Annual Whirligig Festival Brings Out The Kid In All Of Us

If you don’t know what a whirligig is, head for a unique festival this weekend in Wilson, North Carolina.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a whirligig as “a child’s toy having a whirling motion,” but the whirligigs at the 2022 North Carolina Whirligig Festival wouldn’t fit in a child’s hands.

Thirty giant whirligigs — some as large as a two-story building — are the centerpiece of the Nov. 5-6 celebration that is expected to attract up to 50,000 visitors to eight city blocks and Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. The park is 50 miles east of Raleigh, the state capital.

“The festival will have more than 100 vendors bringing a mix of arts, crafts, food and non-profit organizations,” says Theresa Mathis, the festival’s director. “Attendees can enjoy live music on four stages, and the festival has a free kids zone filled with games, activities and more for families and children.”

Whirligigs have fascinated and entertained children for centuries. The giant whirligigs in the park at the festival are permanent fixtures — the works of the late farm machinery repairman Vollis Simpson.

Simpson, who was called the “visionary artist of the junkyard” by the New York Times, began making huge kinetic sculptures at his Wilson County family farm when he neared retirement. He used road signs, fans, bicycles, mirrors, stovepipes, ball bearings, aluminum sheeting, various woods and other materials to form the whirligigs and their moving parts.

Simpson worked daily on the whirligigs until six months before his death at age 94 in 2013, and his creations were later moved to the park in Wilson, a city of about 48,000 residents.

“Each whirligig is unique,” Mathis says. “Some are round pinwheels, some are shaped like airplanes and some are men riding a bike. All have kinetic motion. The wind turns multiple pieces, and then a duck flaps its wings, a dog wags its tail, a mule train runs or 100 ice cream scoops spin and sparkle.”

This weekend’s festival will include a Build Your Own Whirligig contest for professionals, amateurs and children. Contestants will set up their whirligigs at the festival Friday evening, and they will be on display until the festival ends Sunday night.

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