Hopkins County Folk Lore
By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin
Let me say first of all that I have never tried the home remedies written about in this article personally. Having said this I would urge you to seek the advice of your physician for any ailments you might have if you should consider using any of the remedies written about in this article.Today when one of us becomes ill, we think nothing of getting in our car and driving to the nearest doctor's office or emergency room for diagnosis and treatment. We have a variety of medical specialists to choose from no matter what ailment befalls us, from minor to major illnesses.
In times past there were no cars to speed us to the emergency room. There wasn't the luxury of numerous clinics, doctor's offices and hospitals nearby for treatment. In the old days people only went to a doctor in dire cases of emergency, given there was even a physician available somewhere in the area. Out of necessity people tended to their medical needs themselves with various home remedies handed down from generations past. In most circumstances people used what was handy and accessible in their own homes.
Children hardly ever wore shoes in those days and stepping on a rusty nail or pointed stick happened quite often. The surefire remedy for this common event was to plunk the child down while holding his foot over a pan of water. The wound was cleaned with soap and water while the child most likely screamed his head off due to the fact that soap put on the open wound resulted in terrible stinging and burning. Somehow it was always the kid's fault. He just hadn't looked where he was walking as usual, just being careless and of course Mama never forgot to tell him this. While she scrubbed away at the hole in his foot, he was now more certain than ever that the puncture wound was now actually the size of a quarter. After cleaning away the blood and dirt, coal oil (Kerosene) was poured over the wound and bound with a clean cloth. Usually the child was set free to do whatever he wanted but only admonished to do the impossible... Keep that bandage clean!
Coal oil was used in a variety of treatments for country folk. Children who "came down" with the croup or a cold were treated to a poultice made of coal oil, lard and sugar. These ingredients were combined and smeared onto a folded rag. This rag or bag was sometimes stitched around the openings. A tie of some sort was then added allowing the poultice to hang around the child's neck while lying next to his heart. That cured the croup, yessirree bob! Just ask any old-timers around today. Also smeared onto cloths was mutton tallow and alum but the main poultice of the day was the all too well remembered onion poultice. To make this magic poultice one simply fried up a bunch of onions in grease until tender. Wrapped in a cloth while still warm, the poultice would be tied around the child's neck and worn under the clothing. The child wore the bag day in and day out until the cough and congestion had disappeared. Many was the child of bygone years who walked to school with his little bag of onions riding high on his chest and smelling for all the world like Mother's dish of fried liver and onions.
Congestion of the lungs was treated in much the same way as colds were. Turpentine and lard rubbed on the chest was most commonly used. The old favorite, Catnip tea was given without sugar if one could keep it down while a mustard poultice was made for the worst cases. Mustard seeds beaten and mixed with flour and water made up this cure. Then of course the trusty poultice was again hung around the neck of the ailing person until good health returned to the invalid. If a nice fat possum was on the menu for supper, why, this was indeed too good to be true. After cooking the critter, the lady of the house stored the leftover possum grease in a jar for future use. Pure possum grease was then rubbed onto the back and chest to relieve congestion and coughing. Possum grease is as repugnant to most of us today as eating one. A fact for which most self-respecting Hopkins County Possums are quite thrilled about I should think.
For colic, crying babies were given catnip tea. Some desperate mothers even mashed a bulb of garlic and tied it to the child's stomach. A less desperate measure seems to be the making of a "sugar tit" for the infant. It was made with a teaspoon of mashed onions or onion juice, sugar and butter. The mixture was then put onto a cloth and shaped like a bottle nipple. As we all know babies will suck on anything that's put into their mouths. As the baby sucked on this cloth nipple, the onion juice was said to be the ingredient that "put that baby right to sleep."
Coal Oil or Turpentine and sugar were also used for Pinworms. Any body could have told you this was a no ifs, ands, or butts about it, guaranteed cure for killing pinworms. When Mother noticed her child "digging" at his backside constantly, she merely took a teaspoon of sugar, added a couple drops of Coal Oil or Turpentine and have the child swallow it. If taken for three days consecutively, the child would be thoroughly wormed. If by some miracle this remedy didn't work, and of course it always did unless the child had a really bad case of those worms, then a little Sassafras Tea could be counted on to do the trick. The roots of the red Sassafras were gathered and boiled making a tea for the child to drink. My children's grandmother relied heavily on this tea and swore it kept all nine of her children "wormed and trouble free."
Coal Oil was used on chigger bumps, tick bites and dog bites. Kerosene was used in the never-ending fight with bedbugs as well. Bedbugs just knew that straw and wood was home to them. It didn't matter that it was inside a home and they didn't give a hoot if it was your bed or the President's. Bedbugs were mean like that. Men, women and children would emerge from their beds with itchy bites covering their bodies from head to toe. These bugs attacked their victims during the night and sleep was darn near impossible. These tiny pests would settle in straw mattresses and lay eggs even on the wooden parts of the bed. Boiling the mattress ticks, stuffing with new straw, pouring boiling water over the slats and frames were all part and parcel of fighting the hated bedbug. Of course Kerosene was rubbed liberally into all wooden parts of the bed. It was the cure-all medicine for nearly everything and no family would be without it if at all possible.
Another item that no rural family would be without if it could be helped, was whiskey. Of course this was always for medicinal purposes only you understand. Whiskey was used in the making of the famous Hot Toddy for sore throats and coughs. It was simple to make using plain whiskey and honey. This time it was drunk, not hung around the neck. It was used in combination with syrup, molasses, camphor gum, sugar and water. Whiskey was used for everything from coughs, arthritis, rheumatism, pneumonia, snakebites, bee stings, and congestion. Whether it healed the person or not is questionable today. That it made a person forget they were sick in the first place is indisputable.
Heaven help the poor man or woman who had hemorrhoids. With all the heavy lifting they were required to do each day, hemorrhoids could be truly painful, rendering a person unable to do the work required. A wise wife or "herb doctor" would just mix about a teaspoonful of Alum with pure hog's lard for the patient and told to apply liberally "where it hurts." This combination could be mixed together and stored ahead of time. Reportedly, the patient got well rapidly. In the case of an affliction of hemorrhoids, sensibilities of the time prevented an inquiry by concerned neighbors as to his/her condition. Truly concerned neighbors, who observed the proprieties of the time and would never put themselves into the position of being labeled as busybodies, simply observed the gait of the person suspected of having hemorrhoids. If tiny steps were taken and the person stood as if already seated in the saddle, then no more guesswork was needed.
Accidental gunshot wounds also were common in the good old days or not so good in case you were the one who had been shot. If the wound didn't kill you right off the bat then a poultice of walnut hulls, beaten with a hammer, mixed with some table salt, a pinch of flour and you had yourself a cream that was supposed to kill the infection. This mixture was put onto a clean, soft cloth covering the wound. The bandage had to be changed every day until the wound was completely healed.
If a person received an injury that caused unceasing blood loss, there was a remedy that never failed to stop uncontrolled bleeding. Tie a cord above and below the wound. Now the essential part of the treatment had to be the repeating of Ezekiel 16:6 which says: And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee, when thou wast in thy blood, Live. As I ponder over this treatment, I wonder if the cords tied above and below the wound had anything to do with quenching the blood loss. Had I lived back in those olden times and made a statement like that, I'm quite sure my ancestors would have accused me of having no faith. So with bowed head and shameful countenance, I withdraw the statement.
You could also stop the bleeding of an open cut by applying soot or clean dirt directly to it. Don't ask me what clean dirt is, as I was not given the explanation as to where to find it, only that it had to be clean. If I could ever locate it, perhaps I could market it to present day mothers with grimy babies. The cut had to be washed thoroughly after the bleeding stopped or a person would end up with a black, sooty scar.
When a person became weak and lethargic or some sort of infection was thought to be in the bloodstream, a sure fire, handy dandy blood purifier was forced down the throat of some poor person. If the person was an adult and already had a taste of the remedy to come, horrible faces accompanied the knowledge that once again they would have to take the "tonic." In this case you couldn't tell the children from the grown-ups. A tiny bit of sulfur and saltpeter stirred into water was given to the weakling. He or she was then told to send it on down the hatch, never mind the gagging. Some held their noses while others held their breath, drinking it all in one gulp. Or you could just use the sulfur with a teaspoon of honey or syrup, eat it, and then drink a big glass of water. If none of these ingredients were on hand the smart person would gather up a bunch of rusty nails, then soak for a time in water until sediment could be detected in the glass. Then drinking of this sediment was supposed to put iron back into your bloodstream. Ginseng tea was used to make tonics for those with "weak blood" and arthritis. Even cranky babies were fed teaspoons of the bitter tea in hopes of turning the fussy infant into a sweet natured child. All these blood tonics were commonly used and many were given each spring as a tonic whether one was ill or not. All of these concoctions were guaranteed to put the "bounce back into your step and roses in your cheeks."
Boils and "risin's" also plagued the people of those times. Many people swore that a rotten, mashed up apple applied to the "risin" would draw out the core. Our old friend coal oil, turpentine, lye soap and a little Vaseline if one had it, if not, hog lard, made into a salve was likewise considered a cure. This application was applied to a clean cloth and bandaged to the sore. This would "bring the core out in a day or two" or "heal the most awful sore you ever saw." One could also use a poultice made of the inner bark of the Slippery Elm Tree, or a poultice of bread and milk. Binding a piece of fat saltpork to the boil was known to have worked as well. If all else failed, pouring boiling water into a bottle was the next treatment in line. When the bottle was thoroughly heated, the water was dumped. Immediately the bottle mouth was slapped over the boil. The contraction of the hot glass as it cooled was known to create suction was guaranteed to "suck out that core right outta there." Ah, moving right along here....
While there are many more cures for sores, risins and boils, I'll just touch on a final solution for this category. The healer of the day, which was usually the mother, would boil up fresh beef tallow and let it harden. Taking a handful of the tallow, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of brown sugar, and a couple drops of camphor oil, an ointment could be made. To make the camphor oil, one needed two blocks of camphor gum cut up in tiny pieces and mixed with moonshine whiskey. The procuring of camphor oil could be hard to come by for some of the people. It could be purchased at a drugstore, which was unheard of in those days in rural Hopkins County. Rarely it might be found at a general store but means of travel and money were not always available. If the gum could be found and the salve made, it was left on the effected area overnight. In the morning one could expect to find a tremendous improvement.
Burns were another problem that ailed our ancestors from small time blisters to burns of a more serious nature. For minor burns baking soda was always used mixed with a little water and applied to the blisters. Lots of people used pure Castor Oil alone and some used the white of an egg with the Castor Oil. Perhaps the most common relief for minor burns was the Irish Potato. The potato was cut in half and laid against the burn, then bandaged. Old folks say the relief was immediate with the burn healing in a few short days. Butter was utilized for the healing of burns also. Now we know that butter isn't a sound treatment for burns as it seals in the heat but back then it was thought to be a healing agent. Apple vinegar and again, the commonly used sulfur were used alone or in combination with each other. Sewing machine oil was also applied directly on the burned skin. I will leave you with one last cure the old people used to treat burns when nothing else was available. Blowing the nose and wiping the mucus on the burn was considered a good cure. Due to the "sensibilities" of the author, this remedy will not be discussed further.
This list would not be complete without mentioning the nemesis of many present day geriatrics, the dreaded Castor Oil. Castor Oil was used for most anything a person could complain of. Burns, constipation, tonics, blood purifiers, colds, earache, stomachache and arthritis were just a few of the bodily ailments this cure-all medicine was said to relieve. The taste was said to be horrible and yet those children who were made to take it, grew up and gave it to their own children. I'm still trying to figure that one out. During a conversation last year, my oldest sister visibly shuttered at the mere mention of the words, Castor Oil. When this happened, my mother folded her hands while smiling ever so piously. To my sister's credit or her detriment (according to some), she never gave it to her own children.
While there are hundreds of old time cures to be found, perhaps this small sampling gives the reader an idea of how the country folk maintained body and limb in the absence of physicians in those days. I for one am truly thankful that my personal physician's office is located nearby. Another thing I'm extremely grateful for is the absence of Castor Oil, possum grease and hog's lard in my own medicine cabinet.
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
All Rights Reserved
Nancy Trice, © 2000