In the country where I lived many, many years ago, store-bought medicines were scarce. Our illnesses were treated with homemade remedies. Only during the most severe illnesses, after loving home care had failed, was the doctor summoned. Someone had to ride 10 miles on horseback to tell him he was needed.
At our house a bottle of "spirits," or homemade whiskey, was marked "Medicine only" and kept on the highest shelf. At the onset of a cold, Mama mixed a hot toddy and made us drink it while she greased us with an ointment she compounded of lard and pine rosin. Then she firmly fastened a wool flannel around the chest and dressed us for bed. And there we stayed until all signs of the" grippe" had vanished.
When I was in the first grade, my older sisters said that some kids at school had the itch. "We'll be disgraced," they declared, "if we catch it. If you ever itch, don't dare to scratch and don't tell a soul except Mama."
So one day in the middle of winter when the teacher looked at my hands and asked about the bumps on my neck, I replied "They're chigger bites." Teacher whispered, "It's the itch."
Mama felt a child with the itch was a disgrace, a sign she had failed to teach her daughters cleanliness. With much embarrassment she consulted Dad about a treatment. He was our stepfather, much older than Mama, and he was knowledgeable about many things. He told her to dig and boil the roots of pokeweed and bathe my sisters and me in the brew. She cooked a huge potful, poured the solution into a tub, plunged us into it and scrubbed us. It burned and we were screaming and yelling with pain! Finally Dad came to the door and said, "I didn't aim for you to skin them alive. I meant for you to put it on with a cotton dabber." Mother then doused us with cold water and covered us liberally with fresh unsalted butter.
The itch mites were gone but it took many days for our skin to heal despite Mama's frequent applications of fresh sweet cream and butter. We held our heads high and marched to school, knowing we were once again in good standing. We blamed our reddened skin on cold weather and chapping.
We were often warned not to fondle the barn cats, but sometimes I couldn't resist playing with the kittens. When I came up with ringworm, Mama sent me to the walnut pile to find a soft-hulled nut with juice in it. This she rubbed over the ringworm until it disappeared.
One time I sat down in a patch of greenery that looked cool and inviting at the end of the cotton row. A few days later I was covered with huge clear blisters. Dad cut some guns hells apart and shook out the powder into a bowl of sweet cream. He said it was the only thing to cure poison oak, that being the name of the pretty leaves I had rested on.
When we were scratched by barbed wire or stepped on a rusty nail, we soaked the injury in coal oil for hours, or else "You'll have lockjaw and die." I grew up more afraid of lockjaw than any other thing. I sat for hours soaking my rusty wounds and hating the smell of coal oil.
After the summer's end, Mama always gathered the grainy seed of the Jerusalem oak which she boiled with sorghum to make a brittle candy patty. When she decided we kids needed worming, we ate the candy for three days as a special treat. She also mixed some with the feed she threw out for the chickens.
I often wondered how Mama knew when I was worried or could not sleep. At those times she gave me a glass of warm milk with a teaspoon of honey and a dash of nutmeg. Then she would sit beside the bed and encourage me to talk while she held my hand or massaged my back. The combination of the drink and her companionship caused my restlessness to vanish, and I often fell asleep before finishing my talk.
Home remedies and closeness went together in those days.
Closeness may have been one of the best remedies we had.
Viola O. Griffis
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.