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Medicinal Remedies From Appalachia

As far as sickness goes-last winter was the worst we've had since the girls started school. Illnesses started before Christmas and lasted clean till May. Chitter and Chatter had strep throat about 5 times between them-of course they never had it simultaneously-you know when just one of those expensive tests would have been enough to prescribe medication for both of them-no they had it individually, usually a few weeks to a month apart.

So far this winter we've missed out on the sickness-well everyone but me. Apparently during all the Breaking Up Christmas and New Year's Contra Dancing I caught something. Something that will not go away. Coughing, sneezing, wheezing-folks around here call it the crud. Not sick enough to warrant a doctor visit-just enough to make you feel miserable.

Many parts of Appalachia are off the beaten path-and in years past that sometimes meant going to see a Doctor wasn't an option even if it was needed. But people did get sick and did need help-this led to many "home remedies" being used. A few old remedies:

For Chest Congestion:

* Place rock candy in a little whiskey to make a thick syrup-drink a few spoonfuls several times a day
* Make an onion poultice by roasting an onion-wrap it in a cloth-beat it until the juice soaks the cloth-then apply
cloth to chest. (Pap's grandmother swore onions were the key to good health-she ate one everyday)
* Render the fat from a polecat-eat two or three spoonfuls to bring up phlegm (I'm afraid that would bring up more
than phlegm)
* Take a flannel shirt and soak it with turpentine and lard-then wear it all winter (your family might make you live in
the barn)

For Colds:

* Boil pine needles to make a strong tea
* Eat a mixture of honey and vinegar
* Eat onions roasted in ashes
* Suck salty water up your nose (the Deer Hunter does this even when he's not sick-he claims it makes it easier
to breathe)

For Coughs:

* Mix one teaspoon of white whiskey with a pinch of sugar-heat over a fire-and drink
* Mix ground ginger with sugar-put on tongue just before bedtime to stop cough
* Mix honey in hot tea and drink
* Dissolve four sticks of horehound candy in a pint of liquor and take a couple of spoonfuls

For Sorethroats

* Bake onions in fireplace and tie around your throat
* Gargle with honey and vinegar
* Gargle with warm salt water (Pap always made me do this when I was sick as a kid)
* Take a sock a man has worn for a week of working and tie it around your neck (oh my)
* To burn tonsils out paint them several times a day with iodine and turpentine (folks thought if you didn't have
tonsils-it would cut down illnesses-kinda like having your tonsils removed today does. I've had some older folks
tell me they don't have any tonsils-because they wasted away from being sick as a child.)

For The Flu

* Boil 2 roots of wild ginger in a cup of water-strain and drink
* Drink some of the brine from Kraut-it makes you thirsty and you drink lots of water-washing the sickness away

Anyone who has ever spent a sleepless night with a sick child, knows how helpless you feel. Imagine how you'd feel without modern medicine-no antibiotics, no fever/pain reducers to ease their suffering. I imagine the "homemade remedies" the old folks came up with made them feel less helpless-made them feel like they were at least making an effort-made them feel like they had something to believe in-a hope in getting their loved ones better.

It's funny to read through the old remedies-but some of them are not that far off from todays medicine. Many many of them include whiskey or liquor-but have you ever read how much alcohol is in cough/cold medicines-a lot. And Doctors today still suggest you drink warm tea with honey. I believe through trial and error past generations helped point modern medicine in the right direction.

Hope you'll leave me a comment and tell me if you have ever used any of the remedies. To read more about my Appalachian Heritage please visit the Blind Pig & The Acorn.


p.s. I used The Foxfire Book for reference.

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Comment by Lynn Salsi on February 4, 2009 at 10:24am
Ray Hicks said that the Daddy of a family down the mountain, (but not in the holler), nigh where the school house stood, hunted pole cat for his livin'. "Gah, the smell that come from that house would make ya' hold your breath to walk by." It caused him to wonder what was going on there.

He found out the man couldn't stand discarding the meat of the animal after selling the fur. One of the children went to school with Ray and invited him in after school one day. Ray said,"The ol' man was settin' at the table spreadin' the whitest lookin' butter on a piece of bread he had ever seed."

Turns out, the man had rendered pole cat fat and was using it like butter. Ray said their house smelt so bad that he couldn't stay but managed to say, "no thank you," on his way out the door. I love the story and put it in my book "The Life and Times of Ray Hicks, Keeper of the Jack Tales." I never heard him relate this anecdote while digressing during a Jack tale, nor did he refer to the fact that the pole cat "butter" might help cure something. He did say that his granddaddy had asthma and "smelt of a pole cat sac when he was short of breath." He kept it in a jar. (This is the short version.)
Comment by Rick Russell on January 24, 2009 at 6:22pm
Here are some cures I found in Robert Henry's writing. Robert Henry was one of the first settlers in Buncombe County and one of the first doctors. These are probably from the early 1800's.

Cholera Morbus, or Puking and Purging

I will state a case that I attended not long ago and that will give you a general view how such cases would be treated by me.

Mrs. Hogan had been taken with puking and purging. She was far advanced in her complaint. She was accustomed to profuse cold sweats. She was cold in the arms and legs. The puking and purging were severe.


I discovered I could not interfere with the purging, for everything that she would take internally she immediately threw back, hence I considered in the puking must first be stopped. To effect this, I applied a plaster of mustard and proceeded to wet with warm vinegar to the pit of her stomach and at the same time applied a cloth wrung out of cold water, let this remain about ten minutes. This stopped the puking.

I then gave her a drink of strong ginger as warm as she could drink it, to heat the stomach. She retained this [well]. Then about half an hour passed [?] to stop the purging.

Cold or Catarrh

The following cure I discovered by accident. When a small boy I was fond of raw onions and my mother raised a number of them. She had gathered her crop of them and I went into the garden and found occasion to eat as many of them as I wanted, and having a bad cold and severe cough discharging tough mucous or canker.

On the next day I observed my discharge was of a yellow consistency easily thrown off, and in a very short time the cough ceased. I followed this remedy in future with effect. I afterwards discovered that garlick was more potent than onions, and found that by taking pulverized sulphur at the time of taking the onion was such a help.

For small children the frequent use of the piece of roasted or boiled onion will prevent cold or cough. The best way is to take a large onion and split it in the middle and take out a small piece of the heart of the onion. Fill that vacancy with pulverized brimstone, then put the two parts of the onion together. Wrap a leaf or corn shuck round the onion and roast it and press out the juice and give that to him cold.

It is a good cure for either cough, croup or cold, though this is to be taken often until relief is had. It is also a good cure for cough in grown persons.

Another cure, when a person is troubled with a cold or cough, that if he will take a drink of warm whiskey for a few times it will remove the cough.

If you are troubled with sneezing and coughing, the incipient stage of a cold, sit with your back to a warm fire and your sneezing will stop in a few minutes.

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