MORE TO THE STORY: Unlocking the secrets of home remedies | Columnists


It’s often hard to imagine what life must have been like 150 years ago. Our modern eyes are used to seeing things such as paved roads, streetlights, cars, phones and a myriad of devices that fill our lives with convenience. To imagine a time without these amenities is nearly impossible, yet our not-so-distant ancestors made lives for themselves with none of these things. For someone in the 19th century, a good road was one without ruts, and a nice home was one without a dirt floor. Suffice it to say, we have it easy these days.

Of all our modern conveniences, one that is often overlooked is modern medicine. Today, doctors can easily cure ailments that used to be of great concern and could even be deadly in some cases. What’s even more astonishing is that many of these “cures” or remedies can be bought over the counter at a corner convenience store. Something like a severe cold, which once posed a serious health threat, can now be treated by a trip to the gas station.

The pioneers who settled this land may have lacked modern medicines, but in some ways, they were able to “one-up” us when it came to treating an illness. Many people in modern times would be lost without Tylenol, Benadryl or just some simple cough drops. Those sturdy settlers who came to Minnesota in the 19th century, however, knew well how to forage for the right herbs or even concoct homemade medicines from household products. With that said, I thought this week would be a good time to browse through history and unlock some of our ancestors’ secrets when it comes to home remedies.

Dysentary: One of the most common and deadly sicknesses a person on the frontier could get was dysentery. Settlers who contracted this sickness often did so by drinking water contaminated with bacteria, especially from feces. The sickness would cause severe diarrhea and would often dehydrate the person to the point that it was life-threatening. A cure or treatment was to dissolve a large quantity of table salt into a bottle of pure vinegar, let it ferment, then store it away. One large spoonful of the concoction treated not only dysentery, but also colic.

Scarlet fever and diphtheria: Scarlet fever, as it was called by the settlers, was a form of strep throat that caused a red rash that could spread on the entire body. Those who found themselves with the sickness would have a high fever, sore throat, headache and nausea. To treat Scarlet fever, pioneers combined fresh milk, turpentine and pulverized charcoal together. The concoction was then gargled as a way to ease the throat symptoms.

Headache: Just as we do today, settlers dealt with headaches often. With no Tylenol around, however, the settlers found that charcoal was an effective treatment. To ease a headache, people took pulverized charcoal and mixed it with baking soda and warm water. One teaspoon was said to be effective.

Corns: Corns are not a sickness, of course, but still a bothersome ailment of the foot. They are caused by friction of the toes, and settlers who worked tirelessly found themselves to have many foot ailments. Today we can cure a corn by purchasing corn pads at a drug store. Settlers, however, found that applying axle grease, meant for a wagon or carriage, to the affected area worked wonders for reducing the friction between toes that caused a corn. I’m sure it made their feet smell wonderful as well.

Toothache: Nothing is worse than a toothache, except maybe the thought of going to the dentist in the first place — blech. At any rate, for most settlers who were out on the frontier, dental work had to wait, as a dentist who could pull a bad tooth was likely few and far between. Settlers found that though they couldn’t cure a toothache without pulling the tooth, they could slow the tooth decay long enough to get a person to a dentist. They found that powdered alum would relieve the pain as well as prevent decay. Salt could also be mixed with the alum as an extra antiseptic.

Modern medicine has certainly made the soothing of an ailment an easy task, and if given the choice, our ancestors likely would trade their home remedies for our convenient, over-the-counter medicines. With that in mind, it’s always good to know how our great-grandparents dealt with an illness.

As a historian, I think it’s safe to say that you never know what the future might bring, and a time may come when you might need to pulverize some charcoal or drink some salt and vinegar to ease a future ailment.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1-4 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. Admission is free. For more information, call the museum at 320-587-2109.

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