Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1995

The Healing Tradition

by Robert Gilmore

A few days ago my wife came back from Sam's Wholesale Club with the usual supply of frozen items and the requisite giant bucket of laundry detergent. In addition she brought a book, The Doctors Book of Home Remedies: Over 1,200 Tips and Techniques Anyone Can Use to Heal Hundreds of Everyday Health Problems.

Looking through the table of contents, I saw cures for everything from Age Spots, Anal Fissures and Angina to Warts, Windburn, and Wrinkles. (I didn't even know "wrinkles" was a Health Problem!) Bedsores, Bee Stings, Constipation, Earache, Migraines, Toothache, Paper Cuts, and Pizza Bum--all these were covered, as were more than 200 other concerns about health and well being.

As I reviewed suggestions for dealing with Sweaty Palms (baby powder, underarm antiperspirant, or a high-tech low-level electric current device), Oily Hair (shampoo often and rinse your hair with vinegar), and Forgetfulness (???), I thought of the document that Sammie Rose, at the Boone County Heritage Museum in Harrison, Arkansas, had earlier shared with me. It was a copy of an 1887 advertisement for Dr. Pierce's Compound Extract of SmartWeed, "Compounded of Smart-Weed, Jamaica Ginger, Anodyne and Healing Gums, and the Best French Brandy." Taken internally, the advertisement alleges, it will cure:


In addition, if you apply the medicine externally, you will be cured of:


-Price 50 Cents by Druggists.

"In short," the ad copy concludes, this medicine "is an unexcelled Liniment for Man and Beast."

I can imagine many early Ozarkers saving up 50 cents and sending off for a bottle of this miracle liniment, for they needed all the medical help they could get. They were subject to many diseases, ailments, and injuries. Some of these were serious and life threatening, others debilitating and annoying. Malaria was certainly one of the more serious diseases, and quite common. Cholera, small pox, influenza, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and measles were among the ailments remembered by older Ozarkers, and mentioned in news accounts, diaries, letters, and doctor's journals. Ringworm, sores and boils, headaches, bunions, chills and fever, and goiter were common. People living in an isolated, rural, rugged frontier area were also subject to the usual range of scalds and bums, broken bones, ax wounds, and animal bites.

People living in the early Ozarks, however, drew on several sources for their medical needs; they did not have to rely entirely on mail order cureall medicines. There were in every community, and in most families, people who knew homely traditional remedies that would cure the ailment and comfort the sufferer. And there were doctors, and they made house calls.

Go fetch the Doc ! was a common enough command around the early Ozarks. Doc was always ready to make a house call, but it was not always easy. In 1906, when William Asher was sick with the measles at his Stone County, Missouri home on Dry Hollow, son Eli was sent in to Galena to get Dr. Henson. Eli went on horseback, starting about midnight. He had to cross the James River twice before arriving at the doctor's home about three a.m. The doctor had Eli go over and wake up George Yetley, who owned the livery stable at Galena. Tell him to harness up a team, said the doctor, and drive me out to Dry Hollow. Eli then went on back home, and Dr. Hensen got there about daybreak to take care of the sick man. Quit giving him hot tea, the doctor said. Give him cold water to break out the measles.

Dr. Ruth Seever began practicing in 1906. She was ninety-four years old and still practicing in Osceola, Missouri, when Bittersweet Magazine students interviewed her. She would drive herself in her buggy on most house calls, she told them, but sometimes, to get to an isolated farmstead someone would drive her to the river. "And then somebody'd maybe meet me and carry me across the water where there was no bridge and no other way to get through. Then from the other side of the creek I had to walk to the house." She continued:


One time I came back off of one of those night calls and the man carried me to the other side of the creek and set me and my bags down and he went on home. I had to walk on into town. And, oh, I was so tired. I'd been up all night and ended with a breech delivery and I was worn out. So I thought, to cut a little distance, I'd cut catty-cornered across afield, not follow the road around. I laid down and rolled under the wire fence. It felt so good to stretch out on that snow, and the sun was pretty and warm. I thought, I believe I could just lie right here and go to sleep. And then I thought, well, it's awfully cold; if l do I might freeze. I was only three-fourths of a mile from home then but when 1 did get home I had frosted my toes and both my hands.

Around the turn of the century, Dr. Leonidas Kirby was a much-loved physician in Harrison, Arkansas. Although Dr. Kirby was a short man, only about five feet four inches tall, his favorite horse was a bay foxtrotter, Duke, who stood 19 hands high (about six and a quarter feet). An extra stirrup was added to the left side of the saddle to aid the doctor in mounting. The whole Carroll County countryside soon came to know Dr. L and this large, graceful gelding. On the way home, the small doctor was usually sitting in the saddle asleep, for the horse knew how to make his own way home.

Dr. Joseph Johnston started practice in 1931 with his father in Wheatland, Hickory County, Missouri. "If [my father] got too sleepy and afraid he'd fall off his horse, he'd take the saddle off and put it beside the road and go to sleep. And [his mare] would let him sleep about twenty minutes, and then she'd nudge him with her nose to get up, and he'd get up and go on."

Evelyn Griffin's father practiced in Thomasville, Oregon County, Missouri. Said Evelyn Griffin (herself a physician), "Even after he got a Model "T," he often had to use a horse to make house calls because the roads weren't developed enough for a car to get over them." Dr. Joseph Johnston started making house calls using a horse but later switched to a car, "although it was stuck in the mud every day."

In Wheatland in the 1930s, about 60% of the Doctors Johnston's work involved housecalls. All doctors accepted making house calls as a necessary part of their practices, although they took a lot of time--time they could not devote to other patients. Not only was it often a long and difficult trip to and from the patient's home, but the doctor usually had to spend quite a bit of time there, sometimes staying overnight. "I've slept in all sorts of places," said Dr. Ruth Seever, "on top of the grand piano, on a feather bed, under the dining-room table, on a straw tick in the corner of the room."

Fees varied, of course, but many office visits ranged from 50 cents to $1.00. Dr. Marvin Gentry of Ava, Douglas County, Missouri, told Dr. Jordan Burkey that visits to the country ranged from $2 to $5 depending on the distance. Home deliveries were $5. Dr. Gentry told of one lesson in the practical economics of medicine he learned from his physician father. His father treated a tight-fisted local man, who asked how much the charge would be. "Fifty cents" was the answer. The man slowly reached in his pocket and handed the doctor his fee. After the man left, Dr. Marvin asked his father why he had only charged fifty cents for a treatment worth a dollar. "If I'd said 'a dollar,'" the doctor explained, "he'd have said, 'I'll owe you.' As it is, I got fifty cents out of him."

Early doctors frequently got paid with products rather than money. The Johnstons had a man-in-hire to convert into cash the pigs, cattle, feed, and chickens they had received in payment for their services. Even when doctors were paid in cash, the rewards were seldom great. Dr. Ruth Seever met a man on the street and asked him if he didn't think it was about time to pay for the fine baby boy she had delivered to his wife several months earlier. He pulled out fifty cents, gave it to her, and said that was all the kid was worth.

After his General Practitioner beginnings in Wheatland, Dr. Joe Johnston went on to become an OB/GYN specialist. "It's an interesting field," he said, "but a hard one because you lose many night's sleep. "I'm gonna have to live to be a hundred and fifty years old to get caught up with the sleep I've lost." Before he retired in 1989, he had delivered in Greene County 11,169 babies, a state record. This number did not include an estimated 500 deliveries earlier in Hickory County. Dr. Joe recalled, "A husband'd come in and say, 'My wife's pregnant.' He'd say, 'When she goes into labor, we'll call you.' That was the pre-natal care, just to be notified that his wife's pregnant."


The word "pregnant," though, was considered embarrassing and avoided in favor of euphemisms such as "expecting," "in a family way," or the biblical "with child." Dr. Ned White recalled one farmer who called him up and, using the term for a milk cow giving birth, said, "My wife's gonna be fresh in February. Would you take care of her?"

In most confinement cases, the doctor was assisted by neighborhood women. Bittersweet writers said that "the women who helped out might be classified in three ways: neighborhood women who had a natural talent and willingness to help in any sort of sickness, including confinement cases, but had no special training; granny women who specialized only in ketchin' babies, and gained their knowledge by experience; and midwives, who also specialized in baby delivery, but received some special training." Throughout the hills, it was the women who assumed the responsibility of keeping their own families healthy and of caring for others in the neighborhood as well. From "ketchin' babies," to preparing herb medicines, to nursing and comforting the sick, women were the prime practitioners of domestic medicine.

But just about everyone, regardless of gender, had a favorite treatment. Gottfried Duden, described in 1826 his remedy for "the well-known illness called influenza:"

Purging induced by Epsom salts and cream of tartar, and plasters to alleviate the local disorders of the chest, repeated incisions in the surface of the painful swellings for the purpose of causing slight bleeding, and the use of sulfur-naphtha and sulfuric acid very quickly put an end to the danger and completely restored the patient to health in six to eight days.

The thirty people in his community who contracted the disease and who used these measures "at my instigation," he bragged, "all recovered without difficulty."

Duden was a great fan of sulfuric acid which, he believed, was very important for the inhabitant of recently cleared forest land, of which there was an abundance in the Missouri River border of the northern Ozarks:

During the first two years [the settler] should never drink water during the heat of the summer without adding a few drops of sulfuric acid. Mixed with rum, with French brandy, and even with common brandy and water, perhaps with the addition of sugar, it is a pleasant drink and for the health far preferable to citric acid.

Every family had its own favorite home remedies and practices which had been passed down for generations. Cookbooks and household books (like our Doctors Book of Home Remedies) contained cures for just about every disease known to humankind. Many of these cures were based on the herbs and plants that grew in profusion in the Ozarks. Walker Powell, Stone County, Missouri, gave typical testimony of the efficacy of one treatment:

Now I've got a neighbor. He lives about two miles from me. And he had arthritis so bad that he wasn't able to put his clothes on when he got out o' bed; land he wasn't able to walk to his garden, which is about a hundred yards from the house. And I knew he was in bad shape, and one day I saw him up at the store, and he was a-walkin' around and no problem. I said, "Herman," I said, "What in the world happened? How did you get rid of your arthritis?'' He said, "You won't believe this, but I'll tell you what I done." He said, "I went out and got me some poke root," and, he said, "I cut about as much as you could hold in one hand, and sliced it real thin. "And, he said, "l put it in a quart jar and I poured it full of bourbon whiskey. "And, he said, "I took that---a tablespoonful twice a day. Night and morning." And, he said, "In a short time, I was able to walk and feel just as good as I ever did."
Now that's something that's hard to believe, but he's a living proof that it works. And I've talked to other people that know this is an old-time remedy. I've never tried it, but I've recommended it to other people.

I doubt there is a plant growing in the Ozarks that has not been identified at one time or another asa specific treatment for some ailment or injury. Green persimmons, slippery elm bark, peach roots, sheep sorrel, pine needles, horehound, dandelion root, hawthorne berries, wild plum bark--these are only a few of the hundreds of plants traditionally used.

Jim Long, an Arkansas herbalist, says bloodroot, "which puts out a red juice that looks very much like blood--if you use a little imagination--was a treatment for injuries of the blood, and for cuts and bleeding ulcers, and the like." Goldenseal, he says, is believed to increase and enhance the power of the other herbs it is with.

One of the best known, and most widely used, herbal remedies is sassafras tea. It is traditionally used in the spring of the year to "thin the blood." The blood is presumably thickened during the winter by folks being inside so much, a lack of activity, and their eating so much fat meat. Sulphur and molasses, of course, is another favorite spring tonic. The strong smelling plant, asafetida (the word comes from the Latinfoetida, meaning fetid, stinking), was worn in a cloth bag around the neck of many a school child to ward off winter-time diseases.

Ingredients for some folk medicines must be gathered carefully. For instance, "In scraping bark from a tree or shrub the direction in which it is cut may make a vast difference in its effect as medicine,'' says Vance Randolph. He explains:

The old timers say that if the pain is in the lower part of the body, it is best to scrape the bark downward, to drive the disease into the legs and out at the toes. If the bark in such a case were stripped upward, it might force the pizen up into the patient's heart, lungs, or head, and kill him instantly.

Although "sang tea" was brewed from ginseng leaves in the Ozarks for fevers, ginseng was too valuable as a cash crop to be consumed casually for domestic use. Ginseng is valued in the Orient as an aphrodisiac, and it has long been exported as a cash crop. (Much of the American ginseng crop, 95 to 97 percent, is presently exported according to a report in the Missouri Folklore Society Journal, representing about a 30 to 40 million dollar business.) Vance Randolph said, "Not many hillfolk can be induced to eat anything they can sell for money." Jim Long says that the wild ginseng has been "all dug out and sold---exported to China."

Another widely used type of household remedy was the poultice. Poultices were usually applied hot, which brought the blood to the surface and encouraged healing. Just about every ingredient imaginable was used to make poultices. Crushed and boiled sheep sorrell, chicken manure and lard, raw potatoes, black oak bark, mullein leaves simmered in vinegar, and turnip tops are a few of the components used. Vance Randolph said that a poultice of tobacco leaves soaked in hot water was widely used for cuts, stings, bites, bruises, and even bullet wounds. Applied to the chest, hot poultices of strong smelling items helped relieve congestion and the fumes cleared nasal passages. Onion and mustard poultices were popular for this purpose. Dr. Durward Hall said, "I've removed many a stinking poultice from a chest of somebody that was about to have pneumonia. [These poultices] consisted of everything from matured cow dung up to turpentine and bacon grease, mixed with lard and lemon juice and lettuce leaves."

"Some people are gifted to heal. Born to it." An Amish lady, herself a gifted healer, was speaking of individuals who seem to have a special gift for relieving pain and in healing injuries and disease. These are people whom Vance Randolph called "Power Doctors"-- backwoods specialists who appear to have supernatural powers to cure specific ailments. Some of these people can cool fevers, other can draw out the fire from bums, while others are blood stoppers. Some people can take warts (Lucille Morris Upton in Springfield collected 125 wart cures), while others specialize in boils, goiter, ringworm, thresh, or other problems. Some even concentrate on serious diseases like cancer, and become well-known beyond their local neighborhoods. Many of these healers do not charge for their services, offering their gifts only as friends and good neighbors.

I found in our new Doctors Book of Home Remedies no reference to kerosene, or, as it was commonly referred to in earlier times, coal oil. Coal oil, however, was the treatment of choice for first aid emergencies in many an Ozarks household. A finger split by a too-long-held Fourth of July firecracker, a forearm snagged by a fishhook, a bare foot punctured by a nail, and most other bums, cuts, scrapes, and abrasions--even spider and snake bites--ail might have been treated by a liberal application of coal oil. This soothing liquid seemed to stop bleeding and prevent infection. Walker Powell said they used kerosene for snake bites. "After you got bit on your leg or your ankle, you'd just kick your foot down in a bucket o' kerosene. And we never did lose anybody from a copperhead bite."


A real fear of people in an earlier time was of being bitten by a rabid animal. Families would discuss among themselves what they would do if one of them were bitten. How could they get hold of a madstone? The madstone seemed to be the only remdy available.

A madstone is technically a calculus, a stone-like object sometimes found in the stomach of ruminants. The best stone was supposed to come from the stomach of a white deer. S. C. Turnbo described a madstone that was found in a deer that had been shot on the Eleven Point River in Oregon County, Missouri. The stone, he said, was about two and a half inches in length, an inch thick, and had "small pimples or cells all over it.". Douglas Mahnkey in his Hill and Holler Stories says that the treatment of one bitten by a rabid animal began by boiling the stone in sweet milk and then, while it was still hot, applying the stone to the wound. "If the dog was actually mad, the stone stuck to the wound and would draw the 'pizen' out. Once the stone was filled with the poison it would drop off, and it was again boiled in sweet milk and applied to the wound. The milk would mm green. This process was repeated until the stone no long adhered to the wound."

Madstones, perhaps because of their singular value in treating rabies, have always been greatly prized by anyone fortunate enough to come in possession of one. Turnbo says that his informant was offered $200 for his stone, but he refused and gave it to a relative who carried it into Indian Territory with him.

Unlike a bite from a rabid animal, an aching bunion or an arthritic joint may not be life threatening but in the everyday scheme of things, they hurt! So, after the comedy skit and the harmonica solo, when the master of ceremonies at the medicine show started touting the advantages of his particular elixir, a dollar a bottle, you probably listened. Walker Powell's sister Hazel traveled with a medicine show for two years, 1928-29, playing the mandolin and helping sell a medicine called "Satanic." Satanic was good for rheumatism or whatever ailed you. One dollar a bottle.

Early in his career, Charlie Weaver, of the Weaver Brothers and Elviry musical family, worked a medicine show. "My job of a morning," he told me, "was to get up and get a big washtub and stir up some kind of yellow powder in gasoline. And we'd bottle that and label it 'Corn Medicine.' And that's what we'd sell."

[The pitchman would say] "Well, now, I'll tell you, this medicine takes the place of all this other stuff.... Anybody in my hearin' that's got a corn or bunion, why just walk up here to the platform and I'll stop the hurtin' and it won't cost you nothin'."

Well, he'd take this gasoline and a sponge and he'd say, "Don't take your shoe off. Just leave your shoe on. Now it won't bother your shoe at all, it won't hurt it. "He takes that sponge and dips it down there and puts it on that [shoe] and gets it pretty damp. Well, that gasoline would just go through there like that, and that old corn would just ease up and feel cool.

Shissh! I just sold that can after can like that. A dollar a bottle.

We now have a book that promises us thousands of effective self-treatment tips for hundreds of common complaints. I doubt, however, we'll rely on it heavily for most of our medical needs. Our Stone County ridge top residence is today within a half-hour drive of several lakes-area professional health providers, including a hospital and dozens of doctors' offices and clinics in five nearby communities. We're only about 45 minutes from Springfield, with its famed "Medical Mile" and many other specialized physicians and facilities. Although we don't expect a doctor to make a house call, in an emergency we can reach any of these places quickly by ambulance, even by helicopter. The local drug stores provide us with a range of effective medications that make unnecessary most of the painful and unpleasant treatments of years past.

The healing tradition in the Ozarks has changed dramatically from the not-so-long ago. We read with amused tolerance of the folk cures of the past--of chicken manure poultices and madstones. Will researchers of a couple of generations from now unearth our Home Remedies book, and write of the major medical concerns of the 1990s--Pizza Burn, TV Addiction, Body Odor, and Jet Lag?



Allured, Janet. "Women's Healing Art. Domestic Medicine in the Turn-of-the-Century Ozarks." Gateway Heritage (Spring, 1992)

Ruth Asher."A Trip to Get the Doctor-1906." White River Valley Historical Quarterly ( Winter, 1986) Young Eli Asher grew up to become Ruth Asher's father-in-law Boone County Heritage Museum, Harrison, Arkansas. The Museum has a Medical Room, honoring Dr. Leonidas Kirby, which houses instruments, operating tables, a sawbones kit, medication bottles, etc. dating back into the 1800s. The Museum also publishes the "Boone County Historian.''

Burkey, Jordan, M. D. Bulletin of the Greene County[Missouri] Medical Society. Dr. Burkey wrote profiles of several southwest Missouri physicians which were published in different issues of the Bulletin. From these profiles, comments from Dr. Joseph Johnston and Dr. Marvin Gentry are included in this story.

Duden, Gottfried. Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America. Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 1980.

Foster, Steven and Chongxi, Yue. "Disjunct Occurrence and Folk Uses of Medicinal Plants in the Ozarks and in China." Missouri Folklore Society Journal (Volume X, 1988).

Gilmore, Robert K. Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions. Norman:University of Oklahoma Press, 1984. Taped interview with Charlie Weaver.

Henigan, Julie, Ed. Greene County [Missouri] Medical Society Oral History Project. Julie Henigan interviewed a number of doctors, nurses, and lay people in 1990-92. The transcripts of these interviews are in the Shepherd Room of the Spring-field-Greene County Library. From these interviews, Dr. Joseph Johnston, Dr. Evelyn Griffin, Dr. Ned White,Dr. Durward Hall, Mr. Walker Powell, Mr. Jim Long, and "Mrs. S," an Amish lady, are quoted in this article.

Mahnkey, Douglas. Hill and Holler Stories. Point Lookout, Missouri: School of the Ozarks Press, 1970.

Massey, Ellen Gray, Ed. Bittersweet Country. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. This book, along with its companion, Bittersweet Earth, contains material published between 1973 and 1976 in the magazine Bittersweet, a project of students of Lebanon, Missouri high school and their teacher, Ellen Gray Massey.

Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic and Folklore. New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

Turnbo, S. C. The White River Chronicles or S. C. Turnbo: Man and Wildlife on the Ozarks Frontier. Selected and Edited by James Keefe and Lynn Morrow. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.


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