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Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

Field review by the editors.

Wilson, North Carolina

The humble whirligig, often nothing more than a fancy pinwheel or a wooden bird with wings that spin in a breeze, became North Carolina's official folk art in 2013. That was thanks in no small part to North Carolina's Vollis Simpson, although his whirligigs were anything but humble.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

Simpson built spinning behemoths of superhuman scale and complexity. His biggest whirligig weighs nearly seven tons. Others soar 60 feet into the sky. Dozens of them rose like sideshow skyscrapers in a pasture next to his house, assembled by Vollis out of debris he'd salvaged from his years as a machinery repairman and house-mover. He labored alone, and seemed to like it that way.

Fate, however, placed an interstate exit only 10 minutes from Simpson's rural property, making it a tempting detour for folk art pilgrims and stoner teens, who called the place, "Acid Park." On breezy nights the spinning whirligigs, embellished by Simpson with fragments of reflective road signs, would flicker like trippy firework pinwheels in the headlights of cars.

Our visit to Vollis Simpson, Lucama, NC. (2005)
Vollis Simpson at his Lucama workshop, original site of the whirligigs, during our visit in 2005.

Simpson, who lived nearly his entire life in Wilson County, had an occasionally fractious relationship with the public. But he would usually talk with visitors if they were respectful, especially if they showed an interest in buying one of his hundreds of smaller artworks, each personally signed by Simpson with a Sharpie.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

People tried to learn the why behind Simpson's whirligigs for years. Were they a size-conscious grasp at immortality? Did his frequent images of airplanes and bicyclists represent the things he loved? Were the whirligigs his attempt to call attention to a dangerous curve in the road? Simpson dismissed any deep motives. He told one interviewer, "I have a lot of junk and I have to do something with it." When asked what inspired him, he said that building the giant contraptions was simply "better than watching television."

Simpson began his mammoth constructions at an age when most men retire, and kept at it for nearly 30 years. He was still working on whirligigs until six months before he died, age 94, in 2013.

In his final years Simpson's energy flagged, and the elements took their toll on his biggest display pieces. "I guess they'll just rust and fall down when I'm gone," he told one interviewer, but no one wanted that. The nearby town of Wilson offered a deal: it would buy 30 of Simpson's giant whirligigs, restore them, and move them to a park in Wilson where the public could continue to appreciate Simpson's work. Simpson agreed, and lived long enough to see the first whirligig rise in its new home. The project took seven years and cost $10 million. Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park officially opened on November 2, 2017.

"It usually took us five or six guys and two cranes to put up one of these things," said Park executive director Jeff Bell, admittedly awed by grandpa Simpson's ability to raise his giant wind-powered contraptions -- like carnival rides atop cell phone towers -- by himself. Some of the whirligigs, Jeff said, have fan blades 24 feet across that power seven or eight different pieces of moving artwork: lumberjacks saw logs, horses pull wagons, a rocket ship spins like a turbine. "Just understanding the physics of these things astounds me," said Jeff, whose mother was a physics teacher. Unlike creaky windmills, Simpson's whirligigs are balanced so carefully that they produce only a gentle whir.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

Whirligig park at night.
Special lighting illuminates the spinning whirligigs at the touch of a button.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is built at one of the highest points in town, but that probably wasn't necessary; Simpson engineered his contraptions with such finesse that they spin even in a light breeze. He never named his whirligigs, but the conservators who restored them did: "Tricycle Globe," "BBB Blue Star," "Gunshot Bicycle Man" -- a former favorite target of morons with firearms. The whirligigs emerged from the restoration shop with bright paint, new ball bearings, and the conservators' admiration for all of the odds and ends that Simpson somehow set in motion: milkshake mixers, I-beams, stovepipes, waffle irons. "They'll always need an amount of maintenance and looking after," said Jeff, "but we want to extend their life as long as possible."

Jeff, who enjoyed the whirligigs as a teenager in their days at Acid Park, is delighted that Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park has preserved Simpson's nighttime psychedelics. Visitors can stand on one of four red stars in the Park, push a button, and vector lights will illuminate the whirligigs, setting the spinning reflectors aglow. "Most parks close at dusk, but we stay open until midnight," said Jeff. "We want people to be able to enjoy the whirligig-after-dark experience."

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

301 S. Goldsboro St., Wilson, NC
I-95 exit 121. Drive east on US Hwy 264 ALT/Raleigh Rd Pkwy W. for six miles into town. Turn left at the stoplight onto Goldsboro St. SW. You'll quickly see the whirligigs on the right.
Daily 5 AM - midnight. Lit at night. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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