Copyright © 1955, 1973
The Spindale Press, Spindale, N. C.
Illustrations by John Pike
Excerpts printed with permission
People of the South Mountains
The South Mountains in North Carolina comprise minor ranges which branch eastward from the main Blue Ridge and extent for nearly forty miles to form the boundaries between McDowell and Burke Counties on the north and Rutherford and Cleveland Counties on the south. They are typical of the smaller Appalachian ranges, being rugged and cut into gorges by water courses which, as they pass into the foothills, are surrounded by small fertile valleys. In 1912 the South Mountains presented a formidable barrier between these four counties, so much so that most travel went east or west around the mountains, instead of by the rough direct roads which were impassable even to wagon traffic in rainy weather.
The district in which I practiced extended on the south from two railway lines at Bostic to Burke County on the north; and I had calls which carried me into all four counties. My home and office was at the Pea Ridge Cross Roads, six miles northwest of Bostic and five miles from Sunshine, a small village beautifully located at the foot of Cherry Mountain Peak and at the entrance to the gap leading into the South Mountains. The district was thickly populated and I soon came to realize that most of the families were related either by birth or marriage. And their dialect and superstitions were interesting, as was also the fact that there were a number of older women who sang “love ditties,” as they called the current ballads of the hill country, although the singing of these was frowned upon by the church folks. But above all, I was interested in the diseases of the South Mountains and the remedies employed in the system of folk medicine which had grown up in districts rarely visited by a doctor.
Local Diseases and Remedies
Early in my practice I learned that the usual point of view as regards health was that everyone is more or less ill – and in this they were fairly right. If a man were asked about the health of his family, more often than not he would tell you that he himself is “tolerable” or ”jest middlin’ ”; that “the ole ‘oman is ailin’ as usual”; and that one or more of the “chaps is right puny”. Dyspepsia was found in almost all adults and children, being caused from eating thick soggy corn pone or half-cooked wheat bread, with greasy vegetables, and too much salt pork. Bad sanitary conditions, or a total lack of any kind of sanitation, existed at practically every home and, as might be expected, typhoid and the diarrheas, and other bowel ailments were common. Other complaints were “pneumony fever”, “side pleurisy”, “joint rheumatism”, “jumping toothache”, the “bloody flux”, and the “gallopin’ consumption”, to give the more descriptive designations of well-known diseases.
There was an outbreak of milk sickness (“trembles”) among the cows during the autumn I was in the region, with two cases of “milk sickness” among the people. This is the disease that is said to have killed Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln. It was caused by cows eating poisonous weeds, according to popular belief, though at the time I never found anyone who knew the particular plant that brought on the condition. The disease is really serious and may prove fatal to the cow or to human beings who drink her fresh milk or eat the fresh butter; but I was told that the disease is not transmitted by buttermilk. The symptoms are a violent digestive upset with nausea, vomiting, and great weakness. The local treatment was an emetic, followed by a purge, and frequent doses of brandy and honey, which treatment was as good as any I knew. There were a number of interesting beliefs regarding milk sickness; milk from a sick cow was said not to foam and that a silver coin would turn black when it came in contact with the milk. I was unable to verify either of these reports. Many mountain people, especially the older ones, had a strong aversion to milk and butter and refused to eat either. Fear of milk sickness may have been the cause, for I was told that the disease had been much more prevalent a generation before than at the time I lived in the district.
The Cherry Mountain Telephone System
Rural telephone systems became popular in western North Carolina about this time (1912) and community exchanges were established in many thickly populated districts. The Cherry Mountain Telephone System had just been installed in the South Mountains country. This “neighborhood telephone,” as it was called, consisted of twenty or more “lines” radiating from the central office at Mr. Monty High’s on Cherry Mountain. Each subscriber provided his own telephone and his part of the cost and work of putting up the wires and installing the instruments. The “center office” was run by “Ole man Monty’s gals,” and each subscriber paid twenty-five cents per month for central office service.
There were from twelve to twenty telephones on each “line”; so there had to be a variety of “rings” to differentiate calls to the different homes. One long followed by three short rings, for instance, called my home. Since every phone rang when any instrument on the line was used, the telephone was a convenient means of exchanging community news and gossip; and whenever a call was made every receiver on the line would be taken down and every home listened-in on the conversation.
A few days after my phone had been installed, I received my first call to visit the home of Big Willie Thornbeck. The telephone rang: “Air the docter at home?” a voice inquired.
“This is the doctor speaking.”
“Is that you, Doc? This is Big Willie Thornbeck’s house and Big Willie wants you ter come an’ see him right away. I ‘low he’s real sick from the way he’s takin’ on.
“You say – what’s wrong o’ him? He says ter tell you he’s been er usin’ of ‘is new tellerfone too much an’ the ‘lectricity from it has upsot ‘is nerves from head ter foot. I’ll tell ‘im you’ll come afore nightfall.”
During the week the central office opened I had been called to see Greenbury Hardin, who had moved his bed close beside the telephone so he might hear the conversation after he had retired and had gone to sleep with the receiver on his pillow. A thunderstorm came during the night; the line was struck and his telephone, not being properly installed, was wrecked. Greenbury was badly frightened and the shock made him deaf for a few days. But there had been no storm since and, as I drove to his home, I wondered what had happened to Big Willie Thornbeck.
He was in bed and appeared in a daze; at irregular intervals he would grind his teeth and his body would jerk and his muscles twitch. At first he was slow to answer questions, but he soon became talkative.
“Yes, Doc,” he related, “the ‘lectricity ‘as got my nerves all onstrung. It come on gradual-like as I stood a-listenin’ with my elbow restin’ on the tall box and the black ‘ceiver-thing to my ear. In fact, I could feel the lightnin’ come in at my elbow and race up my arm and ’round my neck and into my head, and then go down the spine o’ my back. Doc, is it real lightnin’ what comes over the wires ter carry the talk?”
Examination showed nothing that would cause such symptoms; so I explained as best I could the mechanism of the telephone and ended by saying: “The small amount of electricity that you might receive from the telephone couldn’t possibly do you any harm. In fact, your nerves must be in better condition than most people’s nerves to detect any electricity at all. I have been telephoning most of my life and I never had any trouble like this.”
“Yes, Doc, but you’s been brought up on tellerfones and sich things but we South Mountain folks ain’t usen ter ’em. Jest look what happened ter Greenbury Hardin. Warn’t it ‘lectricity what tore down ‘is tellerfone and knocked hell out o’ him besides?”
The patient gave a long yawn.
“How much of your time have you spent at the telephone?” I asked.
“Well, ter tell yer the truth, I can’t egzactly say, but I ‘low it’s been a right smart bit.”
“He’s stood or sot at that ‘air tellerfone fer forty hours han’ runnin’,” broke in his wife. ”I been tellin’ ‘im they ain’t airy thing wrong of him ‘cep’ loss of sleep an’ that he ought to be ‘shamed of hisself ter pester you ter come all of ten miles with nothin’ serious er ailin’ of ‘im.”
The patient groaned as he said, “But Doc, shorely there’s somethin’ you can give a feller ter quiet ‘is nerves. You can feel my pulse, how it races up an’ down my arm, an’ tell somethin’ bad is wrong. I sont fer you ter get med’sin’; an’ I mus’ have med’sin’, no matter if it were brung on by standin’ too much at that ‘air tellerfone.”
I went out to my buggy medicine-case to look for a “nerve quieter.” A top bottle was filled with pink “Infant Laxative – Mild” tablets, each containing one-tenth grain of calomel flavored with wintergreen. Two dozen were carried to the patient.
“Air these nerve strengtheners as well as nerve quieters?” he asked as I was preparing to leave. “Because I’ve spent out a matter o’ ‘leben dollars on this here tellerfone and it’d be a fair calamity if I couldn’t ever use it ergin.”
Big Willie phoned the next day that he had slept well and was feeling much better. A few weeks later I received a letter with a one dollar bill enclosed from a man in an adjoining county. It read:
“Dear Sir: I am jest returned home from a visit to my cousin Big Willie Thornbeck. He gave me some of the pink nerve pills he got from you and I write to say that them there pills done my nerves more good than a hundred Dollar worth of nerve medsin I have used in the past four year and I am a person who frequents doctors. Enclose a Dollar bill for which please send me the worth of the same nerve pills and oblige, yours truly, Lum Vincent.”
In the care of typhoid fever cases very little medicine is needed, good nursing being the most important part of the treatment. But in the South Mountains a doctor was expected to give medicine and the patient and his family were disappointed if medicine was not supplied. Because of this I used boiled water, colored red, as routine in my typhoid cases and found it went far toward satisfying the family as regards medicine; and, as it was prescribed to be given in tablespoonful doses in a full glass of water, it insured the patient’s getting enough water. As I had good luck with such cases, their recovery was usually ascribed to the “red fever mixture.” However, on one occasion when a boy was sent on muleback for more than a dozen miles to my office to get a bottle of this red fever mixture, I could not help but feel guilty of deception – or something.