Please welcome guest author Kevin McGuire. McGuire’s website Playful Plans is an extension of his thirty-five-year career as a woodworker and twenty years authoring woodworking project titles. He designs innovative vintage-inspired playthings for young people. His books have been recognized by reviewers, educators, and craftsmen and are currently included in over one thousand library collections in the United States and in many international collections from Iceland to South Africa to Australia. When not in the workshop Kevin can be found tending his vegetable garden, flyfishing the mountain streams or seeking additions to his vintage wooden toys collection.
In 1980, my father Roger McGuire, then Assistant to the Director of the just-constructed Folk Arts Center at milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, was seeking ways to build interest in this new heritage crafts outlet of the non-profit Southern Highland Handicraft (now “Craft”) Guild.
What Dad came up with —The World Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle Competition — has now endured (and fascinated thousands) for thirty-three years. As to the competition’s ambitious title- well, with a lifetime in the advertising business, Dad always did have a sly gift for hyperbole! The event is now the centerpiece of the Center’s annual Heritage Weekend.
The folk toy known as the whimmy diddle- which goes by many names, including hoodoo stick (Cherokee)- is reputed to have roots at least as far back as ancient China. As described by BlueRidgeNow.com: “… a kinetic, homemade toy that is somewhat akin to a whirligig, the whimmy diddle is a traditional Appalachian toy commonly made from two sticks of rhododendron or mountain laurel.”
It gets better. One of the sticks is notched, and has a propeller on the end secured by a small nail or screw. The second stick is rubbed along the notches, causing the propeller to spin to the left (gee) or to the right (haw)… commands that are historically associated with guiding plow stock through crop rows. The secret to the direction of spin- shifting the thumb’s pressure slightly from side to side- really isn’t a closely-guarded secret at all (sorry, conspiracy theorists!).
The World Competition’s categories (organized in youth, adult and “professional” groups) is MC’ed by the lively Joe “Colonel Buncombe” Bly and includes the number of alternating gee and haw rotations in twelve seconds (Will Hines is the current world record-holder at 58!), behind-the-back rotations, switched-hand rotations, and “most creative” whimmy diddle. That last category has included examples with eleven propellers, and a nine-foot-long whimmy requiring two folks to operate.
Historical note: Appalachian crafts have a long, see-sawing history of the public’s being fascinated by them, or ignoring them altogether; fortunes rise and fall according to how products are marketed, and the competition is furious and always dominated by deep pockets in the commercial toys industry. One positive marketing example is an influential Popular Science Magazine article dated March 1960 (“Folk Toys Are Back Again”) featuring the whimmy diddle.
That single Popular Science article is credited with a rebirth of interest in handmade wooden playthings in the early ’60’s. It praises Beech Creek, North Carolina’s Folk Toys Industry- an early group of western North Carolina toymakers whose profits went to the Council of the Southern Mountains, a group dedicated to helping rural families. It boosted our local crafts industries’ ability to survive- and thrive!- the onslaught of plastic and electronics in capturing the attention of people of all ages.
I’m pleased to own an original whimmy diddle from the 1960’s Folk Toys Industry artisans (pictured above right), and my Dad’s own whimmy diddle as well.
Our folk toys heritage thrives today. I appreciate Dad’s contribution to the ongoing effort encouraging the fun, the play, and the smiles of making and enjoying handmade toys in Asheville- and in your town, too!
Heritage Weekend at the Folk Arts Center is Saturday and Sunday Sept. 20-21, 2013.