According to urban legend in Wilson, North Carolina, Vollis Simpson’s daughter was driving home late at night after having done LSD. After beginning to drive erratically, she crashed and was killed in the ensuing wreck. After her death, her father had dreams of what she saw the night she drove. Over the next forty years, he set about to memorialize her tragic death with massive reflector-covered windmills. A wrecked car on a dirt road running alongside Acid Park supposedly gave further testament to this story, and built a lasting urban legend.
In truth, Simpson does have a daughter, but she is alive and well, making her existence the only truthful part of the tale. The park was simply the creation of Vollis Simpson who referred to his creation as “whirligigs.” They were not created in memorial, but as public art for drivers to enjoy. While Vollis Simpson never called himself an artist,the thousands of people who have visited his astounding whirligig field in Wilson County, North Carolina, certainly do. Towering fifty feet or more above ground, and extending nearly as far outwards into space, the more than thirty monumental whirligigs erected in his field demonstrate the power of individual vision coupled with a traditional art form. These compelling, nationally recognized assemblages have found their way from a crossroads in rural North Carolina to international art collections and even into a popular window installation at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store, testifying to their wide-ranging appeal and their abiding influence on his peers as well as younger generations of artists and engineers.
After a lifetime repairing machinery and moving houses, Simpson found himself at age 65 with spare time and many, many spare parts. Rather than “sit around and watch TV,” Simpson eyed his collection, remembered a windmill he constructed during World War II, and began to build. Using some of the same rigs he’d developed for moving houses, Simpson began constructing enormous windmills in his yard. They did not resemble the working windmills of grinding or irrigation use, but referenced the concepts of weather vanes and handcrafted whirligigs that are still seen locally on houses, fence posts and barns. Simpson’s windmills embody folklorist Henry Glassie’s observation of a common folk artists’ practice of miniaturizing or “super-sizing” objects drawn from their workaday lives. Vollis Simpson was taken with the gargantuan.
The windmill-like structures are built with scrap parts from old cars and reflectors, with eight total in the park area. The whirligigs are a tremendous example of individual creativity and recycling. Since their creation, the whirligigs have achieved a certain notoriety, with four of them being installed in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic games. They can be viewed along the road near Acid Park. Although entrance to the area is considered trespassing, many have reported that Mr. and Mrs. Simpson are gracious enough to show visitors around the park. Just don’t ask about Mr. Simpson’s daughter and her alleged harrowing experience with LSD.
Vollis Simpson died on May 31, 2013 at the age of 94. A dedicated maker, Simpson continued working almost daily in his shop until about six months before his death.
Update: Opening in 2015, “Whirligig Park” a new two-acre public sculpture garden located at 301 S Goldsboro Street in downtown Wilson is planned for the permanent conservation and enjoyment of the largest collection of whirligigs created by folk artist Vollis Simpson. In the fall of 2013 several of Vollis Simpson’s whirly gigs were moved to the park. One of the first to be installed is the 55′ long and 40 some feet high “V. Simpson” whirligig, the only one of Vollis Simpson’s peices to bear his name. The two-acre park, designed by award-winning landscape architecture firm Lappas+Havener, PA, will ultimately feature 31 of Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs—including some of the largest in his life’s work. Preservation and conservation is underway and ongoing, though you can still see many of the whirligigs just by driving by.
Update: As of October 2016, 16 of a planned 31 whirligigs are up at the new Wilson Whirligig Park mentioned above. The community has been heavily involved with the project. Also, 2 of V. Simpson’s are currently on loan to the State of North Carolina for the two I-95 Welcome Centers as the cornerstone of North Carolina Governor, Pat McCrory’s “Art That Moves You” program.
Update June 2017: All or nearly all of the whirligigs have been moved to downtown Wilson for the Whirligig Park that will open in November of 2017. Though the park is not open yet, the whirligigs are easily viewed from the street.
Update March 2019: The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum is open! It operates as a partnership of Wilson Downtown Properties, Inc., the City of Wilson, Wilson Downtown Development, and the North Carolina Arts Council and promotes “artistic, educational, and recreational opportunities at the intersection of art and science.”