SEARSPORT, MAINE -- Nick DiNicola says his wife came up with the idea last winter. It seemed a natural, what with DiNicola's roadside "lawn toys" business in the heart of coastal Maine. So he made one, then dozens, and very soon they began outselling the canoe-paddling Indians, the pink flamingos, the ducks, the bullfrogs -- even the moose flowerpots.
Yes, lobster whirligigs -- fire-red, plywood crustaceans whose claws spin madly in the wind -- are big this summer, along with cutout cows, mini-windmills, woolly fur bears, roadrunners and countless other lawn ornaments being sold along country roads throughout New England.
"If you've got something different, that's what they're looking for," declared DiNicola, 66, who has planted dozens of his lobsters and other creations outside his trailer to attract passing motorists along Route 3.
So popular are these handmade crafts among tourists that creating them has become a cottage industry in rural parts of Maine and New Hampshire, areas chronically plagued by high unemployment.
Former rubbish dealers like DiNicola, ex-truckers, engineers, shoe salespeople, dairy farmers and others -- some with no experience in woodworking -- are now churning out whirligigs and other wooden lawn toys en masse. The production facilities range from basement and garage workshops in central Maine to a small factory in Spofford, N.H., that ships 25,000 whirligigs a year.
"You keep saying to yourself, 'Don't get used to this, because it won't last,"' said Beverly Giles of Canaan, Maine, who quit her job at an electrical products company four years ago to make lawn toys.
She now works 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, to keep up with the demand for whirligigs and woolly fur bears, which sell retail for about $15 and up.
"I can't understand it," she said. "We're doing so well."
At least four other families compete in the lawn toy trade in central Maine's Canaan area, and nearly a dozen shops now sell the novelties. Just ask Don Brackett, 65, a school bus driver who, with his wife, has been making and peddling the crafts from an ice cream stand for five years.
Stepping out from his small workshop behind the ice cream freezers, he complained, "It's slowing down here because everybody's making them now. When we first started, they sold good."
Not everyone is watching sales slide.
Joan Gray and her husband, Darrell, have been wholesaling lawn toys from their home in Skowhegan, Maine, for nine years. Business got so good that last year they decided to open a retail shop across the street. The shop, just past a popular picnic area along the scenic Kennebec River, is surrounded by a veritable menagerie of wooden and fuzzy small animals.
She and her husband, a former truck driver, got started in the business after he suffered a heart attack.
"I went to work one day and I came home and he was down in the cellar," she recalled. "He had a whole mess of birds cut out and he was priming them and sanding them. And I said, 'What are you going to do with all those birds?' He said, 'I'm going to sell them.' And he did."
She soon quit her job at a shoe store to join him full time.
Lawn ornaments are not a new phenomenon in New England. Whirligigs and other wind-powered toys began appearing in the region in the mid-19th century, according to folk-art experts.
The earliest whirligigs were human figures, typically Indians, soldiers and swordsmen, with paddle arms that twirled in the wind, said Bob Shaw, curator of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., which has a well-known collection of folk art.
"It seems to be a Northeastern phenomenon," he said. "I know of some that were made in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, but the earliest ones were from New England and Upstate New York."
In the early 1900s, whirligigs became more complex, often involving more than one figure, such as bike riders chasing each other around a track, or two men operating a saw, Shaw said.
Antique whirligigs are popular among collectors and have fetched as much as $42,000 at auction, said Nancy Druckman, director of American folk art for Sotheby's auction house in New York. But collectors have no interest in mass-produced wind toys, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Disney characters, experts say.
"My instinct is you can keep them forever and they're not going to appreciate aesthetically or monetarily," predicted Marna Anderson, director of Hirschl and Adler Folk, a New York City gallery that specializes in folk art.
Maybe so, but there remain vast differences in the quality of whirligigs made today.
The finest, dealers seem to agree, come from Walston Woodcraft, which has been making whirligigs at a small factory beside a muddy stream in Spofford since 1925.
With an annual production of nearly 25,000 units, owner Stanley Clevenger likes to call his business "the General Motors" of the whirligig trade. Rolls-Royce may be a more apt description.
While most of the whirligigs sold today are so simple in design that a proficient worker can turn out 15 or 20 in a day, Clevenger and his eight employees manufacture old-fashioned, mechanized models that contain up to 22 parts and can take a week to paint. Six of the company's models are reproductions of the original designs by the company's founder, the late Earl Walston, a Seventh-Day Adventist who ran a saw mill at the site and began making whirligigs as a sideline.
"We shoot for the premium end of the market," said Clevenger, 58, a cigar-smoking engineer who bought the business with his wife, Marlene, in 1984. "There's an awful lot of junk on the market these days."