The Whirligigs of Wilson

Wilson's Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park hosts concerts,festivals and events, in addition to its 30 whirligigs.

Bankers know it as the birthplace of BB&T. Baseball fans know it for the Tobs , a summer league. Tobacco historians remember it as the “The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market.” Barbecue critics die hard for Parker’s Barbecue.

But many others would rather raise up the whirligigs.

The two-acre Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park opened in November 2017 as part of an initiative to bring more arts and tourism to the Wilson community, aided by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Susan Kellum,  coordinator for Wilson Downtown Development has lived in the city for 27 years. Wilson was once a hub for the tobacco industry, but when trade began to slow, so did visitor traffic. In recent years, downtown revitalization efforts and a focus on arts have sparked a transformation.

“I see the downtown coming back alive,” Kellum said. “It sat here for 30 to 40 years with no love.”

Kellum moved to Wilson to raise her family, and is excited for the opportunity to help reinvent the city’s downtown.

“If you don’t have a natural draw such as mountains or oceans or lakes, you have to create it,” Kellum said.

And that was the idea behind the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

Jeff Bell, executive director of the Whirligig Park, says there are three reasons why the park was built: to preserve the works of Vollis Simpson, create a community gathering place, and revitalize downtown Wilson.

The late Vollis Simpson started creating his whirligigs – or “spinning giants” as Kellum calls them – starting at age 65, inspired by his love for engineering.

“For Vollis, he never called it art,” Bell said. “He just made these things. It was something he was driven to do.”

Initially, Vollis built and housed his creations on his private farm in Wilson County – known to some as “Acid Park” – which was the largest tourist draw to the city even before the official park existed. The whirligigs, composed of everything from parts of ceiling fans, milkshake mixers and road signs, are now considered official North Carolina folk art.

“It seemed to be sort-of a no-brainer … to look at the possibility of acquiring those (whirligigs) and using them,” Kellum said. “We knew with Mr. Simpson getting older, without care, they would continue to deteriorate.”

In 2013, the community launched an effort to create a park that would be the new home for Vollis’ art.

In addition to housing 30 whirligigs, the park is also a concert, art performance and farmers market venue. In 2019 alone, there were 100 days of programs for people of all ages.

“We love when people come to the park, but we hope that through the park they discover the other things Wilson has to offer,” Bell said. “So, they leave here, and they go to a shop or they go to a restaurant or they see something they didn’t know was down here, and it encourages them to come back.”

In the two-and-a-half years that Bell has been in charge of the park, he has noticed a growth in the number of restaurants and shops opening in the surrounding area.

“It can be a slow process,” Bell said. You want to see all the restaurants all at once and all the shops, but it takes one at a time. And we’re getting there.”

“Beyond the park itself, we want to find as many different ways as we can engage artwork,” Bell said.

Recently, Wilson residents have had the opportunity to brighten up the streets with their art in a non-traditional way: painting fire hydrants and trash cans downtown.

Artistic expression doesn’t end at Whirligig Park. Painted fire hydrants and trash cans adorn Wilson’s downtown streets.

“Vollis used what most people would’ve considered trash to make his art, so we think it is very appropriate,” Kellum said.

His whirligigs are anything but ordinary, and Wilson wants to continue to add art to the city in unexpected places and ways.

“Vollis used found parts and recycled parts to create his spinning giants,” Kellum said. “We are really concentrating on the arts and trying to use other, similar things to create art and show that art can be created out of anything.”

About an hour away from the Triangle, Wilson and its 50,000 residents have a lot to offer. A walk or drive downtown will have you exploring a variety of art, all inspired by the work of Vollis Simpson.

“Getting people just used to coming [downtown] and finding those new things or things they didn’t know existed, that’s a big thing for us,” Bell said. “We hope that we can be a destination point, but also a point of intrigue to all the other things Wilson has.”

While You’re Here

  • Wilson Botanical Gardens: Open 365 days a year, the garden is home to native plants, a pond, and even an interactive Children’s Secret Garden complete with dinosaur dig, sandlot play, garden tunnel, musical instruments, slide and tire swing.
  • Daniel’s Fine Dining: Daniel’s has a wide array of dining spaces in their restaurant as well as dishes on their menu. Whether you’re looking for somewhere to host an office lunch meeting or a family dinner, it’s the perfect place to do so.
  • Tig’s Courtyard: Need a coffee pick-me-up? Grab your favorite latte, smoothie, mocha and more, all served up by Tig herself.



  • Scott Korbin says:

    I visited Wilson last Sunday for a Sectional Bridge Tournament held at the Wilson Community College. It’s a shame that everything was closed on Sunday, but the Whirligig Park was quite a sight to see. I’d love to see that town get revitalized.

  • Lois Nixon says:

    The Whirligig Park is a great destination, but I love to take my grandchildren on the 10 am train from Cary to Wilson, where we get off the train (and visit with the “mosaic lady” sitting on a bench at the station), then walk one block up the street to the Children’s Museum. The museum has lots of fascinating (health related and environmental) changing interactive exhibits and interesting live animals upstairs. Then we go on two more blocks to the Whirligig Park for a picnic lunch (we’ll be glad when more restaurants open there), and back down toward the train station to return to Cary on the 3 pm train. We try to get back to the train station a few minutes early to allow time to have an ice cream cone across the street from the station. It’s a perfect day!

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