Last week, at the age of 89, local legend Max Woody passed on.
I met Max when I was writing The Bear Hunter’s Son about his former schoolmate and neighbor Pete Gibbs. They both lived and worked in the Pleasant Gardens community all their lives in Marion, NC. Pete’s family owned the Lake Tahoma Steakhouse in the North part of the county where he had lived until he passed in 2017 shortly after his biography came out. This restaurant became another culinary landmark as Little Sienna Restaurant at the corner of US 70 and NC 80 running up the mountain. The sturdy renovated building recently acquired new owners for a coffee shop downstairs and a place for parties in the large room upstairs that used to handle local bear suppers.
Down the street, Max had opened in 1962 a store for his fast-becoming world famous handcrafted rocking chairs and stools, but his original location remained open on US 221 North until fairly recently. He left a note on the door advising friends/customers where he could be found.
Max was also a native son of McDowell County. He told me, “We were very poor. My dad got crippled in a railroad accident, and just before I was born, they lost their home and car and everything they owned. My dad was in a brace and walking on crutches; we got away from there with just a mule and a wagon. They did. I got born a short time after that and the Depression hit. So we grew up tough. We had a garden and grew everything we ate. Have you every ate a fried squash bloom? They are delicious. We used to eat them when I was a little boy. The male bloom does not produce a squash; it grows on a long stem and has a long pretty bloom about so big (2″), and you can pull those blooms and dip them in cream or butter or whatever and meal and fry them. And they are delicious.”
He told me of his friendship with Irina Wall who launched an Italian menu at Lake Tahoma Steakhouse when Pete’s father died. The Little Sienna big city fare was also popular, but Max had a special palette based on his childhood. Yes, he had enjoyed the country buffet at the Steakhouse, and Pete’s ranch dressing on the salad bar, but he bragged about the squash blooms that Irina dipped in batter and deep fried, just as she did slices of bell pepper. And also dandelions. Max told her that was the food he ate when he was a child, when things were Depression tough. He ate pumpkin blooms, too, and day lilly blooms. (We didn’t have that in Minnesota. But we did have Lefse and Lutefisk, the odor of which might offend those other than Norwegians)
According to Mike Conley’s article about him in the McDowell News, “A Craftsman Now Rests: Master Chairmaker Max Woody dies at 89,” Max’s great-grandfather Arthur was featured in the classic book about mountain culture “Cabin in the Laurel.”
This legacy seemed to be important to him as Max told me about mountain history that started in Rabun Gap, Georgia when a schoolteacher “tried to cram grammar down the mountain kids.” Since that didn’t work, “they started studying the culture of the mountain people, doing little stories on them. Well, they incorporated some of these stories in a magazine, and they called it Foxfire, and it was about the old ways of doin’ things, about dressin’ hogs and planting by the signs. You know old mountain people have always got to plant something on Good Friday! Mountain moonshining, hog killing, all kinds of mysteries, home remedies,” and “they bought land there in Mountain City, and they started puttin’ up ol’ log cabins on it where old dilapidated houses had been, and made a village. That book they named Foxfire, not knowing there would be another; now there’s thirteen of them. The (first) book sold I forgot how many hundreds of copies.” Max said he also sold Foxfire books at his store, but “you can buy on Amazon or used for less” than he sells them.
After this little commercial, Max continued his Foxfire story. “They put up the cabins where we can stay the weekend, and they bring people from all over the world and they learn by doing. It got to be a very, very wealthy program, and at the height of its popularity, the newspaper came out one morning that the founder (Eliot Wigginton) was guilty of molesting some of his students. And it took a tailspin.” Max said because of “several good mountain people” that “worked 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, it is still a fine program. It’s how to do things.” (Under Wigginton’s name, Wikipedia substantiates this report and mentions there are also special collections of stories published such as: The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cooking and A Foxfire Christmas. In addition, several collections of mountain music were released.)
Max was an avid musician. Reported by Conley’s article in the local newspaper, “Old Fort Mountain Music got its start when friends and fellow musicians would gather in his shop on US 70 West” (where he played fiddle.) “And he started another Friday night music program which was located in the building across the road from his chair shop.”
Max said his “mother’s people were from Haywood County; they were woodworkers and farmers and lived like the Woodys did. They were Arringtons. I got a dose of it from both sides. I made my mother’s casket, and I made one for a friend of mine, made out of oak and put together with locust pegs. And he was a doctor of philosophy, and he was so highly intellectual that he was an atheist. He said if anything cannot be scientifically proven, if there’s no DNA there, …then it’s not necessarily true. I made his casket, and I had a hard time making it, cause the New Testament tells that…” (Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.)
“I made anther one for a friend of mine who had a sawmill, and he sawed his own lumber. He was separated from his wife, and he brought the lumber to me, and I made the casket. When he died, his widow didn’t feel like she ought to pay for his casket, and I couldn’t repossess it, so we (just) buried him.”
As I was leaving his store on Hiway 70, Max said, “If you come back next week, I’ll have you a book to read about me. The lady that did the book was a poet and a writer, and I met her at a gathering at Turtle Island, a big old compound over near Boone. It’s called ‘Legacy in Wood.’ As a result of that, I have won the North Carolina Heritage Award, I guess it is, this year. It’s called the Hudson Brown Award. Have you ever heard of it? I haven’t either, but they’re coming to McDowell next month. It’s a well-written story.”
Of course I went back and bought his book. And later stopped by again to give him the book I wrote about Pete Gibbs so they would have more tales to swap. They were only a couple miles from each other and Max visited his old friend occasionally, since Pete was homebound.
On the back cover of The Bear Hunter’s Son, I quoted Max from his book: “You just never know when you are going to touch someone’s life for the good. If you can change one person’s life, the effort is worthwhile.”
A good man surely gone to his reward.
Copyright @2019 Georgia Wilson