Country cures: Concocted and kept


“Whisky was, of course, the recognized cure for snake bite, and I heard about a few men who dosed themselves liberally when threatened with a foot-long garter snake.

“Once while we were building our new house, my cousin Frank chopped his foot badly with an ax. My father bandaged it with strips cut from an old grainsack and gave him a teacupful of whisky from the bottle kept in the tool shed for just such emergencies.

“He was back at work within a week.

“Whisky was used to cure colds, chills and fever, and ‘summer complaint.’ One of our hired men who was bald as an egg doused his scalp regularly with Old Crow, thoroughly convinced that he would one day grow hair.”

– from Thrashin’ Time: Memories of a Montana Boyhood by Milton Shatraw

I think one of the most interesting chapters of country life’s history would be written on simple country cures.

Whisky. Whisky certainly seemed to be near the top of the list of those country cures, for humans and animals alike. “No home or farmstead should be without it,” one old country medical book states.

“Whisky can be poured on open bites and wounds, whisky can be consumed by the teaspoonful by the ailing of all ages, even those of the gentler female persuasion, pulling some back from the brink of death,” declares Dr. A.L. Sandford in The Family Medical Book dated 1904.

Watch the snake! When my great-grandfather was a young man, he “hired out” on to various farms in order to help his mother make ends meet. One man that Charlie worked for was known for admiring his whisky a little bit too much, and not necessarily for medicinal purposes only.

On his first day at work for this man, Charlie was told, “Don’t go near that trunk in the bank barn – no matter what else you do, don’t you dare go near that trunk.”

Charlie, being the curious type, continued to ponder why this was stressed with such importance. “Why? What’s in that trunk?” he couldn’t help but ask.

“I keep a black snake in there. You open that lid, that poisonous snake is likely to jump right up and bite you! You’d be dead before sundown,” Charlie was warned.

Taking a dare. Now, Charlie was just the type of young man to consider that dare. It weighed heavily on him as he walked past that trunk doing his farm chores, feeding hay, watering the horses and the milk cow.

One day, his curiosity got the best of him. He walked over to that trunk, mustering his courage to face that black snake once and for all. He slowly lifted the lid, leaning way back out of the way as the lid came open.

To his dismay, the “snake” was the type that carried an entirely different type of bite – inside was the bottle of some of the finest whisky around. Charlie said it was a boring discovery for a young man who was hoping to see a big, hissing black snake!

A ‘wonderful’ salve. My great-grandfather on the other side of my dad’s family tree came up with a country cure that is still healing us all. “Young’s Wonderful Salve” was made, packaged and marketed by Herbert Young in the 1920s, following a recipe brought over by our ancestor from Germany.

This incredibly potent-smelling salve in a little round tin was said to cure “blood poison and all other infections, boils, carbuncles, felons, soft corns, sunburn, gald, warts, bruises, tan, chilblains, eczema, insect and animal bites, cuts, shingles, inflammation, bed sores, stepping on rusty nails and thorns, rheumatism, aches, pains, etc.”

Camphor gum, balm of giliaid buds and elder bark were just a few of the ingredients. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t pleasant-smelling, but it certainly does heal when nothing else will!

Country cabinet. Among some of the other “cures” from the country medicine cabinet: Vicks Vapor Rub, iodine, mechurachome, syrup of ipecac, Epsom salts, smelling salts, strange-smelling poultice preparations.

And if all else failed, chicken noodle soup and warm milk would help to get a sick person well again.

Those really were the good old days of medicine!


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.