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In just a few weeks, visitors to the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park will no longer have to view the park from across the street.
They are invited to walk among the giant windmills created by a man who loved to tinker and create in his Lucama workshop.
Before the Nov. 2 grand opening, another four whirligigs will join the 26 that have already been installed. One of the last ones will be the biggest for the park, “Mule Wagon,” measuring 32 feet long and weighing 13,500 pounds.
If you drive by the park often, you will notice many changes in coming weeks as the opening approaches. In addition to the new whirligigs that will be installed, there’s serious landscaping work to be done.
Dale Edmonds, city of Wilson parks superintendent, says seven bosque elms and two trident maples will be planted next week. More plantings are also planned throughout the park, he said, including ornamental grasses, Knockout roses, juniper, burning bush, Carissa holly, dwarf yaupon hollies, lantana, irises, nandinas and sweet box shrub.
Teachers have already booked field trips to the city park in the spring, said Jeff Bell, park director, and other groups have voiced an interest as well. Before long, visitors will be walking through the park looking for clues on scavenger hunts and learning how Simpson started making his windmills after he retired.
Bell will lead as many tours as possible in the park. Others will be self-guided, with visitors reading the signs that will tell about Simpson, his work, the restoration effort and Wilson.
Almost every time Bell is at the park, he is stopped by visitors who have found their way to Wilson after hearing about the park in newspapers and magazines or by seeing information at the state visitor centers where Simpson’s whirligigs have been on display.
“There’s almost always someone stopped and looking at them,” he said.
VISITING THE PARK
Admission to the Whirligig Park will be free, and there will be both daytime and evening hours.
Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, visited the park this summer and applauded park officials for planning evening hours.
When Simpson’s whirligigs were located at the artist’s farm, motorists made an effort to drive by the park at night. Headlights shining on the thousands of reflectors Simpson placed on the whirligigs created a colorful, almost magical, effect. During the extensive restoration of the whirligigs, new reflectors were added to Simpson’s creations.
A major effort is being made to recreate that look by placing lighting sources at different heights. Bell said organizers have experimented with the lighting some recent evenings and are still adjusting light heights and positioning to create the desired effect.
The marketing effort will be ramped up now that the park’s opening is getting close. The Travel Channel visited recently, and the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources is doing its part, producing a video as well as placing an advertisement in Our State Magazine. There are future plans to place signs throughout the area directing visitors to the park and other Wilson destinations.
Bell said funding for continuing conservation efforts will come through donations, T-shirt revenue, a membership campaign and special events, including ticketed concerts from the park’s stage.
The city’s parks and recreation department will maintain the park.
There are naming opportunities for a number of things, including the stage and some of the whirligigs, as well as a water feature that will be added later.
Bell is hoping residents and visitors to town will take time to enjoy the park. He wants to see people strolling on the walking path and having lunch on a bench or under the shelter that will also serve as the Downtown Farmers Market site starting in the spring. He also wants them to visit the museum that will open in the spring in Whirligig Station, across the street from the park, that is located at 301 Goldsboro St. S.
Bell anticipates people getting married at the park or renting it for parties or family reunions.
But he wants to make sure the focus remains the same.
“I want it to still be about the whirligigs,” he said. “Spend time with them. To me, that’s the biggest thing.”
Simpson was a World War II veteran, a former house mover, mechanic and farmer. He started making the whirligigs, which he called windmills, around 30 years ago, using leftover parts from his business.
It was May 2010 that the park announcement was made. Simpson was 91 and ready for someone else to take care of his kinetic sculptures and entered into an agreement with Wilson Downtown Properties to take possession of 32 major whirligigs. He and his family attended the announcement ceremony in the open field that is now populated with his restored work.
He said at the time that he was too old to be maintaining the whirligigs that he created and installed.
“I’m getting a lot of miles on me,” Simpson told the Times. “I can’t climb and look after them like I should.”
But it was still a very hard decision for Simpson, who loved sitting in his workshop and talking to people who stopped by the pasture to see his windmills.
“I didn’t really make ’em to get rid of ’em,” he told the Times. But he knew if something was not done, they would continue to rust and eventually fall beyond repair.
Simpson said he was happy someone would be looking after his beloved windmills, and he looked forward to seeing the park completed.
“I’d love to see them,” he said. “I probably won’t live that long.”
Simpson, who died in 2013, didn’t live to see the whirligigs in the park, but he did observe and approve of the restoration work.
In the seven years since the agreement was made, money was raised, major grants secured, plans formalized and the park director hired.
The Nov. 2 grand opening and ribbon-cutting starts at 4 p.m. and will include comments by local and state officials. Gov. Roy Cooper has been invited, and Secretary of Cultural Resources Susi Hamilton is expected to speak.
The public is also invited.
“We’d love to see as many people as possible,” Bell said.
He said the grand opening will include activities for the family, food trucks and music by Fireside Collective on the raised stage.
When the sun goes down, the lights will come on.
The opening is timed to coincide with the North Carolina Whirligig Festival Nov. 4-5 in downtown Wilson. Bell said the park will be low-key at this year’s festival, but he expects a lot of traffic.
The city of Wilson does plan to move its touch-a-truck and Inspiration Station exhibit to the area around the park. Festival-goers can take a trip on the bucket truck to get a bird’s eye view of the whirligigs.
The park is a joint effort of the city of Wilson, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum and Wilson Downtown Properties.