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Sam Judd, Adair Co. folk artist extraordinaire

By JIM

Sam Tilden Judd, just plain Sam to all who knew him, had an affinity for wood. He became a house carpenter and developed a reputation for doing the job right whether it be framing, masonry, or plastering. In the winter of 1918, a few years past his 40th birthday, a photograph caught his attention and inspired him to put knife to wood and create his own art, an avocation he soon mastered and enjoyed for the rest of his life.

In a 1950 interview with Courier-Journal feature writer Thomas Miller, Jr., Sam related that his first effort was a likeness of Rodin's "The Thinker," based on a magazine picture. In the ensuing 30+ years, he created hundreds of items, generally using only his pocket knife. Some of his favorite motifs included Abraham Lincoln (mostly on pipes and walking sticks), animals, and religious objects. At the time of the interview, his personal collection consisted of 72 items, including a yoke of oxen hitched to a cart, an Abraham Lincoln cane, a likeness of Daniel Boone with his trusty long rifle (Old Tick Licker), and the pioneer travelers mentioned below. He had sold or given away untold numbers more.

It didn't take Sam many years to hone his craft as a folk artist. A short article in The Lexington Leader in the spring of 1925, read thus:


"Artist With Penknife
"Columbia--Adair County claims the champion whittler in Kentucky in the person of Sam Judd, who lives at Cane Valley. Mr. Judd's latest effort in the whittling line is two candle sticks made from red cedar and in the form of the cross and upon each cross hangs the form of Christ."
Later that year, he won the blue ribbon at the State Fair with his presentation of "a wheelbarrow rolled by a teddy bear and in the wheelbarrow was a watermelon," and in early 1926, a multi-piece ensemble drew prominent display at the Louisville Automobile Show. This set depicted a pioneer couple of perhaps a century earlier heading for new territory in a fully functional covered wagon (complete with grease pot on a pole!) pulled by two yoke of oxen. This entourage also included a cow, calf, and dog, and the husband carried a long rifle. The Courier-Journal twice featured this ensemble, once at the time of the show, and again in the 1950 magazine article.

The latter-named article said of the pioneer set, "This ambitious carving project contains more than 100 parts and can be entirely disassembled." It also quoted Sam as saying with a note of pride in his voice, "It took 24 days of hard work. Based on ordinary carpenter's wages, I value it at $250."

About this same time (early 1926) Wyatt Conover displayed a few pieces of Sam's work in the show window of his (Conover's) York Trail Cafe on the square in Columbia, and in 1930, Sam brought home no fewer than four blue ribbons for his wood carving efforts.

Amazingly, Sam could also have been an accomplished brush & canvas folk artist had he chosen that route. Fairly early in life, he did a masterful painting of himself and his brother Robert Lee fishing along the banks of Caney Fork Creek.

A week or two ago, my friend Ann put me in touch with her cousin John Sandusky, Sam Judd's great-great nephew. A correspondence ensued, and Mr. Sandusky kindly shared several photographs of Sam's carvings and graciously gave consent for some of the pictures to be published on ColumbiaMagazine.

In closing, this thought about Sam Judd the man. That he was a house carpenter and folk woodcarver extraordinaire is beyond question. About two years after his passing, his sister Mrs. T.I. (Betty Love) Smith of Cane Valley wrote a brief tribute to her late brother, and, as did Lincoln at Gettysburg, spoke volumes in a handful of words:
"Sam Judd was a man who stood up for what he believed. He was never silent in the face of what was wrong or untrue. He deemed that such silence would be a betrayal of his integrity. He believed that men should stay open-minded and keep thinking and that the mind of man is the greatest invention of God. Ofttimes he would quote Emerson as having said, 'Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.'"
Specific sources cited:
  • The Courier-Journal Magazine, October 29, 1950, pp 42-43.
  • The Lexington Leader, May 3, 1925, p 38.
  • The Courier-Journal, February 19, 1926, p 4.
  • The Adair County News, May 27, 1953, p 6.
  • And a huge thank you to Ann Heskamp Curtis and to Sam Judd's kinsman, John Sandusky.


This story was posted on 2021-03-21 08:45:58
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One of Sam Judd's Abraham Lincoln pipes



2021-03-21 - Columbia, KY - Photo courtesy John Sandusky.
The 1950 Courier-Journal Magazine article stated these were carved from hickory and were "currently being smoked by men the country over."

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Sam Judd Alligator



2021-03-21 - Columbia, KY - Photo courtesy John Sandusky.
This swamp dweller measures in at five feet or thereabout from snout to tail tip and appears ready to dine on whatever moves first, be it fur, fin, or feather.

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Sam Judd work: Mother and Children



2021-03-21 - Columbia, KY - Photo courtesy John Sandusky.
An appealing work, well-crafted in a dark wood.

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Sam Judd: Fishing on Caney Fork



2021-03-21 - Columbia, KY - Photo courtesy John Sandusky.
Fishing on Caney Fork! The inscription on the back tells the story: "Picture of Sam & Rob Judd fishing in Caney Fork / Painted by Sam Judd 1890, Cane Valley, Ky." In 1890, Sam was about 12 years old; his brother Robert E. Lee -- Rob -- was two years younger.

Paired photo: Inscription on back of painting

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Inscription on back of painting



2021-03-21 - Columbia, KY - Photo courtesy John Sandusky.
The inscription on the back tells the story: "Picture of Sam & Rob Judd fishing in Caney Fork / Painted by Sam Judd 1890, Cane Valley, Ky." In 1890, Sam was about 12 years old; his brother Robert E. Lee -- Rob -- was two years younger.

Paired photo: Fishing on Caney Fork

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Sam Judd: Pioneer Travelers



2021-03-21 - Columbia, KY - Photo courtesy John Sandusky.
A photo of this ensemble appeared in the Courier-Journal in 1926. At that time, the wagon featured a cover, partially raised to reveal a young woman in the interior, possibly holding an infant, and the man carrying a long rifle, his hand holding the butt end with the barrel over his shoulder. The cutline for the 1926 photograph noted "Only a pocket knife was used" to craft the set. In the present photo, the family dog can be glimpsed on the far side of the wagon.

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Sam Judd: Pioneer Travelers closer look



2021-03-21 - Columbia, KY - Photo courtesy John Sandusky.
A closer look at the wagon in Sam Judd's Pioneer Travelers. A photo of this ensemble appeared in the Courier-Journal in 1926. At that time, the wagon featured a cover, partially raised to reveal a young woman in the interior, possibly holding an infant, and the man carrying a long rifle, his hand holding the butt end with the barrel over his shoulder.

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