Below are my notes, lightly edited to protect individual identities, for a fieldwork project I did in Cheshire County, for the New Hampshire State Arts Council. I conducted fieldwork there in late 1997 and reported on that work in the first part of 1998. Working in rural New England at that time, I became fascinated by the small artifact called the whirligig, suspecting that this humble artifact may have been associated in some way with the ancient craft of the millwright. Was the whirligig a bauble or toy, or did it signify a relation to a time-honored craft and technology once been widespread in New England, and elsewhere in rural America? Was the whirligig a trace or a signifier of some more complex relationship? I'm posting a redacted version of that one section of the report here, part of an ongoing process of reviewing fieldwork projects I've done over the years.
Mr. H is a talented craftsman and woodworker. His output ranges widely, from whirligigs (or windmills) to entire houses (he built the house where he and his wife now live). Mr. H was born in Amherst, New Hampshire, and as a young man worked for a sawmill, then moved to Connecticut to take a job sanding floors. "I hated it there", he recalled, and later returned to New Hampshire to stay. His father was a millwright, and worked for the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, although Mr. H has no memory of that (by the time he was born his father had left the mill and was working in the woods cutting timber). Mr. H remembers as a child building timber sleds and sled shoes -- miniature versions imitating the full-size ones his father built and used.
Mr. H is an inventive individual with an inquiring mind and capable hand. As he explained, "I worked with my hands, used my head, and figured out how to do things." I became interested in him because I felt that he embodied the mythos of the New England individual -- ingenious, resourceful, energetic; but also because at a certain point in my work in New Hampshire I became interested in whirligigs.
In my view, whirligigs are very likely related to the activity of the millwright. They are wind driven, not water-powered devices, but like the water-powered mill they make use of an external energy source and convert it into motion or other form of directed activity. The whirligig mechanism is designed to animate various carved figures such as men cutting wood, women milking cows, boats moving over water, and so forth. Mr. W, the man who initiated the business that RD later worked for, was a millwright whose business was in Spofford –which, tellingly, is situated on an old mill site. Mr. H's father was a millwright too, and though Mr. H himself was not, he remembers setting up a small device with a paddle wheel across a stream when he was 10 or 12 years old, just to get the wheel to move and see how it worked.
Mill sites and mill ponds can still be seen on the New England landscape, and in fact, the traveler may occasionally came across what can be described as a "working mill" (in Alstead, for example). Water mills are certainly a part of what might be thought of as the "concept of New England". And it's interesting to speculate about a possible continuum: from water-powered mill-to industrial factory-to the diminutive version of the mill mechanism that we know today as the whirligig -- which is at once a functional object and a whimsical one: a clever representation of deep currents in New England culture. In this respect the whirligig gestures toward what it is not, or rather, points away from what it is. Whirligigs are decorative items, they're "fun", but their connections are very likely much more deeply significant and hidden from plain sight.
SC is owner of a small factory in Spofford that makes whirligigs. He is the third owner of the factory (the founder was a Mr. W, and the next owner was Mr. G). SC provided a tour of the factory and explained the production process and the function of the various workstations.
SC buys wood for the whirligigs in Brattleboro, Vermont and Alstead, New Hampshire. SC acquires the lumber, then planes it down to the thicknesses required for the various whirligig models. The basic shapes are cut out using established patterns. He recalls counting the patterns at one time, and "got as far as 139." Individual parts are next painted, then assembled, inspected, and packed. The whirligigs are produced in quantity and shipped all over the country. Whirligigs are visible, by the way, throughout the Cheshire County landscape -- and beyond. At that time, in fact, SC had just returned from the New England State Exposition, where he'd exhibited his work.
SC explained that there had been a sawmill on the factory site, operated by waterpower. The dam was blown out in 1938, he said. "The guy who lived here…tinkered with whirligigs in the winter months when the water froze" – rendering the mill inoperative. SC gave a tour of the site, where the original sluiceway, dam, and millpond had been located. When he bought the property and business he bulldozed the old mill structure, filled in the sluiceway, and built new buildings for the factory. He added that that the previous owner was his brother-in-law, who'd purchased the property in 1972.
SC is a mechanical engineer who graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. When he bought the business, he inherited the original designs for the whirligigs -- the sawyer, the woodcutter, the cow milker, and noted that "they are basically untouched from what Mr. W designed". The designs vary in complexity. For example, the ship has only six parts, the cow has 22. After purchasing the business SC introduced several new designs – including a baseball player. The previous owner originated the sailboat and carp fisherman, while SC introduced the bass fisherman, along with a man cranking an antique car. He also created "Saturday Night Scrub" (a bathtub scene), a golfer swinging a golf club, and a group of mallards, among others.
Apparently, the process has been iterative. SC said that each successive owner has created "offshoots" based on pre-existing designs. Mr. W designed a cow-milking figure, which Mr. G maintained for his catalog, but SC changed the milking figure to Uncle Sam, and named it "Taxes".
SC said that the history of whirligigs is "pretty damn interesting." He keeps his designs simple because simple figures are "more marketable". Complexity means more parts, he explained, which means more labor, and higher costs. SC is a collector of whirligigs too; he searches for them widely, and when he locates them has them sent along. He also keeps the prototypes for all the whirligigs, whether they are put into production or not. He displayed a "Horse and Buggy" whirligig that was never produced and sold because it was too complex. This prototype is stored with other stalled designs -- (a Christmas scene, Santa Claus milking a cow, a sleigh riding scene, a Statue of Liberty/ocean liner scene) -- in a small area of the building that he calls his "museum".
SC said, "They call them whirligigs, but I call them windmills. They don't do anything. Whirligigs are action figures. They are something." The comparison to windmills is telling; SC may have been indicating that there is something almost ineffable about the whirligig.
The history of whirligigs is most interesting and compelling and might be profitably explored in the context of the preindustrial/industrial past of the region -- all the while keeping an essential image in mind: the frozen millpond, the seasonally quiet mill in winter, the miller/millwright with time on his hands who creates a whimsy using skills adapted from his "real" work. A passage from Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children comes to mind here:
Once, I shyly gave her a necklace of flowers (queen-of-the-night for my lily-of-the-eve), bought with my own pocket money from a hawker-woman at Scandal Point. 'I don't wear flowers,' Evelyn Lilith said, and tossed the unwanted chain into the air, spearing it before it fell with a pellet from her unerring Daisy air-pistol. Destroying flowers with a Daisy, she served notice that she was not to be manacled, not even by a necklace: she was our capricious, whirligig Lily-of-the-valley. And Eve. The Adam's-apple of my eye.
What does the whirligig "mean?" Perhaps, alongside "whimsy", it signifies freedom.
Driving south to Spofford Road, then east along this road, there was at that time a cluster of objects set on sticks with windmill-type propellers affixed to one end. The house there was owned by Mr. D, who explained that those objects had been locally produced in a small factory nearby, and that his mother, who was inside at the time, had worked there some years ago.
Mr. D's mother, RD, explained that the business was started by Mr. W in 1925. He was a Seventh Day Adventist, she said, and was a "very clever man" who designed and made "windmills." The first of these was a figure made to look like it sawed wood when the wind moved the mechanism. RD explained that this first figure was sold in Vermont, "on the Hogback, in a gift shop up there." There is an interconnected line of ownership here: WG (see above) bought the business from Mr. W, who subsequently sold it to the present owner, SC. "He runs the mill now", she said. She added that WG and his sister have moved to Jamaica, Vermont, where they continue to make and sell birdhouses and other items crafted from wood.
RD remembered that the original windmill factory was set up in an old barn, and that two employees and the owner worked together in that space. She recalled approaching Mr. W in 1953 to ask for a job, because she'd heard he "needed someone to paint." She was hired, and at first, she painted the wooden figures by hand. Later, Mr. W introduced a screen painting process. They made trucks, horse carts, rocking horses, and other objects. RD said "The man that runs it now is just as clever as Mr. W was. Mr. W made all the machinery. He had a machine to bend the metal shaft, but now they buy them all done" – cutting one step out of the local production process, perhaps to meet demand and boost profits.
RD worked there until 1973; then "did some hand work in the cellar" [in her home] until age 80. She added that the current owner "now sells everywhere, ships by UPS." Mr. W, however, delivered his product to the nearby states of Vermont and Massachusetts, and throughout New Hampshire. The factory is located on the original site, a few miles from Mrs. D's home. After a while she went down to her basement and returned with some old "windmills" she herself had painted, that were made by Mr. W in his small factory.
All of this would repay further exploration...