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Home Remedies: Pioneer Alchemy


Michele Dykhuis


"Call a doctor"

"A doctor? . . What doctor?"

There was a day not too long ago when there really wasno doctor to be called. There were no doctors just wandering over the prairies. No, they stayed in town where it was reasonably comfortable and convenient. Those out here in the Red River Valley had to make do. And they did makedo. Granny insists that it wasn't really too bad, if you used those precious,time-tested home remedies.

Come with me, and we'll take an Alice in Wonderland journeyto that Never-Never land, which was only too real in our grandparent's day. It's hard to imagine going through those ordeals, for it was either "Door Die. ." and most of them did both.

I solemnly declare that each one of these remedies whichI am about to discuss, however hilarious, were actually used in the goodold days of the Red River Valley.

Then, like now, preventative medicine was not the mosteffective. In order to avert the dreaded flu bug, each mother carefullysewed either camphor gum, garlic cloves, or asafoetida into a cloth. Thiscloth was hung around each child's neck. It probably kept the flu away,but I'm sure it kept others away, also.

The eternal ache of the Senior Citizens was rheumatism. Granny, with her rheumatism, didn't worry about shots and all that modernkind of thing. She just used what she had. She kept a slice of dried potatoin her pocket - day and night. Who was to say that the faint fragrance surroundingGranny wasn't a new cologne called Eau de Potato?

Toothless Granny, who had so faithfully brushed her teethwith baking soda, now worried about Junior's new tooth. So, to ease hispaid of teething, a string of either wolve's or fawn's teeth was hung aroundthe infant's neck. It may not have chased the pain away, but it sure wassomething to chew on. It probably brought on those dreaded spells of stomach"misery". To counteract diarrhea, an elixir called gizzard skintea was brewed. This tea was concocted by pounding the dry inside of achicken gizzard.

Mary Poppin's ditty "A spoonful of sugar makes themedicine go down" harmonizes with Grandma's three drops of kerosene,which she liberally dispensed for croup.

Turpentine was one of the most valued types of medicationfor the pioneer. Especially when it was mixed with the grease or renderedlard either from a skunk, a goose, or a hog. This salve became a delightfultype of external application for a deep chest cold or cough. But Lord onlyknows what would happen if some poor innocent little child ever drank it. The only hitch to this universal medicine was the S M E L L !

The mustard plaster was the favorite of the pioneer mother- but not of the pioneer children. For this messy, clammy, burning plasterwas not only effective for the cold, but it could dehide the child.

A milder form of medication was also used, and that wasthe application of a dirty sock. Just before the child was put to bed,a soiled sock (the dirtier the better) was wrapped around the child's neck,and miraculously, he was better the next morning! Supposedly, the principleby which the child was cured of bronchitis was that the fumes from the dirtysock cleared out the air passages. What a relief!

Next to ailments brought on by the cold weather, the pioneerfeared snakes. Although the hiss of the deadly snake was not heard toooften in the Red River Valley, it was farther West. If a snake happenedto bite someone in the Valley, a chicken was killed, split open, and applieddirectly to the wound. Others again resorted to a turpentine soak, whilestill others boiled cockleburs in milk to make a soothing poultice. Notevery child bitten by a snake was saved, but it was certainly worth a try.

Saving children to become healthy adults is still everymother's greatest problem. Today, to counteract the hamburger and Coke diet,each child becomes a vitamin pill popper, but in the days of yesteryear,when kids developed rickets due to a poor nutritional diet, they had snailsfor lunch, which supposedly added vitamins and minerals to their diet.

Rickets was a plague of children, but tuberculosis wasthe real crippler. It attached the young, the old, and the tiny babe. It was thought that the air of Minnesota was the real cure. Many sanitariumswere built, and many flocked to the oasis of the Minnesota air. Maybe that'swhy so many people settled here in the Red River Valley.

Another affliction of both young and old was boils. Thereare varying cures for this but usually poultices were used. Bread and milkwas often applied, but its rival was laundry soap and sugar. When it wasto be had, fresh fat pork was used. The favorite of my grandmother's wasdirty diaper poultice. She tells a story of a time when a doctor was calledbecause a baby had a terrible boil on its leg. Evidently, the doctor askedfor a dirty diaper, it was applied as a poultice, and would you believeit, the boil was cured!

During the cold winters of the RRV, when children wentwithout caps, they were punished with an earache. Many was the time thata child had urine poured in his ear. Another cure was sitting near theashtray and having Pa blow tobacco smoke into the ear.

Though there weren't many nails in the early days, kidsalways managed to step on one. When this happened, some buttermilk waspulled up from the well and the foot was soaked in it.

One ailment that no one wanted to get was hives. Beinga convalescent wasn't worth drinking a teaspoon of cream of tartar mixedwith a cup of water.

My great grandmother always and forever thought she hadskin cancer. When "it got real bad" she would boil an egg, mashthe yolk, and mix it with vinegar to make a paste. She would then rub itdirectly on to the cancer. She never did get skin cancer.

When Junior ate too many green gooseberries, Ma was prepared. She always had a raw beef gall bladder hanging in the woodshed. The offenderwas dragged out to the woodshed by his ear and was made to eat some of it. It worked. Syrup of Figs was also used, but the gall bladder method ismore interesting.

Burns were often found upon the hands of the female sex,mainly because they forgot to use the pot holders. Aloe Vera was grownin the home, and the leaves were squeezed to produce a soothing oil. Amore common remedy was strong cold tea.

Ringworm often raged unchecked in many places. When themoney could be spared, pennies were put in vinegar until they turned green,and the mixture was poured on the ringworm. Brown paper was scarce, butwhen it was to be had, it was burned and the smoke blown onto the ringworm.

After an operation, stomach gas was an affliction of theafflicted. To relieve this, a rag was soaked in turpentine, and placedon the abdomen. If the patient was shy, the nurses just told them to "tootaway." Usually they couldn't help it.

Denver mud is a yellowish gray mud used in poultices. It was called the "universal medicine" and with the thousandsof ways it was used, I think it was.

Somehow, the pioneer survived. They survived the turpentinecure, the mustard plaster, and even the perfumed rag tied around their necks. Who can say that these cures didn't do their part?

You and I are living proof that our ancestors here in theRed River Valley lived by their ingenuity. But how much easier is it forus to call a doctor.


Docken, Harriet, Northcote, MN, Interview, December 1973

Dykhuis, Muriel, Hallock, MN, Interview, December 1973

Dykhuis, Margaret, Hallock, MN, Interview, December 1973

Glubok, Shirley, Home and Child Life in Colonial Days,1969

Hanson, Margaret, Virginia, MN, Interview, December 1973

Johnson, Loree, Humboldt, MN, Interview, December 1973

NT SIZE=+1>Hanson, Margaret, Virginia, MN, Interview, December 1973

Johnson, Loree, Humboldt, MN, Interview, December 1973