My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Old-Time Remedies

This account was written in 1978 or '79 and published in the January-February 1993 issue of The Montana Journal. Medicine, like most other things in "the good old days" was home-made.


Granny took care of us. Oh, how she took care of us! August and dog days were like salt and pepper… Granny seldom thought of one without the other. It was the time of year when snakes shed their skins and went blind—a time when they would strike at any noise they heard. It was the time when Fido was apt to go frothy at the mouth, sidle up to you and take out chunks—in which case you were "done fer" unless, of course, you knew where to find a mad stone. Granny said she once knew a woman who had known somebody who had been bitten by a mad dog, then another somebody "searched out a mad stone," said a few words over it, and bound it on the wound. It drew out all the "pizen," and the dog came out second best. Don't ask me what a mad stone is. It was long before my time. But come August, you watch that pup. Mad stones were mighty hard to come by.

August was the time when fall was beginning to threaten, and Granny began to hurry herb-gathering lest winter with its colds, grippes, agues, and "rheumatiz" should arrive ahead of schedule and catch her with her medical department out of order.

She made a tea to make you quit wetting the bed and another one to help you out if you couldn't. The attic was full of drying leaves, stems, and roots from which to make cures, potions, tonics, and balms. And when those ran out, there was the old four-inch thick family doctor book. Between Granny and that ample volume, recovery was a matter of trial and error and pure stamina.

Granny made a mean mustard plaster (for adults only). The resulting blisters were ninety percent sure to make you forget about the cold in your chest. For the wee ones, there was a rub made of goose grease, turpentine, camphor, eucalyptus oil, and wintergreen. If the case were bad, the wee one was greased on the bottom of his feet and in his armpits with a mixture of quinine and lard. This failing, a warm and greasy fried onion poultice was placed between two thin cloths and laid over the small chest. A special cough syrup made of sliced onion and sugar waited in a warm place until the onion juice was drawn. And the little devils loved it!

I can vouch for the poultice. I moved one of my babies (four months old) with a layer of the gooey stuff on her small chest, afraid to remove it for fear she might catch cold! We arrived at a lonely railroad section house miles from nowhere and were unloaded from a passenger car coupled to a log train at two o'clock in the morning. There we huddled in a March snowstorm until some sleepy laborers could be awakened to let us in out of the weather. She grew up hale and hardy but never very big.

Granny's whooping cough treatment was prickly pear syrup flavored with lemon and honey (or sugar) or, when obtainable, mare's milk. I could manage a violent whoop any old time as long as the syrup held out, but the milk I could do without.

If a child came down with an unrecognized symptom, the usual procedure was a cleaning out with castor oil followed by a worm cure, just in case. Granny's worm cure consisted of a teaspoon of sugar fortified with a drop or two of turpentine or kerosene. Then, if the patient showed no improvement, he might be treated to a spoonful of shaved deer horn, a remedy recommended by an Indian friend. Granny boiled milk with flour, sugar, and nutmeg for diarrhea, followed by more castor oil. She suffered with us through our earaches while she blew warm smoke into the affected ear until she turned sick and green, then promised to skin us if we told anyone she had been seen smoking. She put everything in the spice cupboard into our aching teeth. Then, as a last resort, she would get out the Copenhagen snuff! Funny, but it seemed to help. Eczema sufferers were bathed in warm milk, and a hot soda bath helped to "bring out" the measles.

Our spring tonic was an infusion steeped from wild chokecherry bark or roots of the equally wild Oregon grape. We were instructed, with emphasis, to help ourselves to a swallow from a dipper in a crock any time we happened to be passing by. The bitter stuff was made almost bearable by seeing which of us could make the worst looking faces when it went down.

As for me, I became famous at an early age for resistance to medication of any kind, so Granddad's help was usually solicited at the onset. The cure that I remember most vividly was one that Granny used for any skin rash of unknown origin. I found that gunpowder was hot in more ways than one, when they mixed it with lard and applied it to my red, itchy stomach—a remedy garnered from relatives in far-off Nova Scotia.

Asafetida was thought to possess magical power of prevention, the potent-smelling stuff being tied in a bag the size of a walnut and hung around the neck to permeate each breath inhaled by the wearer. It was sworn to work by many people, and maybe it did due to the fact that no self respecting germ would venture near it.

Cobwebs from the barn or possibly the root cellar were supposed to heal bad wounds by clotting the blood. A weak solution of carbolic acid worked equally well as a wash for burns or to disinfect the hen house (I tried it.) Some folks soaked pennies in buttermilk, then drank the milk as a blood purifier.

Before antibiotics, a poultice was the tried-and-true means of drawing out infection: a piece of fat meat, melted laundry soap mixed with sugar, hot bread and milk, and the inner membrane of raw egg were just a few. These were bound on the infected spot and changed periodically while being kept warm.

As a child I remember searching the house over to find my "other" stocking and hearing the family laugh when it was found pinned around my neck where it had been placed the night before to halt the development of a sore throat.

Yes, I am sure there is truth in the old adage, "Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease."