Punkin Chunkin Q&A: World Champion Dawn Thompson

Lucky for us, she’s not tired of talking about chunkin, even after 25 years.

Delaware Today: So you’ve been around chunkin since the beginning?
Thompson: Close to the beginning. I started in 1988 when I met my husband, Bill. He told me about this crazy event he invented. I said, “What is it?” He said, “Punkin Chunkin.” I said, “What the heck is that?” So he had to show me the machines and I was hooked immediately. I love mechanical stuff and people using their minds to make crazy stuff. 

DT: The original chunkers tell me that they used to go find garage door springs and stuff like that.
Thompson: Yeah. Whatever you got out of somebody’s back yard is how you built your chunker. Now you’ve got to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. So it’s come a long ways.

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DT: So you became a chunker after the first two years?
Thompson: In 1988, I had a roach coach-type truck and I said, “Well, I’ll be a vendor this year.” I called up the local radio station, 93.5 The Beach—it was their first year in radio—and they came out here and did a live broadcast. We had over 1,000 people on the farm. So we figured we better move it and we went on over to Joe Hudson’s field in 1989. 

DT: I heard that that last year at your farm, everybody chunked their pumpkins into the woods. 
Thompson: Yeah. Everything was in the woods and everybody was lying about their distances. (laughs) It’s always been a problem with the woods.

DT: I was there one year at Hudson’s field…
Thompson: When we were trying to throw at the church?

DT: Yes. And then Trey Melson fired one at sunset and they couldn’t find the pumpkin. Didn’t one go across Route 1 and hit an old barn or something?
Thompson: So they say. They say they found it the next morning.

DT: What’s been your role through the years? Did you start as a spectator?
Thompson: I’ve never been a spectator at Punkin Chunkin. The first year I met my husband, I was part of the machine and part of the team. I usually swung the arm around. See, when you start up that centrifugal machine, somebody has to give that arm a push. So that was always my job, to swing the arm around and keep people away. I’ve always been a team member. I’ve never been a spectator at Punkin Chunkin.

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DT: I didn’t mean to insult you.
Thompson: Discovery Channel tried to say that, too.

DT: The centrifugal machines will always be my favorites.
Thompson: We still got the old, original Ultimate Warrior. It’s back in the woods waiting for somebody to say, “Let’s break her out of the woods.”

DT: Who built the first centrifugal machine?
Thompson: Bill and Trey were team members for the first three or four years. They had Maximum Overdrive. That was the first centrifugal machine. It was made out of logs. The second one they built was made out of steel. The first one was a prototype.

DT: You wrote the ballad and you still sing it every year?
Thompson: Well, Bill wrote it right after the first chunk. He just sat down and wrote this poem, or whatever you want to call it. A ballad of how Punkin Chunkin started. I saw the words and put it to music and we’ve been singing it since 1989 at every chunk.

DT: Did you ever record it?
Thompson: Yes.

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DT: Can I find that recording somewhere?
Thompson: No. It’s a secret. (laughs)

DT: That’s all you’re saying?
Thompson: Yes.

DT: So we might find out more later?
Thompson: Maybe. If I tell you I’d have to kill you.

DT: Good thing this is a phone interview.
Thompson: I got it recorded, but I never did seek out going on YouTube and that kind of stuff. Hank Black, our old photographer who did our videos put a cut of the “Punkin Chunkin Ballad” on YouTube. I think I’m playing banjo on that one.

DT: Has the event become way too big?

Thompson: We always knew it was going to be a World Championship. We knew it was something special and unique that not everybody can do…but anybody can do, you know? I like that it’s grown this big, but I don’t like the idea that we have to pay out a lot of money to all people like the police and all that kind of stuff that we gotta fork out money to all the time. That’s really what are expenses are anymore. From the DOT to State Police, then you’ve got insurance and all that kind of stuff. That’s really what’s taken away from the event because we did it for the children and scholarship programs. You know, we wanted to do things for the community. That’s how we started the organization.

DT: You have your own chunking team?
Thompson: We started the women’s air cannon division, and that’s when I decided that I wanted my own chunker. When we started out we had the Ultimate Warrior, which is now Chunkin Under the Influence—the Mac truck. We built that truck, but we decided that it was just too tall up there for all us old people to try to put the pipe on. So we decided to sell it and do something different. So we sold it. And then we thought, Oh, gosh, now we’ve only got a year to build a machine. What are we going to do? So we found an old truck in one of the local newspapers and bought that. Then one of the kids who had an air cannon, he wanted some college money, so we decided to give him an offer and he accepted. It was called the Ozone Blaster. I told him I wanted to call it the Hormone Blaster. We managed to get it on the truck and we borrowed and begged and stole any parts that we could get. The kids said, “Let’s go out and shoot it.” And I said, “No. Let’s just wait and we’ll put it together at the chunk.  Then we’re gonna do the first shot and see what happens.” We went out there and set up the machine and they wanted to shoot, but it was late. So when it was time for our first shot, we had our first shot and that’s the shot that won the whole competition. It was good to be the first woman to take the championship. And it was a new division that year, too. And it was the 25th anniversary of the chunk. We got to take the trophy back home to where Punkin Chunkin started.

DT: How do you know how to build a punkin chunker?
Thompson: I’m pretty good at the mechanical stuff. Bill, he helps with design and making sure we were safe and getting things done right. You don’t want to hurt yourself out there and everybody else. You get a lot of different opinions from a lot of different people to make everything go.

DT: Wasn’t there an accident a few years back and they put up some netting to protect the crowd?
Thompson: Well, you know with a catapult or a centrifugal, the pumpkin can go farther backward than it can go forward. So they decided to put this net up there. I think somebody might have got hit in the audience, or something like that. I’ll tell you, ever since the net’s been up it hasn’t hit the net once that I’ve seen. You’re at your own risk out there.

DT: I’ve seen chunks of pumpkin fly into the crowd, but never heard that anybody was seriously injured.
Thompson: This one kid got hit. The kid’s mom, if she’d have let go of him and let him do his thing, he probably wouldn’t have been hit. She was trying to get him out of the way and then stepped in the way. When you’re looking at a pumpkin coming in, you can’t really tell where it’s going to land. You kind of just gotta scatter. They had to make that kid a lifetime member. He was a chunker one year, but he was there observing the next year or something like that. He’s a lifetime member of the association.

DT: Is Hormone Blaster ready to go this year?
Thompson: She’s sitting in the shed waiting to go right now. I’m ready to take her out and drive her around. I like that old truck. It’s a 1961 International Harvester grain hauling truck. It’s got the original motor and everything in it. Runs like a charm. The first day I took it out to the chunk, we had it all put together and my nephew did the paint job and the bodywork on it for me. It turned out real beautiful. We were on our way to the chunk. It was a Tuesday, Election Day, and everybody went and voted and then we met back at the house and fired up the truck and we were heading down the road. About a quarter-mile down the road I look at my rear-view mirror and there’s all this smoke rolling out the back. I said, “Oh, my god, I set her on fire.” So I pulled off the road and I looked down and there were flames coming up through my stickshift. So we jumped out and got the fire extinguishers and got it put out. The emergency brake was stuck on. So we got that unhooked and went on down the road to the chunk. It drove fine after that. No smoke or anything.

DT: Do you ever get tired of talking about Punkin Chunkin?
Thompson: No. I bleed orange. That’s how much I like to talk about it.

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