Vollis Simpson was born near Wilson, N.C., one of twelve children. His formal schooling ended after the eleventh grade, when he joined the military and served in the United States Army Air Corps. While stationed on Saipan in the Pacific's Northern Marianas Islands during the Second World War Simpson pieced together his first whirligig, a windmill to operate a washing machine for the camp because they had no other power source for it. After the war, he designed and built heavy equipment for moving houses and opened a repair shop in Wilson County.
Retiring at age 65, Simpson found himself with spare time and many, many spare parts. Rather than “sit around and watch TV,” Simpson remembered the windmill he constructed during World War II, and began to build more of them. Using some of the same rigs he had developed for moving houses, Simpson constructed enormous windmills in his yard. They did not resemble the working windmills of grinding or irrigation use, but referenced the concepts of weather vanes and handcrafted whirligigs that are still seen on houses, fence posts and barns. He took particular pleasure in building all kinds of movement into his creations.
In a New York Times article in 2010, Leonard Simpson, a television producer in Greensboro, N.C. and one of Vollis' three children, said this about his father's creative approach, “If he goes to the junkyard and finds 25 fans, he comes home and makes 25 whirligigs." Leonard continued, "He just did it for enjoyment. People would come from Wilson and stop and point. He came to enjoy the social aspect of it, and people started coming from further and further away. Next thing you knew, people were coming from Atlanta and Richmond.” Eventually, Simpson‘s largest pieces grew to nearly forty feet tall and thousands of pounds; and four of them were installed in downtown Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic games. The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park opened in 2014 in Wilson to display a number of Simpson whirligigs from his personal collection, as a museum and a tourist attraction.
HMA owns several whirligigs by Simpson, including three (pictured) that swirl magically in the breeze outside HMA, next to the HMA Founder's Garden. These three were recently renovated to their original colorful animated glory following years of exposure to the wearing effects of the weather. Read more about these outdoor whirligigs here.
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since March 2015.