Home remedies through the ages
Rub a bite-size chunk of salt pork on your wart, bury the meat beneath a stone and the wart will disappear. When Bill Sorrell was a kid, that’s how you did away with the pesky growths. And it worked, says the 80-year-old Au Sable Forks native, but the burying step still mystifies him. Sorrell’s working-class family “didn’t run to the doctor for every little thing like today, that’s for sure,” he says.
Though life in an Adirondack mill town like the Forks during Sorrell’s childhood had medical perks you wouldn’t find in faraway farms and deep-woods hamlets—resident doctor, local pharmacy, nearby family and friends—health issues were usually dealt with at home, using handed-down recipes or advice from a knowing relative. Even if practitioners were accessible they were expensive, as were over-the-counter cures. Besides, there was plenty of stuff around the house, barn and forest to fix most maladies. Native Americans, the region’s first inhabitants, set the resourcefulness example, often sharing their botanical remedies with newbie neighbors. In 1535 explorer Jacques Cartier and his men, sailing on a northwest-passage-to-China quest, were iced-in near what is now Quebec. Scurvy killed most of the sailors, but the son of an Iroquois chief shared his people’s antidote for the disease—a tea of vitamin C–rich pine needles—sparing Cartier and the rest of his men.
In the early- to mid-20th century salt pork was a panacea in these parts. Cheap, readily accessible and relatively clean, the fat in it could soothe burns and the salt could heal cuts and sores. Jane Lawliss Murphy, in her 2003 memoir about West Chazy farm life Sugar on Snow, wrote that so much time barefooted meant cut feet were common, and, “Should the cut become infected, a small slice of salt pork was applied and bandaged into place. The salt soon ‘drew’ the pus to the surface where it could drain away.”
Martha Muzzy also championed the other white meat in a 1986 issue of New York Folklore that chronicled her clan’s home remedies: A cat scratch or hangnail that became red and swollen would be treated with a poultice of warm bread and milk, “but in my family, Dad would more likely go to the barrel of salt pork and cut a piece of fat to cover the area. Left on overnight, the swelling would be gone in the morning and infection with it.” She recalled that “many old timers went even fancier” to cure boils, “using ground salt pork, onion and yellow soap mixed with hen fat.” Muzzy wrote that one gentleman would treat his carbuncles by gathering “a quantity of lively fish worms … the red ones loved by fishermen, and bind them on the area affected. They were left there until the soreness was gone or the worms began to smell.”
The spring 1947 Farm Lore chapter of New York Folklore Quarterly had another fix for boils: “Soak lead BB shot in milk for eight days. Then pick the shot out of the rotten milk and take one daily. Use twelve BB shot to one pint of milk.”
Onions were a pantry staple that served triple duty as a decongestant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent. For earaches an elderly Blue Mountain Laker was known for her prescription of dripping the vegetable’s juice, as hot as possible, in the ear. Heated onions on the feet could also draw down a fever, according to a Farm Lore entry. The 1914 Domestic Medical Practice, a typewriter-size home-treatment bible, offered this for bronchitis: “Onion juice prepared by sprinkling sugar over sliced onions and pressing out the juice will relieve. Dose: One teaspoonful every two hours.” And for pneumonia: “Fry onions in lard or olive oil over a hot fire for two minutes without burning, place between layers of soft cloth. Use as hot as patient can stand.”
Muzzy’s family relied on sliced raw potatoes placed on the forehead and temples for headaches. Boiled pumpkinseeds solved kidney and urinary-tract problems at Murphy’s homestead. And lemonade consumed “boiling hot” could quell a severe cold or cough, according to Ted Aber’s 1980 Adirondack Folks. Or, he suggested, “To remove pimples from the face, one should dissolve in the juice of half a lemon a little common salt and apply the mixture on a piece of linen.”
You have to wonder if, after reading the Gems of Schroon Lake Cookery, a 1977 book of historical recipes and anecdotes, folks rushed out to snag a “Slippery Eel” —listed as an ingredient in Ella Stowell Tyrell’s cough syrup—rather than collect slippery elm, a tree with bark known for healing sore throats and coughs. There’s no mistaking Manoah Wilkins Book’s main ingredients in her recipe in the same collection. “Many have recovered from the beginnings of consumption by this broth alone,” she wrote. “Pick 20 Garden Snails out of their shells and pound them in a marble mortar. Take the hinder legs of 30 Frogs, pound them with the Snails and put them in a pot.” Add water, salt, turnips, a leek, pearl barley and saffron, boil “till there is but a quart left, strain without squeezing, and drink it in two messes.”
Helen Escha Tyler shared “‘make-shifts’ that our ancestors used” in her 1968 … In Them Thar Hills: Folks Tales of the Adirondacks. “We had a neighbor who told my mother that she had cured her son of bed-wetting by giving him a tea made from steeped up mice,” she remembered. “The strength of the tea, of course, depended on the number of mice one had to steep.” She continued, “I have heard, not too long ago, that to cure a baby or small child of the croup one should hold the head of a live frog in the child’s mouth for a while.”
Edith Bills, of Stony Creek, was probably just as horrified about the treatment for her infected foot as a kid getting an amphibian in the mouth. Originally published in a 1982 edition of the Adirondack Journal/Warrensburg–Lake George News, Bills recounted the time her Aunt Betty rushed by horse and buggy to her family farm on Roaring Brook Road. Cleaning the wound—caused by an embedded splinter—with turpentine or coating it with pine pitch didn’t stop the swelling or the red streaks that crept up her leg. So Aunt Betty sent Bills’s father to the barn for fresh cow manure. “Aunt Betty and Ma stuck my foot in the bag [with the manure] and tied it around my ankle.” That night Bills’s fever broke and the next day Aunt Betty removed the bag. “Inside was a small sharp piece of wood. There is no doubt in my mind that Aunt Betty saved my life.”