Third in a series on the self-sufficiency of Appalachian culture.
Until World War II, many a mountain woman doctored herself and her family with what she had, and while the idea of home-grown medicine may conjure images of hot tea and honey by a fireside, some of the old country cures were almost as tough as the illnesses themselves.
During my early years in Haywood County, Marvin and Elizabeth Green of Fines Creek became two of my favorite people to visit. They were warm and welcoming, and willing to share remarkable memories.
Their recollections of early life in Haywood County were full of home remedies, some of them almost incredible. Another historic treasure, the late Dr. Stuart Roberson, Haywood County physician from 1930 until retirement in 1985, backed up their stories with memories of his own.
More than a century ago, when people got sick in Cruso, or Fines Creek, it might take a day to summon a doctor, another day for him to arrive. Families had to make or contrive their own cures, using a little bit of store-bought goods and a whole lot of what nature provided.
“You’d get sick here, there might be some old country doctor to help, but there was no hospital until you got to Asheville, no automobiles,” Marvin Green told me. He was born in 1901. “I was nine or 10 years old before I saw my first car.”
“We did a little bit of everything,” his wife, Elizabeth, added. “I reckon it helped some; we thought it did, anyhow.”
Groundhog grease, onions and catnip
Following are some of the homemade treatments the Greens recalled from their childhood, including some that are not for the faint of heart.
• Elizabeth’s brother struggled with croup. His mother made him swallow groundhog grease. Elizabeth said it would break up the congestion in his system, though she was grateful she never had to try the cure firsthand; the smell was bad enough.
• Another treatment for croup, the Marvins said, was a poultice made of onions fried in grease. The poultice went on the chest, but the patient was also expected to drink the onion juice. “I’ve used many a mustard plaster and onion poultice on the chest,” Dr. Roberson agreed.
• Tea from the bark of the red alder tree treated babies with jaundice. Other tree barks were also used for treatments. Elizabeth Green treated herself for kidney infections many times with a tea made of peach tree bark.
• Mothers treated fever with the herb boneset.
• Catnip tea was used to help babies sleep.
• Mountain people also believed ginger root could treat the measles. Marvin Green was working in Detroit, Michigan, when he came down with the measles in 1922. Visitors from home had him make a ginger root tea, which he declared kept him out of the hospital.
• Elizabeth’s mother would take cornmeal and salt and make a dough, which she put on her head to treat headaches.
• Blackberry juice helped diarrhea and stomach troubles, Elizabeth told me. Dr. Roberson agreed that the juice was good medicine.
• A mix of honey and alum was gargled to treat a sore throat.
“I remember one thing, I thought it was horrible, that my mother did one time,” Elizabeth Green said. “My half-brother, he used to have what we called the quinsy — they call it tonsillitis now. … He had swelling up in his throat ’til he couldn’t breathe or swallow. The doctor wasn’t doing much good, and my mother says, ‘Well, I’m going to do the old remedy; I’ve got to do something.’”
Her mother took hog manure and made a poultice, which she put on the young man’s throat, to break the congestion and swelling.
“It was a terrible thing to do, but she said he was going to die if she didn’t get something done.”
Elizabeth said the swelling went down within minutes.
Dr. Roberson recalled patients telling him of sheep droppings added to tea to draw out the measles.
Until World War II, he said, he would make home visits to mothers in labor and would often find an axe under the bed, pointed side up, to cut the pain.
Camphor and confiscated moonshine
Living on Bald Mountain in Buncombe County, my paternal grandmother relied on laxatives, including Dr. Pearce’s Pleasant Pellets, Black Draught, epsom salts and castor oil. She treated scrapes and abrasions with camphor. As my father wrote, “the camphor, I’m sure, was a good disinfectant since it was pure moonshine whiskey with camphor shavings added.
“At that time you could go to the sheriff’s office in Asheville and get a jar of confiscated whiskey free if you wanted it for medicine. The rule was that you had to take a block of camphor and shave it into the jar there at the office. If you knew the sheriff, the rule was usually waived on your word that you were using it for medicine.
“Band Aids were unknown, so usually a cut or stubbed toe was tied up with a piece of old sheet and sewing thread and doused in camphor.”
Local author Louise Nelson, who grew up in Crabtree and Big Branch during the 1920s and 1930s, lists a number of home remedies in her book “Country Folklore,” including the groundhog oil for croup. Among her family’s treatments:
• Use chimney soot in the wound for blooding.
• For a cold in the chest, use a poultice of camphor and turpentine. (They used an onion and turpentine poultice for croup.)
• For sore throat, gargle with salt and vinegar water.
• Make a candy from Jerusalem Oak to get rid of worms.
• For bee stings, cover with wet snuff.
• For poison ivy, use buttermilk, vinegar and salt.
A number of home remedies are also mentioned in “Heritage of Healing,” the history of Haywood County medicine. Bark from the poplar tree, brewed into a tea, was used for digestive problems, as were teas made of bayberry or the outer bark of the hemlock tree.
Tea from holly leaves was used to reduce fever. Sassafras was a common herbal medicine, used for stomach trouble, skin problems, dropsy, gout and a poor appetite. It was mixed with honey to treat influenza.
Many early settlers’ herbal remedies were used or adapted from the Cherokee, whose medicine men used more than 600 different plants in their practices.
Sources for this story include: “Families practiced their own medicine with groundhog grease, teas and herbs,” The Mountaineer, April 15, 1988; “Country Folklore 1920s and 1930s … and that’s the way it was,” by Louise Nelson; “Heritage of Healing: A Medical History of Haywood County” by Nina L. Anderson and William L. Anderson, published by the Waynesville Historical Society and “Bald Mountain and Beyond” by Stuart A. Nanney