Legend says Vollis. T. Simpson’s daughter ate bad acid on prom night and got behind the wheel of her truck. Racing down a dark country road to make curfew, Simpson’s daughter took a curve too fast and ran her car fatally into a tree. That same night, Simpson woke to a vision of whirling psychedelic forms that haunted his daughter’s last view of this world. The experience drove Simpson insane, and he spent the rest of his life trying to translate his vision into a haunting piece of Americana known simply as “The Acid Park.”
The Acid Park sat on Wiggins Mill Road, just outside the sleepy tobacco town of Wilson, North Carolina. Set on an unremarkable pasture, the Acid Park was a cluster of otherworldly windmills that defied easy description. It looked like a three-dimensional, country-fried Dali painting or “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” as interpreted by a two hundred foot tall erector-set savant. Rising from Simpson’s rural property, the windmills, or ‘whirligigs’ as they’re locally known, hinged and swung at strange angles, blades spinning in the breeze. Drawn by the legend and its eerie manifestation, many a stoned high schooler wandered amongst the monoliths in search of kicks. A place so surreal could only be the handiwork of some unhinged hermit.
The outskirts of Wilson conjure familiar vibes: there are columned homes in disrepair, old-style gas stations covered in FourLoko paste-ups, bungalows with smoking chimneys and cluttered front yards, and a disconcerting number of medical supply stores. Further into town, low slung brick warehouses, two-story curing barns, and defunct auction houses reveal the town for what it once was: a prosperous hub on ‘Tobacco Road,’ the still-used local name for eastern North Carolina, an ex-cradle of the tobacco industry. The region is a pool-table flat coastal plain that produced many shit tons of tobacco when America still smoked from sunup-to-sundown.
Tobacco is no legacy North Carolina and its institutions can easily distance themselves from: there’s Winston-Salem, home of Camel Blues and the namesake of Winston and Salem cigarettes. Durham, as in Bull Durham Tobacco. Duke, UNC, Wake Forest, and NC State are all beneficiaries of tobacco money. Many of the state’s loaded old families can still trace their wealth to ‘the Golden Leaf.’
Nowadays, the knotty tracts of swamp and pine forest are broken mainly by nondescript fields of soybean and vast brown plains of crops that are significantly less lucrative and deadly than their chief predecessor. There aren’t tobacco warehouse positions, nor jobs maintaining the infrastructure required to support the vertically-integrated tobacco industry. In tandem with the region’s general economic frustration, there is — justified or not — a sense of resentment at having to bear the negative socio-industrial legacy that the cultural snubbing entails.
The route into Wilson could plausibly be the mythical road itself. Winding through the town’s small suburbs, the road in seems headed to a place that, like so many other rural communities, is resigned to a difficult fate. But at the edge of downtown, Wilson lifts a veil: silhouetted beside a rusty water tower, soaring above old brick warehouses, a grove of Vollis. T. Simpson’s whirligigs rise against the Carolina blue sky.
“You wonder if he would’ve been an axe murderer if he couldn’t make these sculptures” a gray haired guest at Vollis. T. Simpson Whirligig Park wondered aloud. And the question, if blunt, is understandable. Thirty-one of Simpson’s whirligigs were relocated to a grassy square in the center of Wilson, giving the just-opened municipal an utterly manic vibe.
Up close, the whirligigs reveal themselves to be mashups of form and color, built from cut metal, repurposed junk and everyday rural objects. Circles within circles of milkshake cups whirl two stories overhead. A farmer on a rocket ship does 360s. Ducks takeoff from strange ferris wheels. Hubcaps and highway signs seesaw back and forth. The sculptures — with names like ‘Barbecue’ and ‘Duck Plane,’ the motion and intricacy, the unexpected shifts and apparently impossible physics — do give the Whirligig Park a distinctly acidic quality.
So it’s almost a letdown to discover that not only was Vollis. T. Simpson was a supremely normal rural machinist, but the bad-trip-at-prom-wreck, like all choice urban legends, is pure fiction. The true story behind the whirligigs, is less sensational than the myth, but no less remarkable. Simpson grew up working old school farm machinery that gave him a tactile understanding of machinery and physics. Stationed in the Pacific during World War II, Simpson created rudimentary windmills. He returned to his home country after the war, opened a machine shop, and worked there until retiring at age 67. Already a collector of interesting machine scraps and without a job to provide stimulation, Vollis wasn’t about to go gently into retirement. With no blueprints he pieced together machine scraps and erected the first windmill on his property, which became the original Acid Park. When he finished the first, he began the next, then continued to that way for seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year until his death at age 94 in 2013.
At first, locals were bemused by the good-old-boy turned sculptor. In an NC Arts Council sponsored documentary about his Simpson’s life, he explains that “Everybody made fun of me and laughed at me….I didn’t pay ’em no damn mind.” But as Simpson’s sculpture garden expanded, so did his audience. Folks came from all over the state to see Simpson’s handiwork. He thought of himself as a hobbyist and tinkerer, but the art world had different ideas. Labeling Simpson a classic ‘outsider artist,’ his pieces were commissioned for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and centerpiece American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The American ambassador to Russia keeps one at his home in Moscow.
The juxtaposition of utterly abstract form with totally concrete, even cartoonish farm imagery is a constant in Simpson’s work. Now, with the opening of the Whirligig Park, that contrast not only reflects the experience of a rural genius, but also the town of Wilson. It’s a place caught between its 20th Century tobacco legacy, and the uncertainties of a globalized economy with lessening need for the global leaf. Yet unlike other towns, Wilson took a bold step and put this crazy stuff up in the town square. In a region as conservative as Eastern North Carolina, bringing anything from a place called “the Acid Park” into the center of town, no doubt generated some controversy.
But by gambling on the park, Wilson has made a proactive step toward re-inventing itself. Perhaps naysayers can take solace in the fact that Whirligig Park refutes the never-said but generally accepted idea that serious creativity doesn’t exist outside of coastal metropolises. Plus, a craft beer joint sits on one edge of the square, and a warehouse full of organic vendors, coffee shops and restaurants is slated to open just across the road. More importantly, the Whirligig Park is bringing folks together in ever more divided times. Folks from deep in the country go into town to see the crazy sight and end up rubbing shoulders with exotic hipsters looking to experience outsider art. Wandering around the park evokes the scene during September’s North American eclipse: all kinds of people gathered together, all with their necks craned in wonder toward the same sky.
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