The white squirrels of Brevard

As safaris go, ours in the mountains of North Carolina was a pretty laid back one — but then we were a pretty low-key foursome: my current roommate, Ace, and two former ones from my college days, Dr. George Fish and Dr. John Stringfield.

To understand how we came to be in the wilds of the Brevard College campus, searching out our rare and elusive prey, you have to go back to the day before, when we arrived at our campground in Pisgah National Forest.

When we pulled up to the gate, the second thing we were asked, after our names, was, “Are you here to see the white squirrels of Brevard?” 

I’d never heard of white squirrels — or that Brevard, N.C. was renowned for being home to them — and, to make matters more confusing, for a fleeting moment I thought the woman at the campground gate had said “white girls.”

She went on to explain that the peculiar species could be found in town, mostly in residential areas, and that it was just a matter of driving around until you saw one.

“The White Girls of Brevard” became our running joke — and every good outing with friends, like every good sitcom, needs a recurring joke. So as we sat around the campfire drinking beer — debating what we might do the next day, other than sit around the campfire and drink beer — the phrase would inevitably come up.

Rock-climbing? A five mile hike? Whitewater rafting? Or go in search of the White Girls of Brevard?

There was a day, and it was back in the 1970s, when the possibility of encountering a female, of any color, would probably have been our top priority. And there were probably many nights that we set off, safari-like, with that goal, if not stated, at least in the back of our heads. But, for us, in college, it was more a dream than a mission. At that time, all three of us put together probably had the self-confidence, when it came to females, of one normal man.

John and George are married now — both for 29 years, though not to each other — so, even if they captured, humanely of course, one of the White Girls of Brevard, they couldn’t bring her home.

For me, though — with no wife to say, “You’re not bringing that thing into the house” — it’s a different story. Perhaps, I thought — whimsically of course — I should scope out the White Girls of Brevard, select one and bring her home. She’d have freckles and look a lot like Sissy Spacek. She’d be small, yet of hearty mountain stock — a “tiny little” thing. People would say of her, “She’s a tiny little thing, but she can lift a bale of hay twice her size.” She’d call her mother “momma,” and  her father “papa” and have quaint names for all six of her dogs. She’d know how to work a plow, and cook real macaroni and cheese, and those green beans that are boiled for three months, and she’d hang on every word I say — no matter how few and far between they were. She’d be more than happy to care for me well into my golden years and dodderage, both of which she would find sexy.

A sharp crackle from our fire pit snapped me back to reality. The three of us weren’t here to hunt anything, or even fish, just to meet up again after a few decades, build a fire, drink some beer, reminisce and perhaps take a short hike or two.

The next day, after one of those short hikes, we deemed the white squirrels worth checking out and drove the few miles into town. Upon seeing a college campus, I turned in, figuring if I were a squirrel, that’s where I’d hang out.

My hunch paid off. We rounded a corner and saw one who was already being viewed by a couple with a camera. The squirrel was flattened out and clinging to the side of a tree — that being a defensive mechanism squirrels use. It works when they are grey, but, for some reason, the white ones do it, too, thinking no one can see them. Apparently, they don’t know they are white.

Ace stayed in the car looking out the open back window with interest as George and I took photos of that squirrel and several other white ones we came across on campus.

Back in the car, we spotted several more, and we pondered opening up a business in town, offering white squirrel safaris to tourists — perhaps a big open-air bus that would shuttle them to where the white squirrels hang out. There they could snap photos — the squirrels are far too cute to otherwise shoot — to their heart’s content. We would charge exorbitant fees for that, as well as all the white squirrel merchandise we would make available. Perhaps, upon conclusion of the tour, they could enjoy a home-cooked meal, prepared by my mountain wife Sissy — if she’s not too busy plowing — eaten at picnic tables with red checkered tableclothes.

On the tour, we would explain how the white squirrels came to be there. We’d opt for the the most oft-repeated and fanciful version — that being that they are descendants of some traveling circus squirrels who escaped when their circus truck overturned.

That supposedly happened in Florida.

In that account — and it’s the one that both and the local tourism website go with, supported by local newspaper reports in the Transylvania Times (Brevard is in Transylvania County) — the squirrels escaped when the truck they were in overturned. Two of them set up camp in the yard of a man in Madison, Florida.

That man, a Mr. Black, believe it or not, captured two white squirrels and in 1949 gave them to a man named H.H. Mull. H.H. Mull, in turn, gave them to his niece, Barbara Mull, who lived in Brevard.

She kept them inside and hoped they would breed, but they didn’t — probably because everybody was watching.

In 1951, Barbara Mull got married, leaving the squirrels with her father. One of them escaped, and not long after that, Barbara’s father let the other one, who apparently was deemed heartsick, loose in the wild.

After that, baby white squirrels began being sighted in town.

By 1986, the White Squirrels of Brevard had become so famous that, in addition to capitalizing their name, the Brevard City Council saw fit to unanimously pass an ordinance declaring the town a sanctuary for the white squirrels and — apparently not wanting to be seen as racist — the grey ones, too.

“The entire area embraced within the corporate limits of the city is hereby designated as a sanctuary for all species of squirrel (family Sciuriadae), and in particular the Brevard White Squirrel,” the ordinance reads. “It shall be unlawful for any person to hunt, kill, trap, or otherwise take any protected squirrels within the city by this section.”

As it turns out, other towns with white squirrel populations have adopted it as a mascot as well, including Olney, Illinois; Marionville, Missouri; Kenton, Tennessee; and Exeter, Canada.

Unlike some of those squirrels, Brevard’s are not albinos, but a variant of the Eastern Grey Squirrel.  More than a fourth of the squirrels in Brevard are white — and the town knows because a squirrel census is regularly conducted.

Brevard is home to an annual White Squirrel Festival (it’s this coming weekend), and The Squirrel Box Derby downhill race, and it considers itself the “White Squirrel Capital of the World.”

So does Olney, where laws give squirrels the right-of-way and taking one out of town is a crime. Olney police officers wear patches depicting the white squirrel.

In Marionville, which is where some believe that Olney’s squirrels originated from — victims of squirrelnappings — other theories on their origin range from the squirrels once belonging to a traveling circus to being the result of a mad scientist’s experiments.

As for the White Squirrels of Brevard, an article in NC Farm Bureau Magazine says they are not true white squirrels, but a color variation of the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Most have white bodies but pigmented patches, spots and stripes.

That doesn’t make them any less beloved. To make sure the population stays viable, the White Squirrel Research Institute, based there, conducts a white squirrel count every year.

On our short safari, we spotted at least five. And, in reality (a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there), they weren’t that elusive at all.

After John left, returning to his home and practice in Waynesville, N.C., George and I lingered another night and discussed the possibility of making the camping trip a tradition — either in Brevard or going each year to a different location, where we could seek out, if not white girls, other elusive species.

I’m thinking unicorns.

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