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Harnessing wind, whimsy

Durbin makes whirligigs that turn and amuse

September 15, 2012
By HANS MADSEN, , Messenger News

It's all a matter of transferring energy.

The wind blows, a propeller turns, a crank rotates and the little wooden figure holding a saw, cuts, cuts, cuts - and then cuts some more.

A few feet away, another prop turns and this time, the little figure turns the crank on a tractor that never does start.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Ed Durbin, of Odebolt, looks over some of the many whirligigs he’s built at the Saturday Hillbilly Sale on the Webster County Fairgrounds. Durbin said he’s built about 2,000 of them over the course of decades.

The colorful and whimsical creations - called whirligigs - the creation of Ed Durbin, of Odebolt, are for sale at the Hillbilly Sale on the Webster County Fairgrounds.

They began as a gift.

"Twenty years ago my brother-in-law gave me a whirligig," he said. "I thought where I live in farm country somebody would like one with a tractor."

He began making the creations and selling them at flea markets, threshing and ag shows.

They proved popular.

"We usually sold out every show," he said.

Durbin signs most of his creations so the customer knows it's the real deal. He said he's built about 2,000 of them during the past two decades.

The time invested in each one varies.

"It takes five to seven hours if you're starting from scratch," he said.

Making duplicates makes it go a bit faster.

"We have an assembly line then," he said.

He said that one seeing one of his whirligigs spinning away in a yard is a special treat for him. He's also thrilled when somebody comes back for another, especially when the first one was bought quite some time ago.

"I had a customer come buy one who said he'd bought one 11 years ago and it finally gave out," he said.

He also makes sure they're durable. He said one of them withstood a measured 60-mile-per-hour gust.

"It was going so fast she looked like she was standing still," he said of the small figure moving rapidly up and down.

He does not recommend that sort of testing.

"If the wind is going to be more than 35 or 40," he said. "Do yourself a favor and take it inside."

He's also done custom work. He recently converted a John Deere walking lawn sprinkler into a whirligig, and he managed to produce a model of an antique one cylinder "hit and miss" engine where the flywheel turned.

The customer really like it.

"He cried when he picked it up," Durbin said. "He put it on a stand in his living room."

He's also a stickler for authentic details - sort of.

His John Deere whirligigs feature a crank on the front of the machine - an older John Deere is started with a flywheel behind the engine.

"The flywheel starter and brake are on the correct side," he said.

Unfortunately, the selection of whimsical whirligigs on display Saturday is about all that's left.

Durbin, now 79, has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and has put away his tools.

He is keeping one or two.

After all, someday, the little figure may actually cut all the way through the log.



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