History of Whirligigs

Whirligig (n:)/ wur-lee-gig

If you’re from Wilson, you know what a whirligig is — we have the largest collection of them after all. And if you’re not from Wilson, you may be wondering what in the world a whirligig could be.

If we could describe a whirligig in an unofficial definition, it would be this: an artistic sculptural structure made of painted metal and other materials that spins or “whirls”, especially in the wind, often evoking wonder and bemusement.

City of Wilson - Whirligigs1

So, how did Wilson’s whirligigs come to be?

The whirligigs in Wilson are the creative inception of North Carolina native Vollis Simpson. Simpson was born in Wilson to a large family in 1919. As an adult, he put the engineering skills he used in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II to good use after his service. After the war he started a house-moving operation with his brothers, designing and building most of the equipment they used himself. Eventually, he began welding and painting sculptural elements he dubbed “whirligigs” and placed them in his yard in Lucama, North Carolina. The group of whirligigs outside his workshop became known as “Acid Park” because of the trippy visual effects the sculptures created due to their reflection of car headlights after dark.

In the 1990s the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore commissioned Simpson to create a custom whirligig. The 55-foot whirligig was installed at the museum’s opening in 1995. Simpson continued crafting whirligigs until his last healthful days, and he passed away in 2013. When a plan to preserve his whirligigs in historic downtown Wilson was proposed, Simpson was ecstatic that generations to come would be able to delight in his work. Simpson was a small town artist who made a big impact.

City of Wilson - Whirligigs
Jeff Bell, Executive Director, Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park & Museum

The larger-than-life Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park & Museum, located in downtown Wilson, features several of the late Simpson’s artworks. A total of 31 whirligigs were restored and added to the 2-acre park upon its completion. Additional whirligigs are also featured in the Wilson Rose Garden and at businesses all around Wilson. The sculptures are astounding shapes and sizes and can be found in several museums throughout the country and internationally — including London and Russia.

Each year the annual North Carolina Whirligig Festival pays homage to Simpson’s beautiful creations and serves as a community event that families from Wilson and beyond flock to. Every fall, come rain or shine, the festival features entertainment, artists, vendors, food, and more for the 35,000 people who come out to experience the whirl of a whirligig.

Whirligigs are part of the quintessential charm that sets Wilson apart from other North Carolina towns and we’re proud to be the place where Simpson’s art and science spin as one. We hope you come visit and experience the awe of a whirligig in person!

whirligigs park in wilson