Why make the small eastern North Carolina city of Wilson my first post-COVID break-out vacation trip?
In a word, whirligigs.
But I had other reasons. Wilson is home to several eating places that were to be featured in a new edition of my “North Carolina Roadside Eateries,” a book that was ready for printing when the pandemic forced its postponement in the fall of 2020.
Parkers Barbecue, not far from I-95, is still going strong, serving the barbecue and fried chicken that has gained favorable attention in national magazines. Wilson’s other barbecue icon, Bill’s Barbecue and Chicken Restaurant, suddenly closed in early 2019 after being in business for 56 years. For people in Wilson, it was like a death in the family.
All is not lost. After Bill’s death, his son Lawrence, who grew up learning the business from his dad, opened his own restaurant and named it after his deceased brother, Marty. Bringing more than 30 years of experience working with his dad, he has turned his new restaurant into a bustling business.
People in Wilson are dividing up into Parker’s and Marty’s fans. The best thing for a visitor to do is sample both.
Wilson also has another southern food staple down pat: biscuits.
The “cat’s head” biscuits at Flo’s Kitchen will make you happy if you follow two rules: bring cash and get there before noon. Don’t be surprised if there is a big crowd both inside and outside.
On my recent visit, I learned about and enjoyed Dick’s Hot Dog Stand, at the corner of Nash and Pearson streets. It began in 1921 when a Greek immigrant, Socrates “Dick” Gliarmis, sold his first hot dog. A century later, Dick’s family is still there in a cozy building with walls posted full of North Carolina memorabilia. You can bet Dick’s will be featured in any revised “Roadside Eateries,”.
Good eating is important, but we came to see the whirligigs.
A friend, Susan Hudson, arranged for us to be guided by Henry Walston, who, as chairman of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum, was instrumental in bringing the whirligigs to downtown Wilson.
The late Vollis Simpson, a farmer, welder, house mover and handyman turned out to be an important American artist who could turn heaps of metal junk into gigantic, toylike, playful sculptures.
Simpson assembled his artwork on his farm, which became a popular, local attraction.
Walston was a leader in a community effort to gather, repair, and display Simpson’s work in downtown Wilson.
In 2017 he explained to WUNC’s Frank Stasio, “When we embraced this project we had creative placemaking in mind. Creative placemaking being when you take an art/cultural project and you use it as a vehicle to stimulate economic development in the area the project is located.”
Wilson’s loss of its tobacco markets and bank headquarters had stunned the town.
The whirligigs have come to the rescue. They are on display from 5 a.m. to midnight. It is the best kind of art museum — no tickets, no lines, no guards — just an open park full of Simpson’s quirky, colorful, structures moving differently with every breath of wind.
The whirligigs have helped attract other artists and businesses to downtown Wilson. Artist Sebastian Correa, a native of Chile, joined with George Newsome and Reggie Harrison to form Artisan Leaf, where they use epoxies and tobacco leaves to make lovely, sturdy tables and smaller objects that they sell for a fair price.
Former Chapel Hillian Barb White moved her art gallery to a downtown building in Wilson called the Edge. In her totally renovated space, she displays and sells her work and that of others.
Other artists are bringing life to the town.
Thanks in large part to the whirligigs, Wilson is on the move.
It was a perfect post COVID trip.