Acid Park: How a Tragic Legend Helped Revitalize Downtown Wilson

Acid Park: How a Tragic Legend Helped Revitalize Downtown Wilson

Up until about 10 years ago, when rounding a certain bend in southwestern Wilson County, you would be greeted with a field of reflective contraptions standing tall amongst the trees. These enormous, striking sculptures, painted in dazzling colors, moved with the wind. Mythology grew around the sculptures and the patch of fascinating farmland came to be known as Acid Park.

The legend of Acid Park is a sad, tragic tale. The story goes that a young woman and her boyfriend took LSD before driving home from their prom. As they rounded the bend in the road near Lucama, they lost control of the car, crashing into a tree. Rushing out to see what had happened on his land, Vollis Simpson discovered the couple amidst the wreckage.

The young woman was his daughter.

As she lay dying in the field, she told Vollis about what she was seeing. Shortly thereafter, he began to dream about her final visions. Vollis set about memorializing his daughter by building sculptures of what she saw. He left the wrecked car on the land as a warning to other drivers.

None of it is true, however.

“I grew up in Goldsboro and I heard the same sort of urban legends,” says Jeff Bell, executive director of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project. He stresses that “[the] myths and stories about [the whirligigs] that you heard are not true. His daughter is actually on our board.”

The Architect of Acid Park

The truth of Acid Park is much more benign. When farm equipment repairman Vollis Simpson retired in 1984 at the age of 65, he wasn’t quite sure how to spend his time. Always fascinated with mechanics and machinery, he began to build what he called “whirligigs,” enormous kinetic sculptures crafted from salvaged machinery, road signs, and thrifted mechanical parts.

Simpson placed these whirligigs in a clearing on his farm. After a while, intrigued locals began visiting the whirligig patch. Eventually, with the rise of the internet, out-of-state visitors flocked to Lucama to see the enchanting art nestled amongst the trees.

Though Simpson enjoyed talking with visitors about his whirligigs, he never embraced the artist moniker. “Vollis never called these things art work,” says Jeff Bell. “He just made them…he was just incredibly mechanically minded, and was just very driven and interested in making these things.”

Preserving the Whirligigs and Revitalizing a Town

As Vollis got older he was less able to service the whirligigs, some of which stood over 60 feet tall. Around the same time, the city of Wilson was looking for ways to revitalize their struggling downtown. Recognizing a mutually beneficial opportunity, Wilson Downtown Development Corporation approached Vollis in 2010 about purchasing some of his whirligigs.

Though Vollis made a great number of whirligigs, the WDDC was most interested in purchasing those that made up the area people referred to as Acid Park. The nonprofit’s goal was to set up a park in downtown Wilson that featured and preserved Vollis’s work. As a result, they hoped businesses and tourists alike would develop a renewed interest in downtown.

The ultimate goal of project is three-pronged. “One is to preserve the works of Vollis Simpson,” says Bell. “One is to create a community gathering space. It’s sort of right in the center of town. And one is to help revitalize downtown Wilson.”

After purchasing the sculptures, “they set up a conservation headquarters about a block or so from the park location in an old warehouse,” says Bell of the conservation process. “They one at a time dismantled them, moved them into conservation from his farm and totally reworked them.”

According to Bell, the conservation team then worked to strip off the flaking paint and redo all the mechanical parts down to the bearings “to try to make them last as long as possible. To preserve them.”

The team consulted closely with Vollis throughout the process. “They would work with Vollis to say, like, ‘What color should this be? Or how should this work?'” says Bell. They also developed names for the whirligigs, as Vollis had not previously named any of them. “If you come to the park, they all have titles on the base plate. Vollis even worked with them on those names and approving those names,” he says.

Unfortunately, Vollis never got to see the completed project. He died in 2013, four years before the downtown park opened.

The Impact of Whirligig Park

After several years of restoration and preservation work, The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park opened in downtown Wilson in 2017. In the three short years that the park has been open, it has met each of its three goals.

To remain true to Vollis’s original vision, the layout of the downtown park mirrors that of Acid Park in Lucama. Where the whirligigs once stood around a pond, they’re now located around a green space. “We have a stage and green where we do lots of concerts and events and films, things like that,” explains Bell of the park’s orientation. “And we have a pavilion where we do markets and other events.”

Image courtesy of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

Finally, the park has been instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Wilson. “When the park was announced in 2010, the average public and private investment in downtown annually was about $900,000 a year. Immediately, that began to ramp up,” says Bell. “And now we’re averaging probably $20 million a year in public and private investment in downtown.”

Furthermore, according to Bell, property values around the park have dramatically increased. While property values in Wilson County have generally remained similar to what they were in 2010, properties near the park saw their value increase by 36%.

“It’s huge and it’s a diagonal line up that’s taken place because of this project,” he says.

The Enduring Legend of Acid Park

The old Acid Park on Vollis Simpson's land in Lucama.
Image courtesy of Hello Travel.

Even though it’s completely untrue, the legend of Acid Park lives on to this day. Bell often hears guests at the Wilson park relating the story to one another. “I correct them and tell them the truth,” he says, but never dismisses the stories outright. “I think they’re interesting and I think they’re part of the history. Whether they’re true or not, I think that they are kind of tied to it in a way.”

While the whirligigs are immediate and captivating, they’re also daunting. “Sometimes there are people like Vollis that had so many incredible talents built into them, they can create things that many of us could never have imagined,” says Bell. “So we try to understand it in some way. So we have to make up stories about it.”

Interested in more North Carolina legends? Take a look at our pieces about The Devil’s Tramping Ground and The Brown Mountain Lights.