Recreation Management Rec Report - The Newsletter for Recreation, Sports & Fitness Facility Managers

Feature Story

December 2019

People's Choice Awards Honors Whirligig Park in North Carolina

By Dave Ramont

The American Planning Association (APA) has announced the winners of the annual People's Choice Awards, which honors Great Places in America. Individuals are invited to offer suggestions via APA's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds, with final voting taking place at the APA website. This year's top designee is Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, N.C. Other top vote-getters included Nicollet Commons Park in Burnsville, Minn., and Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. They join 300 other public spaces, neighborhoods and streets honored by APA since the program's launch in 2007.

Vollis Simpson was a World War II veteran and farm machinery repairman from North Carolina. When he was nearing retirement, he began making giant kinetic sculptures—or whirligigs—at his family farm, which he made until shortly before he died at age 94, in 2013. Some of the sculptures reached 50 feet in height, and were made from parts he salvaged from tractors, bicycles, industrial machinery, etc.

The whirligigs were displayed in a field 11 miles outside the city of Wilson, N.C., and through the years, many visitors ventured there to view the sculptures, eventually making the Simpson farm a top tourist attraction in Wilson County. His work was discovered by art collectors, and his 55-foot tall "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" is on permanent display at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. His works are part of several other collections as well, including the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan.

In 2010, as Simpson's health declined, a grassroots movement was born to create Whirligig Park in downtown Wilson. That idea grew into a public/private partnership of residents, artists, local leaders, youth groups and other stakeholders. Simpson assisted in relocating the whirligigs to a downtown warehouse where they were restored and repainted, and now 30 of the whirligigs are featured at the park.

The two- acre park has become a gathering place for residents and tourists to enjoy entertainment and education, all while preserving the legacy of Simpson and his art. The park features a large, open-air pavilion for community events, a central grass amphitheater and dazzling night lighting. Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park has also been named the winner of the APA North Carolina chapter's People's Choice for Great Public Art.

Other Great Places in America recognized by APA in 2019 include the downtowns of Lee's Summit, Mo., and Patchogue, N,Y., in the Great Neighborhoods category. Pioneer Park in Mesa, Ariz., and Neponset River Greenway in Boston and Milton, Mass., received honors in the Great Public Spaces category. And in the Great Streets category, Artery Hopkins in Hopkins, Minn., and Water Street in Henderson, Nev., were honorees.

More information on APA and the Great Places in America program can be found at

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