John Ford’s Story: Part 1

Warden Sgt. Roger Wolverton gently suggested that Ford and Crabtree unstrap their gunbelts before going behind closed doors.

“The bad guy shot the state police dog. I was in the bushes and suddenly I was facing a gun barrel. It wasn’t my first brush with death. My heart was pumping, but somehow I just knew this wasn’t my time.”

The words of John Ford from Brooks, as he recalled an incident from his game warden diaries that came to be known as the Moody Mountain manhunt, an intense search by state lawmen for two escaped convicts who were armed and dangerous.

John Ford was a 20-year Maine Game Warden, an old school “woods cop” who lived his childhood dream patrolling the woods and waters of his beloved Waldo County. The Moody Mountain manhunt wasn’t Ford’s only close shave in conservation law enforcement. There were others, which he recorded in his journal and eventually parlayed into monthly columns for the Northwoods Sporting Journal and two highly popular books published by Islandport Press: “Suddenly the Cider Didn’t Taste So Good” and “This Cider Still Tastes Funny.”

As fate would have it, the danger Ford faced on the job was a cakewalk compared with near-terminal health issues that stalked him like a rabid tiger from the darkness. “I’m like the cat with nine lives,” Ford says with a slight grin,”By rights I should have been gone years ago. I never thought I’d live to see my son marry or get to hug my grandchildren. I am so blessed.”

John Ford was born in 1947 in Sanford. He confesses to not being a very good student, spending a lot of class time looking out the window and doodling away on his blue-lined notebook. His stepfather, Vern Walker, was a Game Warden. His mother, Ethelind, was an animal rehabilitator. ‘Our house was always full of woods animals,” Ford said.

When he turned 18, Ford enlisted in the U. S. Air Force. Trained as a radar operator, he requested duty in Alaska and some other far-flung places. “My orders took me to, guess where? Topsham, Maine,” Ford said with a belly laugh.

His military assignment in Maine turned out for the best, though. He was able to take the Maine Game Warden exam at 19 years old and get on the recruitment list, which was what he wanted more than anything. In 1970, he passed the oral interview for the Maine Warden Service. “In those days, they just pinned a badge on you, gave you a gun and vehicle, and assigned you to an older warden who showed you the ropes,” Ford says

The new game warden had his choice of districts, Burnham or Daaquam, up in the North Woods.

“I chose Burnham,” says Ford.” It was a challenge for this reason. Lowell Thomas, the Burnham warden had the windows shot out of his house. He wanted out of Dodge, and his superiors thought that, for his safety, a transfer was in order.”

Ford said that this part of Waldo County was a hotbed for deer poachers in the early 1970s. There was organized deer poaching and rampant selling of deer meat. “They hated game wardens,” Ford remembers.

“I was the new kid on the block and the locals were pretty standoffish at first. I thought, man, this is gonna be a long 20 years,” Ford says.

Heeding the advice of his stepfather, who reminded him that he was not Marshall Dillon and needed at the outset to work his way into the job and earn the people’s respect, Ford was determined to get off on the right foot. “There was no welfare in those days and a lot of big farm families took an occasional deer out of season to feed themselves. I didn’t let them off easy if I caught them,” Ford says, “but, frankly, I just didn’t work them as hard as the hardcore poachers, and there were plenty of those to go around.”

A new local sporting camp operation that got a lot of publicity and was touted as the model, cutting edge sporting camp for deer hunters was, as it turned out, up to its ears in illegal deer taking. After a two-year undercover operation,Warden Ford, along with Warden Ralph Sarty and another game warden, brought the poachers to justice and the camp eventually folded.

When asked if he had ever had doubts about his line of work, Ford said, “No way. If you have a job you like, it’s never really work. Deer-car accidents and clearing beaver dams were my least favorite warden duties,” he says.

Next week: Part 2. Game Warden to Humorist. Ford goes nose to nose with the boss.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.” Online information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.


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