Recently written for The Haddam Bulletin- What started out as a backyard barbecue is becoming a smokin’ sensation for a family of artisans at 153 Meeting House Road, Haddam. Chris and John Hampton, father-son fans of grilling and smoking meats in a southern-style slow barbecue, welded a fire box that eventually morphed into a fantastic “fire-breathing” Dragon Smoker. Eight foot long from the tip of its nose to end of its spiked tail, the dramatic, fully-functioning beast has a 20 x 30 inch grill and is adorned with over 2,000 hand-forged, metallic scales, gnarled yet graceful claws and soulful, glass eyes. It was crafted with state of the art welding tools in their garage and with years of sculpting experience between father and son…and grandfather.
Three generations of Haddam welders.
Welding definitely runs in the family at the Hamptons. Chris’s grandfather, Kenneth, welded truck bodies right after World War II. (He also served as Haddam’s State Senator for the 33rd district from 1980 to 1990, which at that time covered from Marlborough to Madison.). Kenneth taught his son John to weld, who then went on to the University of Alabama to earn a Bachelors of Fine arts in sculpture. John became an art teacher and taught son Chris to weld. After Chris graduated from Haddam-Killingworth High School in 1991, he went to colleges in University Georgia and Florida State to earn a BFA and a Masters of Fine Arts in sculpture. He also earned a Ph.D. in art administration. He is a former art gallery director and now works at a law firm in Manhattan as a negotiator.
“The idea of a fire-breathing dragon was a no-brainer at the time,” Chris, 39, said. Both he and his dad envisioned adding a neck to their smoker for a chimney. “You could just see the smoke coming out of its mouth. Once we conceived of it and the best way to make it as our opus, it took a year and half to make. It was a fun thing to do on weekends.”
Chris and his wife Cheri, a scientist, work in Manhattan, but visit Chris’s dad and grandfather every weekend. “We like to think of it as relaxing at our Connecticut house,” Chris jokes.
“I like the fact that I get to work with my son,” John said. The two share what they know in welding techniques. John is a traditional arc welder and used a cutting torch back in his day. Chris shares updated technology he’s learned with his father, including using metallic inert gas (MIG) and a plasma cutter using highly charged electronic particles that make finer cuts than a cutting torch. “I’m no slave to the past,” John says, “I will use whatever is easiest.” John made the intricate teeth and horns of the sophisticated monster.
Once the first dragon was completed, Cheri showed a photo of it to a co-worker who ordered a stainless steel dragon on the spot. With the help of his dad, Chris and John assembled the second colossus in just a few months, and sold it for $8,000. With their torches still hot, Chris and John built another metal dragon, this one, ten feet long with a 24x 48.
Chris became the official owner and artist of Dragon Smoker, Inc. Custom Sculptures that Really Cook, in January and launched the website www.dragonsmokerinc.com three months ago. He has begun to transport his dragons in the back of his truck to local fairs and home shows. “My goal is to do this full time,” Chris said. “I would like to promote them to grill enthusiasts and restaurateurs.” The team plans to branch out and make other animals. “People have asked about a horse, a bull, and even a fish. We can do anything that has a long body,” Chris said. Chris envisions blogging with fellow Dragon Smoker owners and partnering with local people who make sauces and rubs. For more information, for a rental or commission Chris Hampton, 914-413-8808.