Priscilla, Caden and Nolan Edwards and Colson Dash in their Tazewell County pumpkin patch. Photo courtesy of the Edwards family.

Instead of waiting for the Great Pumpkin to visit, two Tazewell County children grew their own giant gourds this year. Eight-year-old Caden Edwards and his brother Nolan, who’s almost 6, then delivered their pumpkins to Dollywood, where they will be on display through this month.

A year ago, the Edwards family visited Dollywood’s Harvest Festival, according to mother Priscilla Edwards. Upon seeing the enormous pumpkins, the boys grew very excited.

“They just went crazy over them. They didn’t think they were real at first,” she said. 

“Caden looked at me and he said, ‘Mom, we’ve got to do this,’” she added. 

And they did, on their very first try. The largest Edwards pumpkin weighed in at 1,048 pounds. 

The Edwards family’s largest pumpkin weighed in at 1,048 pounds. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

“As a mom, you always say, OK, we’ll do our best,’” Edwards said. 

Other giant pumpkin growers might practice their hobby for years before finding success. But Priscilla Edwards was determined.

She asked other giant pumpkin growers for seeds and advice, such as Michigan resident Frank Morse. Morse told her to sand her seeds’ outer shells to aid in germination. He also suggested various fertilizers and sent her samples of several. 

“It seemed like she was a natural,” Morse said, referencing the Edwards family’s small farm.

Edwards’ father purchased the Tazewell County property in 1985, she said, and she and her husband, Eric, moved there in 2012. They raise most of their own food and keep a herd of sheep. They prefer to use organic farming methods, though Edwards lamented that she had to resort to non-organic methods while growing the pumpkins. 

Her sons have each tended their own vegetable patches since they were very young. She has allowed them to choose what to plant and how to plant it, and they’ve learned a lot from being outside in the garden, she said. 

Edwards homeschools both children. As a result, they had plenty of time to learn about growing pumpkins. 

The boys sanded the seeds and watched for germination in April. They fanned air across the seeds to help them germinate. 

When it came time to plant the seeds, the boys took care of that, too. In May, they moved the plants outside. 

From there, Edwards taught her sons to mix up seaweed and fertilizer. After that, they took over the job of fertilizing the plants.

“The only thing I kept them away from was treating for bugs and stuff,” she said. 

“These are their pumpkins 100%. I mean it, because they never missed a day of tending to the pumpkins. If it was raining, they were out there with me. If there was a storm coming in, they were out there with me,” she said. 

Caden and Nolan’s 3-year-old cousin, Colson Dash, worked alongside them many days. He would hold the hose and the measuring tape or pull weeds, Edwards said. 

The family planted eight pumpkin plants. 

Each was enormous and needed its own garden bed. Edwards said that one plant grew to measure 40 feet by 21 feet. She expanded the beds as the pumpkin vines grew.

“At the end I just had to bend their vines around themselves because [the plants] were getting into the grass,” she said. 

Edwards also used pool noodles to protect the fragile vines, a trick recommended by Morse.

“We didn’t have a clue and still don’t have a clue what we’re doing. But it’s been fun,” she said. She has learned right alongside her children, she said. 

Growing pumpkins quickly became a family affair, as Priscilla Edwards’ parents and siblings got in on the fun. 

“My parents were my encouragers,” she said. 

Other people tried to discourage her, pointing out that giant pumpkin growers usually have to practice their hobby for years before their pumpkins grow so large. 

Edwards didn’t let that faze her. She was persistent — her family would grow pumpkins large enough to be displayed in Dollywood.

* * *

Dollywood’s 2023 pumpkin display features pumpkins that range in weight from 265 pounds to nearly 10 times that size. The largest pumpkin on display came in at just over a ton this year.

The Edwards family’s pumpkins were loaded onto two flatbed trucks for the trip to Dollywood. Photo courtesy of the Edwards family.

The giant gourds arrived from Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York just a few days before the Harvest Festival began on Sept. 20. Most growers contributed one pumpkin to the display; the Edwards family sent eight. 

Priscilla Edwards knew, based on a “guess the weight” formula, that at least one of her boys’ pumpkins would top 1,000 pounds. The average weight of their eight Dollywood-bound pumpkins was 644 pounds. 

She waited until the very last minute to harvest the pumpkins, with help from the boys.

“It was kind of emotional for the youngest one, the 3-year-old. He cut it and said, ‘Oh … I hurt Rumble,” she said, explaining that each child had named a pumpkin. 

Hauling the pumpkins to Pigeon Forge was a weekend-long affair.

To load the pumpkins onto two flatbed trucks, the family used a pumpkin lift built by Edwards’ brother, Shawn Day. They quickly realized that the lift’s wide straps were cutting into the pumpkins’ tender flesh, so Edwards began wrapping each strap with a pool noodle. 

Hauling the pumpkins on the highway made her even more nervous. The family left home at 5:30 a.m. A drive that usually takes them three and a half hours took five, she said. 

“You’re just watching [the pumpkins] jar and bounce. So you’re just cringing the whole time,” she said. 

Once the pumpkins arrived at Dollywood, they were weighed and treated with a special formula to prevent rot, according to theme park senior publicist Jenn Webb, before being added to a display in the park’s Market Square area. 

The pumpkin growers are paid according to how much their pumpkins weigh when they arrive. Neither Edwards nor Webb would disclose how much the Edwards family received for its eight colossal pumpkins. But the family will use its pumpkin income to pay for Nolan and Caden’s tuition for Abeka Academy, a virtual homeschool program that operates nationwide. The funds will also cover the children’s music lessons for the year. 

“It was a blessing because we are a one-income family. We’re not rich. I never would have dreamed that their pumpkins would pay for their education,” Edwards said. 

The family visited their pumpkins in Dollywood on a recent weekday and handed out seeds.

* * *

Eric, Caden, Nolan and Priscilla Edwards at Dollywood. Photo courtesy of the Edwards family.

Visitors to Dollywood’s 2023 Harvest Festival will see more pumpkins than the 25 colossal ones that are displayed. The park has 12,000 pumpkins decorating its 160 acres, according to Webb. That includes both real and fake pumpkins, also called funkins. 

Pumpkins line pathways. They sit atop fences. They stack together to form elaborate statues. In a sense, Dollywood becomes a giant pumpkin patch for the fall season.

The Harvest Festival is Dollywood’s longest-running festival, Webb said. This is the third year that the fall-themed festival has incorporated giant pumpkins in their displays. The Harvest Festival used to be focused around Southern Gospel, she said. But, in 2020, the park decided to go in a different direction.

“We brought in some more plaid, some different colored pumpkins. That’s when we brought in the colossal pumpkins,” Webb said, explaining that the park was hoping to channel more of a modern farmhouse aesthetic in their displays. 

“We try to showcase local talent, and this is another way to do that,” Webb said. 

As visitors walk through Market Square, they stop and stare at the pumpkins. They point as each one seems to outshine the next — either in weight or appearance. Visitors might rub a pumpkin, or thump it to see if it is real. They read the growers’ names aloud and take pictures. 

After leaving their pumpkins at the park, Caden turned to his mother and said, “Mommy, we did it! We did it,” Edwards recalled.

“I don’t think we let our kids dream enough. They need to have a little tiny goal that they dream to do. And I hope that kids will see Caden and Nolan’s story and will be inspired,” she said.

Caden is not finished growing pumpkins. He has a new dream: to set the Virginia state record for heaviest pumpkin. 

The current state record was set by Short Pump resident Dustin Price just a few weeks ago. 

Unlike the Edwards family, Price lives in a neighborhood and grows just one pumpkin per year. According to its measurements, Price knew this year’s pumpkin was likely to break the record. 

When the pumpkin started losing weight in early September, he decided to haul it all the way to the Tennessee Valley Fair. The trip took seven hours.

On Sept. 7, Price’s pumpkin weighed in at 1,845 pounds. 

Caden is going to try for a 2,000-pounder just to be safe, his mother said. 

He might just succeed. His family has tapped into the perfect combination of seed selection and location, Morse said. 

Pumpkin genetics are becoming increasingly fine-tuned, according to Morse.

“Every year, growers cross-pollinate pumpkins with even larger pumpkins,” Price said. 

Specific types of seeds can produce pumpkins of incredible sizes. These seeds can cost between $250 and $1,000, Morse said and produce tremendous rates of growth under the right conditions. 

Morse anticipates that his own pumpkin will top 2,000 pounds this year. 

“You kind of know you got a 2,000-pound pumpkin if you gain 50 or 60 [pounds] in a day,” he said.

Location matters, according to Morse. The temperature has to be just right. 

Growing season from May to September was slightly cooler than long-term averages in Tazewell County, with no freezes after the first week of May and no extreme heat waves.

There has to be just the right amount of rain, too. One bad rainstorm combined with regular watering can cause the pumpkin to gain up to 70 pounds in a day, Morse said. That rate of growth will cause the pumpkin to split and spoil.

Morse attempts to control as many variables as possible. Other growers, like Price and Edwards, do not. 

Price started growing pumpkins in 2008. Prior to this year, the largest pumpkin he had grown weighed in at 1,019 pounds, he said. 

Price seemed pleased when he heard about Caden Edwards’ goal to break his record. 

“That’s great. If he wants some seeds, he’s welcome to some of mine,” Price said. 

Weather journalist Kevin Myatt contributed information to this story. 

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...