If you’re over the age of 50 and grew up in the country, you probably know what a gee-haw-whimmy-diddle is. If you don’t know what that is, more than likely, you probably grew up in town, like I did, and wouldn’t have a clue as to what a gee-haw-whimmy-diddle is. I recently got acquainted with someone who not only knows what a gee-haw-whimmy-diddle is, but can make one too. The trunk of his car is often loaded down with similar contraptions, all of which he has made by hand. The owner of all these duplicates from the past is a resident of Clay County and retired school teacher by the name of Roy Henson. Here is a little background information about Roy and how he came to be an Appalachian toy maker.

The younger son of Elmo and Oma Henson, Roy grew up in the Oak Grove community of Clay County. He received his elementary school education at Mt. Vernon, and went on to graduate from high school at Hermitage Springs. He obtained a B.A. degree at David Lipscomb College (now University), and an M.A.T. at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis).

Roy’s father made a living for his family by farming and part-time carpenter work. It was after the death of Roy’s grandmother Birdwell that his grandfather, William (Billy) Birdwell, a skilled carpenter by trade, moved in with Roy’s family. Roy credits his "Pappy" Birdwell with instilling in him an interest and passion for woodworking that began when Roy was just 10 years old and continues on today. Hours spent around the wood stove in the winter months, or on the front porch in the summer, resulted in Roy’s learning how to make some very unique toys that most country kids had at least one or more of. Many who read this will recognize or recall the names of these toys, some of which originated in the Appalachian mountains. They include slide whistles; bull roarer; pop guns; squirt guns; bow and arrow; poke-stalk noise makers; pumpkin-razzer noise makers; corn stalk fiddles; clothes pin corn shooters; spinning tops made from gourds; wheel rollers; button-on-a-string; and spool tractors.

If the names of these toys bring back some fond memories, maybe this coming summer, a drive to Cades Cove near the Smoky Mountains might be planned. Folks who stop by Cades Cove Visitors Center can see not only a demonstration of how all these hand-made wonders operate, but will have the opportunity to play with all these old fashioned Appalachian toys. Roy is a volunteer every Wednesday during the summer months, and shows hundreds of kids, and grown ups too, just how much fun all these strange-looking, wooden wonders hold in store with just the touch of a hand. Roy also travels to local schools in this and the surrounding areas to demonstrate to students how children spent their play time in years gone by. Some other toys Roy has added to the list of those his Pappy Birdwell introduced him to include the preacher and the bear, the dancing man, Humpty Dumpty, climbing bears, and a climbing sailor. More than thirty different toys are included in the programs Roy holds. He always reminds children that trips to museums have rules or signs that say "Do Not Touch." With Roy’s demonstrations, everyone is invited to get involved in a "hands on" way. Kids who, in the beginning, often show indifference and no interest soon become spellbound with these simple but creative homemade toys.

Roy and wife, Joy, who make their home in the Oak Grove community near the old homeplace of his Pappy Birdwell, have four grown children, Phillip, Jonathan, Lorrie, and Amy. They are also grandparents of seven grandchildren, two of which are twin boys. It was when the grandchildren came along that Roy returned once more to the art of toy making, something he spent hours doing with Pappy Birdwell. Sugarlands Visitors Center in Gatlinburg is another location where he does toy demonstrations. He is always on the lookout for new ways to incorporate ordinary objects into his programs, and is often given ideas from teachers and others he comes into contact with through the programs he gives. After over 30 years of teaching, 25 of which spent in the Clay County school system, he describes toy making and demonstrations as nothing but fun. Students don’t always realize they are getting a lesson in the history of early toys, but in science too. Sometimes Roy leaves a test paper with some of the classes to see if students connect the scientific principles involved in the construction of the toys.


A Gee-Haw-Whimmy-Diddle was handcrafted by Roy Henson.

Roy Henson, retired Clay County school teacher, demonstrates how to use an appalachian toy called the Gee-Haw-Whimmy-Diddle.

Wooden puzzles are included in Roy Henson's toy demonstrations.
I must admit that I amazed at how much fun these simple objects create, and even though I had no idea what it was, my very favorite of all is the gee-haw-whimmy-diddle. As strange as it looks, I think a good description would be that it’s not only a lot of fun, but it would also qualify as an unusual piece of art. For an up-close and personal inspection, along with a demonstration of the toys from the past, watch for a later announcement giving the date when Roy will be guest speaker at the Overton County Historical Society in Livingston.