I met Max Judd in October of 2014, when the utility poles along Highway 153 were still burnt from the Carlton Complex Fire. That fall, everything still felt in disarray, except for Max’s small garden of corn next door to the post office. I found great comfort in those orderly rows of tall stalks, tassels dancing in the breeze: a calm, predictable sign to the end of a chaotic summer. I suppose I was looking for a bit of normalcy when I stopped to chat with Max. The discussion was refreshingly down to earth, and anything but normal.
The first thing he told me was the origination story of some of those utility poles. Decades after telephone poles were installed elsewhere in the country, the Methow Valley decided it was time to get some telephone lines installed, in winter. There had been no snow that year and the ground froze so deep the contractors had to use dynamite to install the telephone poles.
Max and his wife, Wanda, often came to the Methow Valley to help his brother. They would stay in the apartments across the street from the Carlton General Store, named the Carlton Mall. Of the building, he recalled, “There were apartments in the front, and a cold storage locker on the back of the building. The walls were insulated with sawdust. People would store their cream in the cold locker, and earn an income from it.”
With this thought he started to laugh and changed the subject to when the family bought a home in Carlton and had kids. “Some days I’d be so tired, I’d go to sleep milking our cow. The cow shed was insulated and warm and a couple of times I fell right off the milking stool.”
Max talked about grafting different varieties of apples to the Macintosh trunk as it was sturdier in harsh weather. He won farmer of the year for his apple varieties. He didn’t remember what year he won, but he did recall the nice Stetson hat that came with the honor.
He told me about the time he and Bud Lloyd had a watermelon growing competition. Bud won with a watermelon that weighed 79 pounds, but according to Max, the watermelon was “absolutely tasteless.”
Max had many shocking stories about the freeze of 1968, when the weather station in Mazama recorded negative 52 degrees Fahrenheit that day. The trees exploded when the sap froze, and horses and cows suffered severe frost injuries and damaged lungs. These stories, combined with the most recent experience of fires and floods, were a good reminder that life in the Methow Valley requires equal parts preparation and grit.
I had originally stopped to ask Max for tips to grow corn, which he readily shared. “The secret is watering,” he said. “You can stunt corn if you water too early. I don’t water until the corn is 2 feet high.” He also hand-pollinated the corn with a small paint brush. A few were stuck in the dirt, bristles up, at the end of each row.
Max passed away at home in Carlton on June 11, 2023. He was surrounded by family. A celebration of life will be held in October at the family home in Carlton.