GARNER - Todd Dawson says he has strange interests and an incredible wife.
“She is perfect,” said Dawson, who holds the North Carolina record for growing the state’s biggest watermelon and is the current world champion in ice carving. “She has to be to put up with my hobbies.”
His latest indulgence was an unexpected trip to New York City for a quick appearance on “Live with Kelly and Ryan” for a segment devoted to giant vegetables.
Dawson describes the trip as 52 hours of hard work for one minute on TV. He spent 22 hours driving and found out that two cheeseburgers, fries, a cup of water and his buddy’s one beer cost $70 at a New York restaurant. He also learned that stagehands on this particular show don’t know much about giant watermelons.
The show producers called the N.C. State Fair officials looking for a remarkable long gourd. (They eventually found one that was 12 feet long). The fair didn’t have a noteworthy gourd this year, but it did have Dawson’s record 316-pound watermelon.
The big melon topped Dawson’s record 283.5-pounder that won in Tennessee this year and his 282-pounder that had held the North Carolina record since 2011. He had hoped to top the state mark in 2012 but says he got a load of bad horse manure (used to fertilize the big melons) and his vines wilted.
Not so this year. He had ideal weather, great seeds, apparently some good horse manure and a patch that produced the two record breakers and a 270-pounder.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth – which conducts the giant vegetable competitions around the country – has invited the growers of notable vegetables to New York in recent years for a little media tour, a display at the New York Botanical Gardens and expert pumpkin carvers.
“Kelly and Ryan” wanted to add the watermelon to the 12-foot gourd, a 2,118-pound squash and a 2,363-pound pumpkin, if Dawson would bring it.
“Dawn (my wife) said I could go and I looked at my calendar and I didn’t have anything pressing in the carving,” Dawson said.
In this case, carving of ice, not pumpkins. Dawson’s day job is creating ice sculptures. He owns Ice Occasions, which creates sculptures for special occasions.
Last February, he and sculpting buddy Chris Carrier of Pinehurst traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, for the British Petroleum Ice Art Championship. There they worked in minus-30-degree temperatures to transform an 8-foot-by-5-foot-by 3-foot chunk of lake ice into a 12-foot-tall Firebird that won the world title.
For flying cross country, spending a week outside in sub-zero weather and carving 15 hours a day for three days, he earned a first-place check of about $900.
“You don’t do it for the money,” Dawson said. “And like I said, I’ve got a great wife.”
With New York beckoning, Dawson made sure the show would cover his hotel room – recently another show was interested in him ice carving on air but never would confirm that it would pay for his hotel room – and enlisted pal Bill Bryan (“He’s just another old Garner guy”) to head to the big city.
They lifted the melon with specially-designed tarps, wrapped it in Dawson’s dog’s bedding, put another of the monogrammed tarps on top and duct taped the whole thing for the trip.
After dropping it off, Dawson learned that parking is at a premium in downtown New York City, most decks are not built to handle his extra tall van that usually ferries large ice sculptures and that it can take an hour to drive about a mile down the road. Plus cheeseburgers are expensive.
“Now it was a good cheeseburger,” he said. “It was hand-made and tasted good. But $70 for two cheeseburgers?”
He reported to the show and various producers peppered him with questions that might be asked by hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest. None of those questions, of course, were asked on the air. Ripa wanted to know if the watermelon was edible and Seacrest wondered how big the seeds were.
But it was amazing on the set, he said. Everything was so much bigger and yet smaller. The set was small, but there were people everywhere, he said. He enjoyed staring at the ceiling where it seemed every inch was filled by lights or trusses.
When he returned to get his melon, he learned that the show had discarded his pallet, his specially made $200 tarps and his dog’s bedding.
“They came wheeling the melon out on a forklift,” Dawson said. “I had to tell them to hold on, that’s not the way you do it.”
They eventually got the melon loaded and headed for Garner where Dawson is taking the seeds from the 316-pounder, the 283.5-pounder and a 315.5-pounder grown by world record holder (350.5 pounds) Chris Kent of Sevierville, Tenn. Kent’s melon was runner-up at the N.C. State Fair this year.
The seeds will be sold around the country, most often at fundraisers for the various local giant vegetable competitions.
Despite the long trip, the cost and the brief appearance, Dawson said he has only one regret.
He usually looks how you would imagine an ice artist, with fairly long hair and a beard. Both are assets to a man who spends much of his day in a freezer. It also helps him double for Jesus in church programs, something he has done several times.
“I wanted to look good for the television,” he said. “I was representing North Carolina, the fair and Garner. I figured that I needed to get cleaned up a bit. I didn’t want to look like I just dropped in.
“But now that it is over, I wonder why did I cut my hair.”