Wake County

Tar Heel of the Week: David Turner is Triangle's summer snowman

David Turner enjoys the snow his company Snow my Yard created for a fundraiser for the Guardian ad Litem program at Cary Lazy Daze in August.
David Turner enjoys the snow his company Snow my Yard created for a fundraiser for the Guardian ad Litem program at Cary Lazy Daze in August. jhknight@newsobserver.com

David Turner had been in the refrigeration business for decades when a contract to provide ice for the Special Olympics launched his company into a dramatic jump in ice production.

The ice business was great in the summer, but when he was faced with laying off employees in the winter, Turner hit on a new idea: filling people’s yards with snow.

Snow My Yard has been a fixture in the Triangle ever since, providing snow for neighborhoods, churches, and town events such as the annual Winter Wonderland at Cary’s Bond Park for 15 years.

Most of this is done commercially, and Turner’s sons now run much of this business. But a few times a year, he picks people and organizations to shower with snow for charity.

The company has snowed yards of cancer patients, including a young boy and a grandmother who both wished for a Christmas snow. Recently, the company donated $5,000 worth of snow to the Wake County Guardian ad Litem Program, which used it as a fundraiser at Cary’s Lazy Daze festival in August.

That event got Turner thinking. Snow My Yard was building a snow slide 10 feet tall and 9 feet long that his company will use when its snow business goes into full swing next month, and he wanted to do a test run.

So on Saturday, he invited a few hundred foster children to come try it out for free. The all-day affair included a morning Halloween session with candy and crafts, and an afternoon session where he decorated his business in Christmas lights.

Turner, a two-time cancer survivor, was there in his snowman costume, delighting in the spectacle of children cavorting in snow.

“I could just let my own grandchildren try it out, but why waste it?” says Turner, 71.

Liza Weidle, director of the Friends of the Wake County Guardian ad Litem Program, says she was shocked to learn that the company could make snow in such weather – and that it would do it for free for a good cause.

Turner’s enthusiasm was evident from their first phone conversation. He inspired her group to focus more on creating more play opportunities for the children it helps, as well as offering them basic necessities.

“I could hear the delight and the sense of adventure in his voice,” Weidle says. “He’s someone who got a second chance and decided to use it to bless others, and how amazing that he does it with snow.”

The business of ice

Turner grew up in West Raleigh and graduated from Cary High School before entering the U.S. Air Force. The military trained him to build refrigeration systems, and moved him to several cold-weather locations, including North Dakota, where he learned to love snow.

Eventually, he would settle in Nebraska, where he opened his own refrigeration business and started a family. In 1987, he returned to Raleigh to tend to his ailing mother, and soon moved his family back to his hometown and started a new company, Raleigh Refrigeration.

Turner’s company started out selling refrigeration systems to restaurants and other industrial customers. It also fixed those systems, so his workers were frequently asked to pick up bags of ice on the way to visit their customers to tide them over until they could make their own again.

Turner, ever aware of waste, saw that he could save money by making his own ice, so he bought one machine. Within a year, he had bought two more that could each make 2,000 pounds at a time and was selling bags of ice on demand to clients all over town.

“Other companies worked regular routes, and if you weren’t on that route, you had to wait,” he says. “We worked it like the rest of our business. If you call us, we come.”

His business made a sudden expansion in the summer of 1999, when the Special Olympics World Games came to Raleigh. Turner won the contract to provide ice for the event, but when event organizers asked for 2 million pounds to keep drinks cool at sites across the Triangle, he realized he didn’t have enough equipment.

He tried to order a new machine but was told there was a 12-week wait. Turner persisted, noting that 12,000 children were about to be sorely disappointed.

The company asked everyone on the waiting list if it could prioritize Turner’s order, and he was soon the proud owner of a machine that could make 24 tons of ice a day.

When the games were over, Turner found he could easily keep the new machine busy in the summer. But in the winter, the machines sat idle. And so Snow My Yard Was born.

‘A giant blender’

Turner calls the huge whirring machines the company brings to its site “a giant blender on a trailer,” and says their original purpose was to ice down produce for shipping. Snow My Yard workers pour in 50-pound ice bags, and finely shredded ice comes out of a long tube.

Now the business is doing several events a day during the winter, from creating entire snowscapes with more than 100 tons of ice to filling one of their portable snow slides with a few tons to delivering large-scale snowmen.

Some events, such as Lazy Daze, the ice is just piled on the ground for children to play in, like a freezing sand box. Turner says an average job runs about $1,800, and can entertain 100 children for a few hours.

It’s a niche business that caters to clients across the Southeast; Turner says their closest competitor is in Jacksonville, Fla. The snow business remains only a small part of the company’s refrigeration business, but it’s the part Turner relishes most.

After his health problems, Turner spends most of his time at his home in Oriental, where he enjoys gardening. But a few times a week, he drives into Raleigh to keep an eye on the slide construction projects, or to go to meetings about potential charity jobs.

“I just do the fun stuff these days,” he says. “I let them take care of the boring stuff.”

Turner attends most of the business’s large events and chooses its charity work carefully.

He says he chose the Guardian ad Litem program because it was local, and because Weidle is not paid. For others, the company has donated its time and equipment, while charging only for the ice itself.

And after all these years, Turner still enjoys getting out into the snow himself. At the Lazy Daze festival, he wandered among the playing children and let the flakes fall around him, his arms wide and the sun shining on his smiling face.

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