Visits to or from doctors was a rarity in my youth and long before, and, yes, doctors really did make house calls in those days.
They arrived in humble homes to assist in baby deliveries. Mature women were experienced enough to qualify as midwives as well. Vivid memories of the night my brother, five years my junior, was born flood my mind, but that’s another story.
The only time I saw a physician before our culture-shocking move to Michigan — except for my own delivery, of course — was when a big, heavy window, propped open with sticks, slipped from its mooring and smashed my thumb. It was pretty bad.
After the initial cleanup and kissing it to make it feel better, my blood continued to gush everywhere, to my fear and displeasure. Mommy wrapped it in a towel and held my good hand as we walked the mile to the mouth of the holler to catch the train to Martin, the nearest town with a doctor. Few details are recalled by my then-4-year-old mind, but entering that doctor’s office amid strange sights and smells left an indelible imprint upon me.
Mountain people treated every condition, from cradle to grave, and passed down their skills and knowledge until modern medical care became prevalent and insurance made it more affordable than paying out of your own pocket or bartering for services — think Doc Adams of “Gunsmoke” fame.
My paternal grandmother was part Native American, obvious in her features. She and her family passed down many remedies and methods in many areas of survival skills. Some are still used in my family.
Don’t be shocked when acquainted with them, please. They simply did what worked and made do with the limited resources available but always had the best interests of their loved ones at the forefront of their methods. The sole goal was relief and healing.
Colicky babies were given “sugar tits” made by wrapping a good spoonful of sugar in a small cloth, gathering the corners and tying it up. It was then dipped in evaporated milk to saturate it and placed in the infant’s mouth as a precursor to a pacifier. If the baby was really unhappy, they also dipped it in a little whisky — legal or homemade. Soon, they caressed and rocked a content and calm baby in their arms.
This practice alone might result in jail time and a termination of parental rights in our current society.
Peppermint, catnip and other members of the mint family were commonly used for digestive ailments. Various greens, common weeds and herbs have great medicinal qualities, and they knew them all.
Ginger tea is a miracle drug still used in my home and family. Use ground ginger from the pantry if ginger root is unavailable, boil water and sweeten it to go down easier (think Mary Poppins), sipping it as hot as tolerable. This unfailingly breaks a fever in a short time. If that sounds too simple, please consider it, anyway. It works and is always used with a fever from a cold, flu or other malaise.
Maw kept a jar of bear grease to rub on chests and backs to break up congestion. There were other jars filled with the grease from various varmints and other concoctions, too.
My own mother kept a cigar in the medicine cabinet. She lit and puffed on it until she got a good cloud of smoke developed, then she'd blow into our ear and stuff in some cotton for earaches. It eased the pain because of the anesthetizing effect of the nicotine.
It also worked for toothaches. We puffed on the cigar ourselves and held the smoke in our mouths. Repeat as necessary until there is some relief. Since we only saw a dentist for tooth removal, tobacco was effective. Everyone grew their own plants, and they are ornamental, too.
This remedy explains why so many people in poor circumstances use tobacco. Decaying teeth are almost a given among the poor. It is also the best poultice to draw out infection in man or beast. Since a plow horse or mule and a cow were essential to survival, they practiced veterinary medicine, too.
A multitude of uses for salt, baking soda, vinegar and other kitchen staples were used to treat all sorts of ailments and miseries. They still work today. It’s no coincidence that our society is filled with herbal remedies, essential oils and holistic practitioners. The best part is that there are rarely side effects, like the chemicals produced in controlled laboratories.
Au natural is the way to go, plus it’s good to know. Read up on it. God filled the earth with every good herb, and it’s been in practice since the Garden of Eden.
— A coal miner’s daughter born in Appalachia and schooled in Michigan, she currently lives in rural Athens. Hill describes herself as a cook and cookbook author, jack of all trades and master of none, a Christian wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She shares her home with her husband, Bob, and their spoiled-beyond-belief dog, Molly.