Appalachian Medicine Medicinal Remedies

Doctoring in Appalachia

medicine bottle

“I mentioned in this blog a long time ago that my Appalachian elders doctored everything with moonshine and turpentine! 

I forgot that my papaw used onions a lot…cooked them, wrapped in a cloth, laid on the chest for croup or bronchitis….he ate them daily, too, along with apples….lived to 89. I think we must have been tougher then.

We did not seem to get as sick as folks do now. We ate better…we walked everywhere we went. Of course kids got hurt, but going to the doctor was rare.

I went only once I remember…when I woke with a bad swollen eyelid and mommy somehow got me to a doctor that said it was a spider bite. I still react like that to insect bites. 

I remember putting spider web in a cut to stop the bleeding…tobacco juice on a bee sting…butter and salt used on mosquito and other insect bites….warmed sweet oil dropped in a child earache. 

My maternal papaw was a miracle man….was born with powers….could draw out burn and stop bleeding by saying a Bible verse…could cure thrush in a baby’s mouth by breathing his breath into that baby. My paternal mamaw could buy your wart away.

A century ago , my own great granny learned to read and write at age 50 so she could pass the state test to be a midwife in our Va…Ky  mountain area….she was said to carry a knife in her bag to slip under the bed of the woman in labor then whisper to her….I’m here and I have cut your pain in half now. Great grandma Nancy Emmeline  McGuinness Collins own signature is on my mommy’s birth certificate.”

—Kat Swanson

I wish I had all the medicinal knowledge our ancestors utilized. Pap’s grandmother, who we called Big Grandma, ate onions every day because she said it was good for your health. She lived to be 84.

Last night’s video: I Couldn’t Resist the Seeds! | Starting Peppers, Cabbage, Beets, Poppies, and Kohlrabi.


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  • Reply
    Jim Taylor
    February 17, 2022 at 8:26 am

    When we were kids, if we had an upset stomach, mama would make a mixture of sugar, water, and a teaspoon of paregoric (look it up). (Daddy had colon cancer and had an “open prescription” for paregoric). If we did that today, they’d lock us up.

    Also, anyone ever use children’s Dimetapp when going on a long road trip?

  • Reply
    February 12, 2022 at 9:02 pm

    My mom and dad used most of those on me as a child. They didn’t take us to no doctor. I had a bad toothache one time, My dad made moonshine for a living. He got me some and told me to hold it on my tooth. I did that for 4, 5, 6, times. It killed the nerve . That tooth never did hurt me again.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    Has anyone ever heard of asafoetida? I’ve known old timers who wore it in little cloth pouches on a cord around their necks. Never knew what it was supposed to do.

    • Reply
      February 12, 2022 at 4:23 pm

      Robert-I’ve read and heard stories about it. The theory was it kept germs at bay 🙂

  • Reply
    February 12, 2022 at 12:32 am

    Kay’s story sounded a lot like my mom’s way of doctoring us kids. We were only taken to a doctor if it was something my mom couldn’t fix or cure. I only remember going to doctor twice as a child. My grandpa on my mom’s side had the gift of curing thrush by breathing in a baby’s mouth. He did it on my nephew and it really did cure him. Kay is right, we ate fresh home cooked meals, walked everywhere and were way healthier than people are now days. Her article brought back a lot of good memories and good reminders. Thank you for sharing!

  • Reply
    Gaye Blaine
    February 11, 2022 at 11:58 pm

    Mama said she could “draw fire”; however this was not true of her. She would blow her hot breath on a burn I had and it hurt even worse!!! But then I had the thrush when small. Mama took me to a neighbor. She took me from mama, went behind her house and brought me back. The thrush was cured! She would not tell what she had said or done. So there is something to these old time remedies.

  • Reply
    Gloria Hayes
    February 11, 2022 at 5:01 pm

    I wanted to share this one because I have never heard of it and maybe someone else has but it worked for my husband. When he as was a little boy around 5 years old, he had some warts on his hand. Well, the remedy back then was to go and get a washcloth from someone else’s house and bury it under your back doorsteps if they were wooden or easy enough to get to. Then in a few days the warts would be gone. Well sure enough, it worked!! Warts went away and never came back.

    • Reply
      Jim Taylor
      February 17, 2022 at 8:20 am

      My maternal uncle had warts on his hand. Granny took him to the local witch who went into her house and did “something” – they didn’t see what she did. She told them that he’d be OK in a few days. Sure enough, they went away.

      My father-in-law had a similar story about him visiting an old Indian.

      I’ve heard that warts are susceptible to the mind.

  • Reply
    Darlene Harbour Boyd
    February 11, 2022 at 2:38 pm

    My husband grandmother was a midwife in our area. His father was born in late January. In early May his grandmother was called to a birth and took him with her since he was so young and still nursing. That May day a pretty little girl was born. Years later he married that pretty lady. He enjoyed telling everyone that he picked he out the day she was born! Now ain’t that the sweetest story. I never got to meet him but I have the best mother-in-law in the world. Everybody loves Granny Annie

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    February 11, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    We used to go Bennett’s Drug Store in Bryson City to buy powdered charcoal, flowers of sulphur and potassium nitrate. All three were used as medicine at that time (early 1960’s). We didn’t used them for that purpose though. We mixed them all together and made black powder. We made our own fireworks with it. We even made a cannon one time. We used a sledge hammer to beat one end of a 2 inch pipe flat and then folded it over to seal it off. We drilled a little hole in the side for a fuse. We made wooden “bullets” to fit in the barrel. We never could hit anything with our contraption except the one time we blew a hole in Uncle Wayne’s barn.

    • Reply
      February 12, 2022 at 4:03 pm

      You’re giving me ideas, Ed! 🙂

  • Reply
    February 11, 2022 at 1:01 pm

    Peroxide or Merthiolate was the method of choice for treating wounds and hurt almost as bad as the wound itself. Merthiolate turned pink when applied.
    I have used salt, in a pinch, to keep a wound from getting infected, and clay from the ground to treat poison-ivy rash (no open blisters).
    Have seen moonshine used in an IV to treat dogs that have ingested antifreeze.

  • Reply
    Robin Fesmire
    February 11, 2022 at 12:55 pm

    I enjoyed this post so much, love learning about the old remedies, in my opinion one of the most important parts of our heritage to preserve. We had a friend here who lived to be way into his 90s. He said his mother and grandmother were both granny witches and he would have no part of modern medical doctors. I so wanted to ask him lots of questions, but, bless his heart, he couldn’t hear worth a darn so he couldn’t understand, never learned to read or write either. He was adamant about the power of Ezekiel 16:6 in stopping bleeding, said it would “cut off the blood like a valve, just like a valve.”

  • Reply
    Geri Caruso
    February 11, 2022 at 10:56 am

    I see that you generally post only positive comments and I understand that. I also understand that old remedies seem to help and in some situations the may and they are interesting to hear about. There are times however when they didn’t work and not everyone lived into their 80s and 90s.. My grandmother had some hocus pocus with olive oil and water to help with my headaches…. however they didn’t stop until I got glasses… There was a lot of suffering that could have been prevented with decent dental care, antibiotics, immunizations and today’s “scientific” treatments. I do understand where you are coming from but I would hate to think that someone relied on a “natural” cure now, that I talked about and failed to get appropriate care.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    February 11, 2022 at 10:40 am

    My granny delivered several of her own grandchildren as well as many other babies. She delivered her own twin girls alone–Grandpa left on horseback to fetch the doctor and the lady staying with Granny panicked and ran away. She said that when Grandpa & the doctor arrived she just folded back the covers & showed them the twins. She had 19 children in all.

    She was one powerful woman–would descend on terrible housekeepers in the community with buckets & rags & “help” them clean up. I often think that if she could see my terrible housekeeping, she’d descend on me!!

  • Reply
    Sharon Cole
    February 11, 2022 at 10:36 am

    My mother quoted a Bible verse to stop bleeding. I never heard of anyone else doing that. The sad thing is I never learned the verse and don’t know where it is in the Bible. Take care and God bless

  • Reply
    Ron Bass
    February 11, 2022 at 9:54 am

    I still use kerosene for cuts and scrapes, works great.

  • Reply
    February 11, 2022 at 9:40 am

    Growing up, the doctor told Daddy to make cough syrup out of whiskey, honey, and lemon juice. It took care of a coughing spell, all right. Sometimes he would put whiskey on a teaspoon of sugar and give it to us for a cough. That killed the cough, too. The pharmaceutical companies don’t want to hear about herbal medicines and other old-time remedies because it would put them out of business. In the past, people got more exercise and ate healthier diets. Everything was fresh. Kids played outside after school, even when it was cold. Mama always said we needed our fresh air and exercise.

  • Reply
    February 11, 2022 at 9:20 am

    When my father was a toddler, he somehow got near a scythe and cut his big toe nearly clean off. It was just hanging on by a thread. His mother, my Mamaw, mixed up some turpentine and molasses and glued his toe back on. That toe grew back and never gave him any trouble. Mamaw said the turpentine was to disinfect the wound and the molasses was the glue to hold it on. Old time medicine really did work.

  • Reply
    Sharon Schuster
    February 11, 2022 at 9:03 am

    Daddy could and did remove warts. You never knew when he did it. Something with his little finger As I recall. His mother was a “doctor” in the mountains of North Carolina. Folks came to her for poultices and mixtures that worked. I remember turpentine, sulphur, powders and other natural ingredients being smeared, spooned, wrapped up or otherwise applied to me and others. God provides.

  • Reply
    February 11, 2022 at 8:52 am

    Mom did all the doctoring at home with Soltice, liniment, turpentine, Vick’s Salve, mercurochrome, iodine and methylate, all the proven cures that can’t be bought in the store any longer. We can still buy Chickweed Salve and I make sure my medicine cabinet is stocked with plenty at all times. If onions are good for a person, I should be a picture of health.

    • Reply
      Wanda Devers
      February 11, 2022 at 10:41 am

      Shirl, Daddy used to “paint” our sore throats with methylade on swabs. It sure was an awful procedure and I’m not sure it helped much.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    February 11, 2022 at 8:16 am

    Here’s a sure fire diaper rash or bad chafing cure from my daddy’s grandmother (who was also my mother because mine was worthless.) Take flour, place in a cast iron skillet and PARCH it brown in the pan. After cooling, put in a container and use on every diaper change. In the military, this saved many a baby from being miserable as I passed it along and got 100 percent CURE rate in no time. The old ways worked. As a nurse, let me tell you, I will never trust greedy and evil so called medical care (for a PROFIT should be your big clue here) again! Never, ever trust someone blindly who stands to make 400,000$ off your death at this time. Funeral directors have never seen the young and old and unborn dying on such a massive scale as this… turn the tv on and believe every word from the masters.

    • Reply
      Robin Fesmire
      February 11, 2022 at 12:26 pm

      All my family did this, too, Margie! As a baby my niece had terrible allergies and her little bottom would get miserably inflamed. My mama told my sister to scorch some flour. It sure helped when nothing else gave relief.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    February 11, 2022 at 8:09 am

    We’ve come a long way since faith healing, home remedies and just toughing it out. Now I wonder which is the biggest industry, medicine or politics. Awful easy to get snared into an endless round of specialists and prescriptions, seems to me.

    Back in the day, couldn’t rely on what was not there. And no point in carrying a grudge about things that could not be changed. Just get on with life, even if it was rough and ready with rugged edges. I expect if a comparison could be made there was a great difference between then and now in deciding what one could and should risk. Then common life had more and greater risks than most people ever encounter now. That alone fostered self-reliance.

  • Reply
    February 11, 2022 at 7:49 am

    We have come a long way but it hasn’t all been good. Lots of people have jobs sitting in front of computers all day in a stuffy office and don’t get outside or do any manual labor. Then there’s all the stuff added to our food, cosmetics, cleaning products and such. It’s no wonder we get sick. We would do well to go back to some of these old Appalachian ways of working, eating and doctoring.

  • Reply
    Larry Paul Eddings
    February 11, 2022 at 7:22 am

    Folks in Appalachia learned to make do with what they had. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 11, 2022 at 7:01 am

    All my younger life we used turpentine for all cuts, scrapes and all things that broke the skin. It was what my mother’s family used. I thought nothing about it. We all just used it. Then as an adult when my turpentine container was all used up, I went to the drugstore to get a new bottle and it wasn’t there. I asked someone in the store where it was and she had no idea, she had never heard of it. So, I asked the pharmacist and she said, no, they didn’t have any turpentine and that it was poison, not safe to use on your body. I told her I had used it all my life and that turpentine would take the soreness out of cuts and scrapes as well as disinfect the areas.
    The woman scolded me saying it was poisonous and should never be used on the skin. I went to another pharmacy and then another. I never found it for sale again!

    • Reply
      February 11, 2022 at 8:43 am

      We used turpentine too, especially for cuts. I had to bad cuts on my feet that were doctored with turpentine, and they healed well. I can see the scars after all these years.
      You can get turpentine from amazon but it sure ain’t cheap.

      • Reply
        Ed Ammons
        February 11, 2022 at 9:59 am

        I’ll bet turpentine is cheaper on amazon than modern medicine is at a pharmacy!

      • Reply
        Garland Davis
        February 11, 2022 at 11:06 am

        Miss Cindy, follow this link for turpentine and other turpentine based products:

      • Reply
        February 12, 2022 at 3:54 pm

        You can get turpentine at paint stores, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. Be sure it says ‘pure turpentine’.

        We used to buy a pine oil product called Apinol (sp?). I don’t know if it is still sold. I always suspected it was a purified distillation of turpentine.

        That pharmacist was interested in selling drugs at a profit and had drank the Kool Aid at pharmacy school, I suspect.

    • Reply
      February 11, 2022 at 12:22 pm

      I bet if you go to the paint store, you can find “turp” (turpentine).

  • Reply
    February 11, 2022 at 6:31 am

    Great post, chewing tobacco and spider webs are also in memories I have going up as remedies. My farther would go to the sheriff’s office to get a pint of (confiscated) moonshine and mix with rock candy for coughing and colds.
    I think the statement “walked everywhere ” may have indirectly attributed to our parents and grandparents health.

    • Reply
      Sheryl Paul
      February 11, 2022 at 8:23 am

      I remember my mother using mustard and onions on my chest for a bad cold wrapped with a piece of flannel. I rememer her using that same thing when we got what was called ground itch from playing in mud puddles. I don’t remember going to a dr much either.
      Mont to Bee is right about our food and life style. It is horrible

  • Reply
    February 11, 2022 at 6:27 am

    We were always taught onions were good for you, and Mom’s entire family loved them. We had a cousin midwife in Wyoming County, and she helped deliver babies for many years. What I thought was really strange was an older friend had helped deliver many babies before the 1980s in a local hospital with absolutely no schooling. They said Millie was the best there ever was. When they built the new hospital, she was demoted to Unit Secretary as part of a move to receive Joint Commission accreditation. I recall a patient with a lung bleed at the hospital had his family to brew some herbs. He would sip from a pint jar, and the bleeding subsided. I recall the doc being mystified but very interested. It was my good fortune to have been a part of the use of old timey remedies, but later learning about the latest in modern medicine. I always felt the modern medicine as we know it today missed the boat by not putting more emphasis on prevention and natural remedies. My personal opinion is after reading up on it, Sassafras might be one of the greatest preventatives there is.
    Dad had been secretly instructed by his uncle on the gift of drawing heat from a burn, but never actually made a deal out of it until my sister received a burn. She remembers him successfully removing the heat with his breath. Dad was extremely unpretentious and never really let any know of this. Thanks to Kat Swanson for sharing her memories on this subject.

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