TRENTON, Maine — Twirling, rocking, waving and spinning, the moving lawn ornaments of Country Keepsakes gift shop in Trenton tend to draw the eyes of travelers on Route 1. All it takes is the slightest puff of wind, and these wood and wire ornaments — formally known as “whirligigs” — are propelled into a flurry of movement.
“I sell thousands of them,” said Pam Patten, who opened Country Keepsakes just over 30 years ago beside the busy road leading to Mount Desert Island.
Whirligigs, also known as “buzzers,” “gee-haws,” “spinners” and “pinwheels,” are objects of American folk art that began appearing in the United States nearly 200 years ago to spice up people’s lawns and gardens. Traditional whirligig designs depict scenes from rural life: a farmer milking a cow, a lumberjack sawing a log or a fisherman rowing a boat. Outfitted with propellers, these simple lawn ornaments are powered by the wind. As the propeller turns, it sets into motion simple mechanics of wheels and thin metal rods, which in turn moves parts of the wooden whirligig, such as a character’s arms or legs.
“It’s an old-time thing,” Patten said, “and people really like that.”
“I find a lot of people, especially older people who are home all the time, they love their lawns,” she added. “They sit on their porch, and they like to see [whirligigs] out on their lawns, twirling around.”
Pam Patten moved to Trenton 34 years ago with her husband, James “Putt” Patten, owner of Ellsworth Chainsaw Sales and Services. Today, they run their two businesses side by side. And when they close up shop at night, they simply move upstairs to their living space.
“He’s the outdoor equipment guy, and I’m the whirligig lady,” Pam Patten said.
Pam Patten was a stay-at-home mom raising two daughters when she decided to open Country Keepsakes as a way to contribute to the family income. She started small, with just a few lawn ornaments staked out on the lawn, then steadily added to her inventory, building a large gift shop with hundreds of lawn ornaments.
On her shop’s perfectly manicured front lawn is a fantastical display of Amish-made model lighthouses and lobster buoy birdhouses, silhouette garden ornaments and metal sculptures. But whirligigs continue to be at the center of her business. Staked in the grass beside Route 1, the whirling ornaments beckon to potential customers as they drive by.
Today, Pam Patten sells about 50 different models of traditional wooden whirligigs, all made Walston Woodcraft of Mount Vernon, Maine.
“The loons are very popular,” Pam Patten said, pointing out a newer design, its wooden wings rotating in the wind. “They’re beautifully done.”
But it’s the sailboat, which teeters back and forth upon wooden waves, that has been her top seller for the past 30 years.
“Everybody wants a bit of the coast to take back with them,” she said. “Plus, it’s cute.”
The lobster comes in at a close second, its bright red claws spinning round and round.
A typical Walston whirligig is 16 inches long by 11 inches tall and weighs about 2 pounds. Constructed of solid white pine, they are sealed with durable acrylic enamel paint and finished with silkscreened or hand-painted detail. Each model costs about $50.
While many of their designs are scenes from Maine rural life, they continually release new designs, and some of them have a modern flare. For example, Walston Woodcrafts makes a number of seasonal whirligigs, including a Frankenstein and Santa Claus in his sleigh.
“I have a lot of repeat customers,” Pamela Patten said. “Some of them have been coming here as long as I’ve been in business. So I always try to find something new for them.”
While she doesn’t have a set plan on what she’ll do with her shop when she retires, she hopes to pass the business on to a family member.
“I love what I do,” she said. “That’s what’s kept me here all these years.