The Old Ozark Grannywomen
Midwives Of The Ozarks
Grannywomen were midwives of the Ozark Mountains in the 1800’s. They also knew the correct local plants and herbs needed in treating illness and wounds. So, they were the modern day physician’s counterpart, so to speak.
Doctors did exist, but they were so few and far between in the Ozarks and Appalachians they couldn’t be counted on to be available. Not to mention most mountain folk were too poor to afford one anyway. On the other hand grannywomen didn’t charge for their services.
And if a doctor was available, they were usually inadequately trained. Doctors in the Civil War, for instance, didn’t know about bacteria or washing hands. Their education levels were inconsistent and most states at that time lacked standardized licensing.
My .great grandmother was a grannywoman. She was born in 1865 in Crawford County, amongst the beautiful Boston Mountains. Her entire life was spent there. She passed on her knowledge to her two daughters which was the custom back then.
I grew up in my early years with my grandmother on her farm in the Ozarks. I can recall many times she would go off gathering sassafras roots or poke salat down by the creek. Salat is German for salad, and probably came to the Ozarks with German immigrants.
Poke salat is made from Pokeweed. When it’s mature the plant has clusters of shiny purple berries. She used it to ease arthritis pain. Grandmother also used to boil the sassafras roots to make tea or a homemade root beer. Some use the tea as a blood purifier or spring tonic. However, be forewarned.
Sassafras is dangerous in more than tiny amounts and a spoonful of the extract can kill a child. The old folks I remember in our small rural community of Lancaster Township, also claimed it was good as a mild anticoagulant.
Early Ozark Settlers
Early Ozark settlers eagerly awaited cooking the first green leaves of pokeweed because it was a good source of vitamins. People still cook and eat poke salat in the early spring. However, the plant is poisonous and it must be prepared properly. Grandmother always had me wash the poke salat thoroughly, and then she showed me how to boil them. You had to boil them once, pour off the water and then boil them again.
Another common plant used by Ozark Folk was the Willow Tree. Tea made from the inner bark was used to reduce fever and alleviate pain. This is actually a common medicine today, as aspirin is actually made from the Willow Tree so I never saw grandmother make any of that.
There were many things I never saw grandmother do, but times were becoming more modern in the mid 50’s and folks could usually afford to buy things they needed from a drugstore. But I do remember sitting around the fireplace and listening to her and her neighbors talk about how things used to be.
Black Walnut Tree
For instance there was a big old Black Walnut tree in her yard. She told about how her mother once treated her for ringworm using a poultice made from the crushed outer hulls. I was impressed with how much she knew with only a formal 6th grade education.
I had a great aunt nearby who used to make medicine from Elderberry leaves. They were used to treat injuries and stop bleeding. She would use the berries to make vinegar, or a wine which she used as a tonic. It must have worked since she lived to be 101 years old. It was also a treatment for colds and respiratory infections. Root Diggers are still active in the Ozarks and many wild herbs have been over harvested.
Grannywomen collected plants, made tonics, poultices, salves and other medicinal treatments from natural resources found in their environment. They also delivered babies. Grannywomen in small Ozark communities knew just about every young person around since they were probably the midwife at their birth.
Although many of their remedies did have medicinal value, as confirmed by today’s science, not all cures were attributed to them. Superstition played a major role in the lives of these mountain people. Grannywomen sometimes used superstitious rituals in birthing. Most merely gave the mother psychological relief from pain.
Home remedy recipes passed down from one generation to another. Grannywomen learned healing techniques the same as they did cooking or sewing. Most mountain women had a little knowledge of natural healing herbs but some were more accomplished than others. The most knowledgeable were known as grannywomen.
The grannywoman’s arsenal usually consisted of a variety of organic and inorganic compounds. The most commonly used plants were those with astringent characteristics, like, myrtle, sweet gum or yellow dock, all which grew wild in the surrounding hills. Taken as a tonic some plants could soothe a sore throat. As a poultice applied to the skin, astringent qualities could help close wounds and stop bleeding. Grannywomen also used nineteenth century drugs like laudanum, morphine, and quinine, which at that time, available in most drugstores.
However, the grannywoman's most important role was as a midwife. By the 1890's, some Ozark babies were delivered by male doctors. But most women continued with the practice of being attended by a grannywoman…perhaps because even when a doctor was called, babies didn’t always wait for him to make a long trip. Expectant mothers usually had a grannywoman and other female neighbors present during a delivery, just in case.
Physicians didn’t have time to stay with a patient for days on end. So they often resorted to using forceps simply to speed delivery. This was dangerous. Forceps could introduce bacteria into the womb and cause puerperal fever. Puerperal fever was the leading cause of maternal death in the nineteenth century. By the late 1800s the germ theory of disease became understood and dying from a post-birth infection significantly declined.
Most doctors felt their job was finished once a child was born. However, the midwife remained to care for the newborn. My grandmother told me how her mother sometimes cleansed a baby’s eyes in the mother's milk or sometimes the mother's urine. These methods were used before the advent of silver nitrate.
It is obvious grannywomen provided care physicians couldn’t. Far more than administering drugs, it also involved psychological support and caring.
But by the turn of the century, doctors began to see midwives as competition. Thus, by the 1930's, few midwives were practicing anymore. I’m glad I was around to see people who actually lived during part of this period of history.