Sometimes the most interesting people happen to be our very own neighbors. They’re great talents who are living quietly among us and, in Don Murphy’s case, producing beautiful works of art privately at home. Don says he’s been called the “Last of the Mohicans”, one of the few people in the world creating custom copper weathervanes from intricate hand-carved designs. You might not recognize Don if you passed him on the street. But if you’ve ever been to Barrington’s Metra Station, you know his work.
Don designed the blue heron weathervane perched atop Barrington’s train station cupola. This giant copper bird is as graceful as it is sturdy, with a six-foot wingspan standing up to our harsh midwestern weather. “That’s a big wingspan on the one in Barrington and every time there is a tremendous amount of wind, I’ll go by and take a look. I don’t want to see any of my weathervanes wind up in the street. Once they go up there, they’re up there forever.”
Don started designing weathervanes when he retired and sold his industrial power equipment business 15 years ago. With retirement, came the time to return to his life-long passion, wood-carving. After reading a book about weathervanes, which he found at the library, Don taught himself how to turn his wood sculptures into elegant rooftop works of art. “The carvings are very ornate and detailed. I take the carving and I copy it in plaster or steel and I make a pattern and I can hammer the copper into the pattern. That’s how they’re made.”
Today, you’ll find Don’s weathervanes on top of hundreds of homes and businesses throughout the country, from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington to banks in Kentucky to Churchill Downs. All of these weathervanes were carved, hammered, signed, numbered and dated by Don’s hand at home in his Lake Barrington basement.
Don’s weather vanes come in all shapes and sizes. He’s been asked to design horses that jump fences, pegasus, birds, dragonflies, butterflies, honeybees, airplanes, roosters and even a pig with wings for someone who thought it would be funny to see pigs fly. Right now, he’s thinking about making a mermaid. He’s also designed a grasshopper weathervane, just like the famous one, created in 1742, on top of Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
When I asked Don about how he keeps them flying, he spoke in analogies and says it boils down to ball bearings and balance.
“They’re like a sailboat. They’ll tack into the wind. You’ve got to know where the pivot point is so that, when the wind blows, they won’t tip over… It’s similar to how the tire of a car that’s not balanced will wobble and shake. The same thing will happen with a weather-vane.”
Don is self-taught, his weather vanes are a beautiful blend of art and engineering and his work will blow you away.
“The biggest secret of the weather vane is to put one up and have it stay up there forever. It’s kind of an ego trip. I have a lot of weather-vanes up that, 100 years from now, they’re still going to be flying,” Don says. “People are going to look up there and wonder who it was. When they put you in the ground, you’ll have a tombstone. But I’ll also have several hundred of them flying around in the sky.”
When I asked Don what he’s most thankful for this year, he recalled his early days. “I’ve had a lot of bad things in my life. My father passed away when I was, what, two months old, back in the depression, and I was in a state school for a number of years. So one thing to be thankful for is that everything is better.”
There is no mistaking how happy Don’s two children make him. He speaks with such pride about his son, another artist, and his daughter, who just moved back to Barrington from St. Louis with her husband and three young children. They bought the house three doors down from Don and his wife, Judy. So Don says there’s a lot to celebrate at his home this year. He may be carving a turkey for the table this Thanksgiving, but I forgot to ask him if he’s ever made a gobbler for the roof!
To learn more about Don Murphy and his custom hand-made weathervanes and cupolas, visit his website at CopperGuy.com.