Places to visit on one tank of gas: Whirligig Park & Museum in Wilson, North Carolina

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Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C. is undergoing an expansion project. Photo courtesy Don Davis
Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C. is undergoing an expansion project. Photo courtesy of Don Davis

Editor’s note: No need for a plane ticket. Put that passport away. This story is part of a series that features regional attractions outside of the Wilmington area that can be driven to with less than one tank of gas. Buckle up and hit the road.

The urban legends and monikers that surround Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C., are pretty far-fetched but for someone who may not be from the area, these strange stories also add intrigue.

To find out the truth about this unique park that sits on two acres of land in historic downtown Wilson, a visit to see all of its splendor in person is almost required. Especially at night.

The venue, which has been referred to as ‘Acid Park’ and also has ridiculous urban myths that include fatal car crashes and LSD acid trips attached, has actually become the cornerstone to the city’s tourism and revitalization efforts.

“I guess the high school kids would go out at night, and you know, they were having a good time,” Wilson native Henry Walston said.

“They shined the headlights from their cars at the whirligis as they would spin on a windy night. When you do that, it sort of looks like a psychedelic experience. Since they’re kids, they started calling it ‘Acid Park’ and the story kind of goes on from there.”

The Satelite Tub Whirligig featured during the day at Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C. Photo courtesy Don Davis
The Satelite Tub Whirligig featured during the day at Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C. (Photo courtesy of Don Davis)

Walston, the volunteer chairman for Whirligig Park, isn’t annoyed by the folklore associated with it. But at the same time, he does not want it to over shadow the pure brilliance behind the park or the expansive effort that has been put in place to preserve it over the years.

While many of the ludicrous stories about the park can be heard on a local level, the artistry behind Whirligig Park is well renowned and appreciated on an international level.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Vollis Simpson, who lived his whole life in Wilson, designed and built his monumental, fanciful, wind-driven creations — popularly called “whirligigs” — for decades at his workshop a few miles just outside of town.

These massive structures, which go up as high as 60 feet in the air, are held together by sturdy steel pillars and decorated with colorful pieces of scrap metal and other re-purposed materials that Simpson collected over the years at his workshop.

A farm machinery repairman by trade, Vollis and his whilrigigs have been appreciated by millions of people in art museums and other venues around the world and in 2013, they were named North Carolina’s official folk art.

Soon after the official opening of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park & Museum, Simpson was profiled in The New York Times and was described as a “visionary artist of the junkyard.”

“We get visitors every week from up and down the east coast and many from out of the country,” said Juan Logan, who is the head chairman of the Whirligig Conservation Headquarters.

“It’s so important to see these pieces in real life. You can see photos and watch YouTube all day but they don’t do it justice. The scale of these things is just incredible.”

One of Vollis Simpson's whirligigs during the night. Photo courtesy Don Davis
One of Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs during the night. Photo courtesy Don Davis

Some of the whirligigs weigh more than a ton. There are 20 pieces in the park now but an expansion project is under way and there will be 31 pieces featured when the project is completed in October, Logan said.

Wilson is quite proud of Simpson and his whirligigs. Besides the park, his creations are also displayed in front of the city’s library and operations center while several downtown businesses also celebrate his art. Another nearby park, the Paul Berry Park in Wilson, has four whirligigs dancing in the breeze.

But Simpson’s national prestige goes way beyond Wilson or North Carolina.

His work is also featured at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. where visitors will find his 55-foot-tall, 45-foot-wide “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” on permanent display. His pieces are part of several other collections, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and they were once featured in a popular window installation at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan.

The very last whirligig he sold is also on display at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington.

Simpson was 94 when he passed away in 2013 but his wife and two children still reside on the property where his old workshop is located. His artistic contribution to the town is celebrated at the North Carolina Whirligig Festival every November.

“The goal for this park is to preserve his legacy,” said Walston, who has been working on the expansion project for the last seven years.

“We have a excellent conservation team that has been building and restoring the whirlgigs. It’s an $8 million project. We’ve received a lot of help from community partnerships, foundations along with private and corporate donors. It’s been a great team effort for our town.”

The expansion of Whirligig Park has invited an entire revitalization of downtown Wilson.

The city’s very first craft brewery, 217 Brew Works, just opened adjacent to the park as thirsty visitors have a great view of the whirligigs from their outside seating area. The largest redevelopment project in Wilson’s history — the conversion of a brick tobacco warehouse into apartments, commercial development and a visitor’s center for the whirligig art project — broke ground last December.

“We are very proud that our perseverance is paying off and that this historic warehouse will be reused for a vibrant mixed-use project,” said Tom Corbett, the president of the Wilson Downtown Properties volunteer board.

“This project, along with the Whirligig Park, and surrounding development like the Nash Street Lofts and 217 Brew Works, are serving as major catalyst projects to the bright future of Historic Downtown Wilson.”

IF YOU GO: Be sure to check out the City of Wilson website and make plans to visit town during the annual Eyes on Main Street Outdoor Photo Festival, which starts April 8 and runs for three months. The festival will display the incredible work of international photographers, along with free lectures and workshops.

The Time Machine Whirligig featured at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C. Photo courtesy Don Davis
The Time Machine Whirligig featured at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C. (Photo courtesy of Don Davis)

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com