger, took over city streets in 2012 when a local hardware store began marketing T-shirts with the creature’s image. The city held its first Woodbooger Festival in 2014. In 2015, local business owners joined the city in putting a Woodbooger statue at the path leading to Flag Rock overlooking Norton.
Today, Woodbooger Grill on Park Avenue draws crowds not only with its food — finishing off a Woodburger will get you a free RT-shirt — but with a photo cutout where guests can channel their inner bigfoot.
The city hosts a Woodbooger Run up the mountain to Flag Rock and a Woodbooger geocache where people can explore the city’s attractions.
Mayor Joe Fawbush, Parks and Recreation Director Michele Knox and Special Projects Coordinator Katie Dunn agreed that Woodbooger has helped make the city more visible as a tourism destination in the past eight years.
“It’s helped bring more people to Flag Rock,” Knox said of the impact on what has been the city’s longtime landmark high above the city.
Before Woodbooger, the city in the 1960’s and ’70s had Chief Benge, an 18th-century Native American raider and outlaw.
People driving up the mountain to Flag Rock and High Knob would pass a store named Benge’s Trading Post, go about a mile and shout “Hey Benge” at Benge’s Rock, believed to have been his lookout perch. By the 1990’s, the city had developed the Chief Benge Trail leading to Flag Rock Recreation Area.
But Woodbooger arrived to give Norton a second legend.
“This year will be the third year of the Woodbooger Triathlon,” said Dunn. “In the seven years I’ve been here, I see more people up here now.”
Knox said she came up to Flag Rock one day and encountered 15 people from Kentucky who told he they came first to see the Woodbooger statue and then found out about the Flag Rock overlook.
“We got a service mark in 2015, which means that nobody can tell us we can’t use the term ‘Woodbooger,’ ” Fawbush said.
While Woodbooger has become a popular feature of the town, “it’s a small piece of the puzzle,” Fawbush said.
“A quirky part,” Dunn added.
Mike Craft, co-owner of Home Hardware on Park Avenue, said he had seen how people came to Norton and stopped by the store because it was a “nice old building.”
“I just saw the show on Animal Planet and decided to get some T-shirts made with the Woodbooger on it,” Craft recalled about April 2012. “I had a gorilla mask and hands left over from a Halloween costume, so I put on a T-shirt and the costume and sat out front. It just blossomed from there.”
Craft said four Georgia women recently came in the store to buy Woodbooger T-shirts and other items.
“I asked them why they came here, and they said they’d heard about the Woodbooger and wanted to see for themselves,” said Craft, who added that he often has visitors from across the U.S.
“This was the best thing we ever did and the craziest thing we ever did,” Craft said. “I was hoping the whole time others would take (Woodbooger) and run with it.”
“We’re trying to get people to stay when they visit here,” Fawbush said.
While the Woodbooger may not explain everything about why tourists are coming to Norton, Dunn said the city has seen more use of the city’s reservoir for fishing because of stocking by the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Outfitters are seeing more people interested in hiking and biking in the Flag Rock and U.S. Forest Service’s High Knob recreation areas.
UVa-Wise student Jahmal Potter and local artist Courtney Farmer even created a children’s book, “Where is the Woodbooger?” Fawbush said.
The Woodbooger GeoTour geocaching event also allows Norton to market its attractions and give participants a reason to spend more than a few hours in the city, Fawbush added.
“Attendance at Flag Rock may have increased tenfold,” Fawbush said. “It’s a small part of the puzzle, but it helps.”