WILSON, N.C. (WNCT) – Take a drive through historic downtown Wilson and you may notice something a little unusual, a little whimsical, and a whole lot extraordinary.
“Whirligig is just sort of a general term used for things that move in the wind like this,” said Kimberly Van Dyk, Wilson Planning and Community Revitalization director.
“Vollis Simpson got started on the whirligigs when he was 65 years old,” added Henry Walston, chairman of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park & Musuem.
“He lived in Lucama most of his life,” said Van Dyk.
“He just collected stuff,” recalled Walston. “He said I wanted to do something with my hands. He’d start building them and then start imagining what else he could do to them and he eventually started putting them up in the field across from his workshop.”
“Vollis did call them windmills,” explained Van Dyk. “It was other people around Wilson that started to call them whirligigs and it sort of stuck.”
No matter what you call them, they quickly became iconic.
“They became a roadside attraction,” said Walston.
“He sort of became accidentally famous,” added Van Dyk.
“A lot of people thought he was a crazy old man,” said Walston.
“He would dream them,” explained Van Dyk. “He would wake up. He would make them.”
“He never intended his whirligigs to go anywhere but be right there on his farm,” said Walston. “When Vollis got into his late 80’s and early 90’s, he realized that he wasn’t able to take care of them.”
So the City of Wilson came up with a plan.
“In about 2009, to revitalize downtown, this idea came up to build a central park in Wilson and have them populated by Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs,” said Van Dyk.
“He realized that he wasn’t going to live forever and if something wasn’t done his whirligigs certainly weren’t going to live forever so he finally reconciled himself that that might be a good idea,” added Walston.
The years did eventually catch up with Vollis. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 94.
25 to 30 years exposed to the elements have really taken their toll on Vollis’ pieces. Many are rusted with paint chipping off them so the real hard work to restore these masterpieces to their former glory happens at the whirligig conservation headquarters.
“They have taken a lot of work to get them back to the original state,” said Van Dyk.
“He loved to see what we were doing and when we’d finish a section and it would be all bright and shiny again, he’d say spin it for me, spin it for me. And it would start whirling like it originally had and he said man, I like that,” recalled Walston.
“Our park will have 30 of his pieces,” said Van Dyk.
“I think he’d take his chair out there and he’d sit and he’d wonder at the whirligigs that he created and be very pleased,” said Walston.
The father, husband, neighbor, and friend is now at the center of a movement even he couldn’t have dreamed of.