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Whirligigs break the eastern Carolina monotomy

by Amy Kingsley

The landscape out in eastern North Carolina, past Raleigh’s suburban fringes, doesn’t have a lot to recommend it.

The rolling hills of the Piedmont flatten out into miles of farmland. The only thing that breaks the monotony is eventual arrival at the coast.

Of course, as with any part of the world, there are reasons to stop and spend some time. Numerous produce stands dot the side roads. You can often buy a pint of native blueberries or peaches for pretty cheap at such ramshackle establishments.

There’s also the whirligig farm out near Lucama.

Saturday was one of the rare days during which neither my boyfriend nor I had other plans. He wanted to see the whirligig farm.

I first saw the place sometime during the first summer I lived in North Carolina, back in 2002. An old friend from Texas had moved to North Carolina – Chapel Hill – and we decided to spend the day touring the curiosities of a state neither of us knew very well.

On that first trip, Vollis Simpson’s whirligig farm rose out of a bend in the road like a stand of exotic growth.

After almost a half hour navigating the country roads of tobacco country, I hit an intersection where metal creations rose some 40 feet out of the ground.

My second trip was almost the same, although Mapquest sent me on a different route that led me head-on into the display.

Either way, I learned last weekend, the entrée to Simpson’s whirligigs is impressive.

During the last visit, I pulled my car off on a gravel road where three paths meet in a K formation. Three mongrel dogs charged at us when I cut the engine. Fortunately, all were friendly or timid after the initial blasts of barking. Simpson or someone else had posted signs warning visitors to keep out.

But Mark and I could hear a radio playing near the workshop, and we persisted. We entered Simpson’s property and found the man napping outside his workshop.

The artist is 87-years-old and exceptionally congenial. We asked permission to tour his property and he immediately granted it, inviting us to take a look inside his barn while we were at it.

In fact, he apologized for napping, a forgivable offense in light of the torrid temperatures and weekend status. But Simpson, whose early creations really defy description and whose later industriousness has stocked a huge barn, is obviously a man who rarely relaxes.

A whirligig is a creation akin to a windmill that consists of one or multiple parts that rotate in the wind. Unlike windmills, whirligigs don’t have to serve some useful function like supplying electricity or turning mechanical parts.

Simpson’s whirligigs, each affixed with reflectors and painted in bright colors, serve only to satisfy their creator’s and observers’ taste for whimsy. The barn shelters smaller models that are available for purchase. Mark fell in love with what looked like chandelier created out of trophy parts.

It’s the monstrous outdoor whirligigs that really inspire awe. Simpson didn’t start working on the towering creations until he had retired from his job as a machinist with the nearby city of Wilson. So he’s been creating these giant structures for the last quarter of his productive life, during a time when most folks are indulging a taste for travel or sleep.

It is a quixotic undertaking. The windmills Cervantes mentioned in his masterpiece were imaginary enemies. By contrast, the ones Simpson has constructed are very real and not at all frightening.

One is a mule train, with several beasts of burden pulling a paunchy human cutout. All around the main figures, smaller parts spin and flutter, even during the relative barometric calm of my last visit.

Other sculptures feature planes, street signs or bike tires arranged in such a way that they catch the slightest breeze. At least one of the pieces is rigged with a chiming bell. I chimed periodically, too, as Mark and I picnicked in a veranda raised above the tall grass.

There isn’t a lot of information available about the Whirligig Farm online. It has been said that Simpson’s daughter died in a car crash sometime before he devoted himself to constructing the whirligigs.

I didn’t want to bother the man, who labored at his metalwork while Mark and I ambled around his property. We did find the rusted remains of a decades-old car wrapped around a tree near his workshop.

Whether it belonged to his daughter or a stranger doesn’t matter much at all. Simpson’s structures are an amazing human achievement, regardless of his age and whether he ever suffered the loss of a child.

We spent about an hour there, just communing with the whirligigs, bugs and idiosyncratic shelters – like the star-ceilinged gazebo where we took our lunch. It was free; we admired then we took our leave.

Vollis Simpson, the 87-year-old with arms of ropey muscle, bent over his power tools, shaping the parts for a new generation of whirligigs.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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