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Old-Time Medications...weird but they worked!

Old-Time Medications...weird but they worked!

By Anne Butler

jc metz
JC Metz and Amy having a tea party

There’s a wonderful new full-service hospital and a number of physicians practicing medicine in St. Francisville now, but back in the days when money was scarce and doctors were even scarcer in rural areas, folks doctored themselves with a wide assortment of home remedies.

Of course every early plantation had its kitchen garden, where herbs and culinary additives were supplemented by treasured medicinal plants, with every housewife worth her salt knowing the value of each. But well into the 20th century, isolated country folk continued to rely on time-honored traditions of home remedies passed down through the generations. And current doctors admit there was something to be said for at least some of these folk cures.

The late Reverend H.S. Pate, pastor to a rural flock, always insisted, “Those old sayings and remedies held true in the old days, and they hold true today. Used to be, you had to ride horseback through the woods to get to a doctor, if you could get to one at all, so folks did their own doctoring.” And it wasn’t simply a matter of money; they really believed that the folk cures worked.

 

Now in his 90s, J.C. Metz, one of many sons of a pioneering logging family which during the Depression got their sustenance as well as their remedies from the swampy areas bordering the Mississippi River, remembers many cures his mother utilized. Pepper tea, made of hot water and black pepper, would sweat the fever out of anybody, coughs were cured with a syrup made by boiling wild plum bark with sugar and lemon, while whiskey and honey remedied the worst sore throats. Sinus problems were cleared up with a mixture of honey, whiskey and apple cider, and an application of catfish fat rendered into oil was used to treat the common cold. For cuts, turpentine and iodine reduced the danger of infection, and bleeding was stopped by applying spider webs to the affected area. Tobacco juice took the sting out of insect bites, and for thorns or boils, a poultice of okra blossoms or salt meat would draw out the offending article. Warm honey in the ear was used to soften wax and cure ear aches. And each spring, the blood was purified with a tonic of sassafras root or vine boiled into a tea.

Other elderly folks swore by other practices, especially teas made of various ingredients. The white leaves of the sassafras bush cured fevers and colds, while tea made from ordinary cornshucks was said to cure measles. Tea made from life-everlasting weed or bitterweed helped reduce fever, and another cure for colds was tea made from scrapings from hogs’ hooves, also said to be effective for pneumonia.

Sardine oil rubbed on the jaws, which should then be bound with a scarf, would reduce the pain from mumps. Aching limbs could be soothed by application of hot Epsom salts and turpentine or boiled cedar, which could also unstop the most stuffed-up nose. Palm of Christian leaves, applied directly to the affected area straight off the bush, drew out headache pain, while tea made from the leaves of the Jerusalem bush cured worms. Lighter fluid was another recommended rub for arthritis pain, as were poultices of boiled mullin leaves to reduce swelling and pain, and could cure dropsy as well. For rheumatism, a bottle of table salt mixed with red pepper could be rubbed onto the limbs, while coal oil and turpentine was applied under the throat and on the chest to cure colds.

Bit by a snake? Old folks would kill a chicken and extract the gall bladder, then apply it to the bitten area. No chickens available? They could draw out the snake poison with coal oil or kerosene and soda.

For small infants and children, there was a whole list of do’s and don’t’s to be observed. To stop hiccups, cross two broomstraws in the crown of the baby’s head. To cure whooping cough, ride a stud horse until he gets real hot, then let him breathe in the baby’s face. Cutting a baby’s fingernails with scissors meant he would steal, while putting his dirty diapers on the floor would give stomach pains. Colic could be cured by blowing smoke from a pipe into the baby’s diapers and onto the soft spot on top of the head. But if the top of the head was covered, the baby wouldn’t get colic in the first place.

bitter weed
Bitterweed

For chest colds, heat tallow and camphorated oil and rub onto chest and bottom of feet, or brown a piece of flannel to put on chest. For worms, hang a sack of garlic around the baby’s neck; to cure hernia, tape a quarter or 50-cent piece over navel. To ease the pains of teething, bore a hole in a silver dime and tie around neck with string. Bitterweed, boiled and steeped, was used to bathe a child with malaria. For diarrhea, tea made from white planton leaves was said to be effective, as well as a scorched spoonful of whiskey.

Besides the curatives, there were many practices and prohibitions to be kept in mind before and just after birth. A baby born with a veil (membrane) over its face would always see ghosts, it was thought. And don’t attract the baby’s attention from behind or above; looking back and up could cause crossed eyes. Strange sights, seen by a pregnant mother, might mark a baby, as could a mother’s strong cravings during pregnancy. If a child-bearing-age woman in her menses held a baby, it might cause bowel strain, to be cured by putting a piece of that lady’s silk underdrawers on the baby.

The baby was said to turn out to be just like the first person to take it outside and walk all the way around the house. And the nicest tradition of all was the belief that when a baby smiled in his sleep, you knew the angels were playing with him.

Even with more modern medical facilities available today, there are some elderly people in the rural reaches of West Feliciana who turn to the time-honored maxims and cures practiced through the generations. They know they can count on them to work, and they are as close as the nearest wooded field or forest or barnyard. They don’t have office hours, and they’re free. But in this wintry month, in the midst of colds and flu season, if you don’t have any hogs or hard-breathing stud horses and can’t identify bitterweed or Palm of Christian leaves, feel free to avail yourself of more modern medical facilities.
 

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Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).