Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Wilson’s Otherworldly Spinning Park

The “Mule Train”

photography by: Omri Westmark

Once dubbed as the World’s Greatest Tobacco Market, the North Carolinian town of Wilson prides itself on rather different things these days. Nestled in the heart of the city’s historic district, a large plaza boasts a collection of 30 oddly shaped kinetic sculptures. Made of salvaged metal pieces and recycled materials, the whirligigs are the brainchild of the late Vollis Simpson, a mechanic and artist who laboriously built them following his retirement in rural North Carolina.

Who was Volis Simpson?

Born at Springhill Township in 1919 to a family of 12 children, Vollis Simpson has shown interest in mechanics from a young age, taking part in his father’s house-moving business. Nevertheless, Simpson’s prelude of things to come was during his military service in the South Pacific Island of Saipan in WWII, where he assembled a makeshift windmill using castoff parts of B-29 bomber.

 

As the war ended, Simpson teamed up with a couple of his friends and established a repair shop for a variety of appliances and machines. In the years that followed, he also revived a family tradition when a house-moving service was added. During those years, Simpson experienced a myriad of mechanical tasks that would later play a major role in the next and final part of his life.

 

At the age of 65, Simpson retried, but unlike his fellow retirees, he began another career that will ultimately elevate him out of obscurity. With hundreds, if not thousands, of spare parts, metal scraps and recycled items, he painstakingly erected a series of awe-inspiring sculptures which he dubbed as windmills. Reminiscent of flamboyant weather vanes, the whirligigs were all concentrated in his farmhouse’s backyard in Lucama NC.

The “BBB Blue Star” and the “Reflector Box”

photography by: Omri Westmark


The “Christmas Tree” and the “Tricycle Globe”

photography by: Omri Westmark


The park’s dozens of kinetic sculptures

photography by: Omri Westmark


The “CBS/NBC”

photography by: Omri Westmark


Wilson’s Whirligig Park

As Simpson’s collection of unusual windmills grew, his farm in Lucama unexpectedly became a pilgrimage site for swarms of curious visitors. At its heyday, the unofficial tourist attraction, better-known as the “Acid Park”, was one of the county’s most visited placed. The increasing popularity of Vollis Simpson’s kinetic sculptures culminated in the mid 1990’s, when some of his works were installed in Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum and at the Olympic Folk Art Park in Atlanta.

 

When his health began deteriorating, Simpson couldn’t keep maintaining the numerous whirligigs, sparking a great deal of anxiety among his many fans. To counter the impending demise of Wilson’s medley of unusual windmills, local authorities devised an ambitious plan to relocate them into the historic district of Wilson NC. The planning process, which started 3 years prior to Simpson’s death in 2013, included the participation of local artists, landowners and hundreds of Wilson’s residents.

 

Sustaining decades of harsh weather conditions, thirty of the iconic whirligigs were transported to Wilson, where they were rehabilitated, repainted and incorporated into the new park. Interestingly, the sculptures, some of which reach a 15-meter height, are centered around a verdant lawn. This layout is inspired by their original location in Lucama, where they were scattered around a large pond.

The park’s entrance

photography by: Omri Westmark


The mind-boggling cluster of Simpson’s vanes

photography by: Omri Westmark


The site’s wind-driven structures

photography by: Omri Westmark


The “Mini Bomber”

photography by: Omri Westmark


The exceptional spinning devices, made of a hodgepodge of metal scraps and salvaged spare parts

photography by: Omri Westmark


The “V. Simpson”

photography by: Omri Westmark


During a stormy weather, the whirligigs violently swirl, as if it was part of a horror movie scene

photography by: Omri Westmark


Nearby Attractions and Restaurants

Once the epicenter of North Carolina’s ample tobacco industry, Wilson only has a few remnants of its bygone era. In fact, the mesmerizing whirligig park is located where a large tobacco warehouse used to stand before being burned down in 1987. A luckier edifice is the former tobacco market building which was converted into a mixed-use complex. Also known as Whirligig Station, it houses 90 loft-apartments, office space, a restaurant and most importantly, the park’s visitor center.

 

Given the incessant influx of visitors who come to marvel at the whirligigs, several restaurants and bars have recently popped up around the park, capitalizing on its growing fame. Offering a plethora of scrumptious locally-brewed beers, the “Casita Brewing Company” resides in a historic red-brick building. The brewery is home to a quaint garden, where one can sip an artisanal ale while having a glimpse of Simpson’s spinning vanes. Likewise, the adjacent “The Hub” is also located within one of Wilson’s old houses, offering a wide assortment of Pizzas. There are also occasional food-trucks, one of which specializes on homemade tacos and burritos.

The park’s “Green”, a large grassy patch surrounded by windmills

photography by: Omri Westmark


The windmills on the backdrop of Wilson’s historic red-brick buildings

photography by: Omri Westmark


Casita Brewing Company’s quaint garden

photography by: Omri Westmark


A parking space where food trucks are occasionally stationed

photography by: Omri Westmark


One of only two remaining tobacco warehouses across town, the Whirligig Station, nowadays home to a residential complex and the visitor center of the park

photography by: Omri Westmark