Herbs and Remedies Transcript

May 29, 2019

Back to the Herbs and Remedies episode.

Suzanne Richmond: You know how dandelion in Vermont comes up in May. And the fields are surrounding the roads you’re driving down or biking down or walking down. Glistening in yellow, and those were the dandelions. And Adele had a particular affection for dandelion.

Suzanne Richmond teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology at Goddard College. In the 1980s, she befriended the herbalist and writer Adele Dawson, who lived nearby, in Marshfield.

Suzanne: So if we were to visit her in May or early June, she’d send us out in the backyard and she’d have us pick off the heads of the dandelions, bring in a giant pile of them and then dip the heads in milk, then dip those milky dandelion heads in cornmeal. And then she’d fry those up in a big cast iron skillet and it was dandelion fritters.

Suzanne: And you would feel like you had gone to the most exquisite restaurant and no one else in the world could possibly make anything this magical. There’s such an abundance of these dandelions in spring, all over Vermont, and we can eat them.

The dandelion fritters were delicious. But they served another purpose.

Suzanne: But the dandelion roots she would use for helping to heal the liver. And the dandelion leaves she would use—if I recall—for helping the kidneys. So all parts of the plant were useful to Adele, and she would teach about all parts of the plant.

The history of Vermonters using plant-based medicines goes back long before this area was called “Vermont.” Before Europeans came to the land of the Abenaki. Herbalists like Adele Dawson were aware of this legacy.

Suzanne: Until the late 1800s early 1900s, plant medicines were the main way apothecaries helped humans. And Adele understood that history and she still had her foot in that historical world.

Suzanne: So I think Adele’s idea was that I’m not going to be obedient to laws which inhibit people having access to the plants that heal. Those plants which grow in everybody’s backyard.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Today we’ll examine the history of alternative medicine in Vermont, beginning with patent cures from the 1800s. We’ll learn about some Vermonters who made or promoted herbal treatments. And we’ll examine how the legacies of some healers—and questions about their remedies—live on today.

But first, we’ll drop by the Vermont Historical Society, where Amanda Gustin and Mary Rogstad are looking at some old medicine bottles.

Amanda: two of mure, one of capsicum, one quarter of sanguinary…

These are the ingredients listed for “Bancroft’s Vegetable Liniment.” Amanda reads the instructions.

Amanda: Okay, dose. From ten drops to a teaspoon full at time. That’s a pretty wide range…

Mary: Yeah.

Amanda: Next, East India Liniment. Internal use: take from one half to one teaspoonful in sugar and water once in two hours.

Mary: So it’s not poisonous.

Amanda: Well…[laughs.]

The Historical Society has hundreds of these bottles. While most are empty, some of them are still unopened and full.

Mary: In this one group that were given in 1997, there were one hundred and seven.

Amanda: One hundred and seven? From one donor?

Mary: From one donor. Pharmaceutical and druggist bottles.

It can seem like every town in Vermont had a pharmacist brewing their own special blend of medicine. This “East India Liniment” was manufactured in Bradford.

Amanda: How do you think Dr. Haskins from Bradford, Vermont came across a cure originally used in East India? I have a strong suspicion he was making this up.

Mary: He very well could have.

Amanda: I don’t want to cast aspersions on his good name but…

Some of the cures that filled these little bottles from the 19th and early 20th century were derived from herbal folk remedies. Others were created from a lot of alcohol, some food coloring, and a pinch of carefully honed hokum.

Surprisingly, the same medicines were sometimes used on both animals and humans. Take Kendall’s Spavin Cure from the 1870s.

Testimony: Dear Sir – About a year ago I fell in the road on to some ice and was badly hurt in the hip joint, which caused me much suffering. I tried various remedies, but none gave relief until I tried your Kendall’s Spavin Cure. I applied it, full strength, twice a day for about two weeks during last October, and it affected a perfect cure. I have since then been well and free from lameness. It is very valuable for man as well as beast.

Alison: So spavin is, basically, just lameness of the hock in the horse.

Alison Cornwall is a veterinarian in central Vermont. In addition to her daily practice, she’s passionate about veterinary history. Today most horses are kept as pets, and not used for work or transportation.

Alison: 150 years ago, that was not the case, and they had to do a job to live, to stay there. And if they can’t do it, they have to recover for six months. Well, that’s a pretty significant problem for that animal and that owner. So lameness was a really, really big deal.

Dr. Burney James Kendall graduated from the University of Vermont Medical School. He began marketing his cure for spavin in horses in the early 1870s.

Testimony: This is to certify that I have used your Kendall’s Spavin Cure on a valuable horse belonging to my father, and after applying it according to directions, only two weeks, completed a perfect cure of a very bad spavin. The horse is well and has not been lame since. I advise all who have horses affected in like manner to use it. – Thomas B. Underhill, Apothecary

Kendall’s Spavin Cure became so popular by the next decade that Kendall built a huge facility to manufacture it in Enosburg Falls. He advertised it widely and shipped thousands of bottles across the United States.

The sales meant a lot to Enosburg Falls. The factory had about fifty employees in a town of 2,000 people. When the company installed a modern plumbing system in the 1890s, the town upgraded as well. And Kendall largely paid for the 600-seat Enosburg Opera House.

Testimony: Dear Sir – We take great pleasure in stating to you that the sale of your Kendall’s Spavin Cure has been, without exception, the most satisfactory of any horse liniment we have ever kept in our stock. We have sold it to many of the best horsemen in our city and they all tell us freely that it does the work to their entire satisfaction.

But what was in the medicine? And once the owner had rubbed it on the horse’s hock, did it actually work?

Alison: My guess is that this spavin cure was probably half alcohol and probably a lot of opium. And some opium compounds definitely do cross the skin, so I’m wondering if they weren’t getting some local opium effect.

Today, we give more medicines orally, or by injection – a more efficient way to get the drug inside the body instead of a topical application.

Alison thinks that Kendall’s Spavin Cure was probably mostly harmless or even a little bit helpful – but many other veterinary cures were not.

Alison: Mercury was really common. For instance, in horses they would use it as a counter-irritant. Mercury, lead, arsenic: all these heavy metal compounds were really common. Strychnine was sometimes used. So things that we consider deeply toxic today were used in small quantities, hoping to get a beneficial effect without the toxic effect.

Kendall eventually started marketing his spavin cure to humans as well. It’s impossible to say whether he believed wholeheartedly that he had discovered a cure – or whether he knew that he was selling snake oil.

Alison: I feel like people have always tried really hard, and they’ve always made the best decisions they can. And then, at the same time, I can look in a horse magazine today, or any animal-related journal, and I can find products that are complete bollocks, they are total garbage.

Alison: I try to put it in the lens of what would somebody think of me 200 years from now, looking back, treating things the way that I treat them. And here I am thinking earnestly that I’m doing right by this animal and right by this client, and maybe by somebody else’s measure, especially with the distance of time, that might be totally different.

Paul Heller: When he came to Barre, he didn’t have a car. In fact, Jarvis never drove. He used a horse and buggy and he would go out in the countryside and visit farmers. He would always wonder what they had been doing to treat the maladies that they were suffering from. He started collecting their home remedies.

Paul Heller has written two books called Granite City Tales about Barre’s history. He’s talking about DeForest Clinton Jarvis, also known as D.C. Jarvis.

Jarvis was a general practice family doctor who had grown up in Burlington. He graduated from the UVM Medical School before coming to Barre in the 1940s. He soon became interested in the local farmers. Or more specifically, in their cupboards and pantries.

Paul: Apple cider vinegar was a common thing to be found in most farm pantries, as well as honey. Those were often used as remedies. He believed that the combination of the acid, in the vinegar, and the alkaline in the honey produced beneficial results.

Jarvis called this mixture “honegar.”

Paul: This is tried by me. Whenever I have a sore throat, I use this remedy and it cures my sore throat in one day. I’m somebody who suffered mightily from strep throat growing up but, they’re no trouble anymore because, I have Doctor Jarvis’s remedy. It’s in his book, Folk Medicine, if anyone’s interested.

In addition to the local farmers, Jarvis was well-known among Barre’s granite workers.

Paul: If you worked in a stone shed or in the quarry, you were forever getting chips of granite in your eye and the man you wanted to take it out, to remove it, was Doctor Jarvis, because he had rock-steady hands.

Jarvis became the trainer for the Spaulding High School football team.

Paul: When they took a timeout, he’d run onto the field, and hand everybody a tongue depressor, and then pull out a big container of honey, and had them all take a big gob of honey and eat it to replenish their energy.

Jarvis specialized in eye, ear, nose, and throat problems. He became a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of silicosis, a disease that affected granite workers who breathed in fine dust all day. He was also part of a national network of doctors interested in folk remedies.

Paul: It’s quite likely that a lot of the material he collected and published in Folk Medicine was not from central Vermont, but from one of his colleagues out in the field.

The full title of Jarvis’ collection of remedies was Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health. It was published in 1958.

Paul: Amazingly, it received terrible reviews. People, even Vermont folklore people said, this is ridiculous. Somebody at the Harvard Medical School said, “I hope they put it on the fiction shelf.” But the public disagreed. They loved it.

Folk Medicine sold over a million copies and is still in print today. It even found fans among movie stars.

Paul: Gloria Swanson bought cases of the book to give to her friends. There was photo spread about Jarvis and Barre in Life magazine. You couldn’t get more national or mainstream than that.

The book was published at a pivotal time in American history, as we were transitioning from being a rural nation to becoming an urban nation.

Paul: Well, you know, it puzzles me, why that book was so popular because, it was published in 1958 and this was post-war America. Everybody was looking to the future. These were folk remedies that their parents and grandparents would’ve used. There were doctors, I think, who said, my god we’ve progressed millennia since people used these remedies. They were a little ticked off by it but, I think it made people feel better and made their lives better. It was a great link to tradition in the past.

Suzanne: I’m Suzanne Richmond, I moved to Plainfield in 1984 from the Ozarks. And I met Adele Dawson that first summer of being in the outback of Vermont.

Suzanne: So my first impression was that she was a tiny, little-bodied person, with a huge personality. She would drive in her little car and the lore was that you couldn’t see that there was a driver, it was like a headless car because she was so tiny. Her head would hardly peek over the steering wheel.

Adele Dawson recorded her knowledge about plants in a series of books. Her way of learning about the world and then sharing that knowledge inspired an entire generation of Vermont herbalists.

Suzanne: She would immediately warmly welcome you into her house. She’d serve you up a teapot full of tea, and talk with you—or at you—about whatever was on her mind, until she was done. She would pour it out, just like she was pouring her tea out.

Wally Hubbard from the Vermont Historical Society recorded an interview with Adele in 1973. They sat in her kitchen, and Adele described coming to Vermont later in her life.

Adele: See, when we came to Vermont, my friends from Connecticut said they were mad. “You’re absolutely out of your head. You can’t go in that area of Vermont way up north there. You don’t know anybody.” And it wasn’t true. Everybody has just been marvelous. And I think that Vermonters accept you if you’re yourself. I don’t think you can put anything over on ’em. I think if I’d come here and tried to tell them how to do things instead of learn the way they did things, it might have been a different story.

Like Dr. Jarvis in Barre, Adele learned from the Vermonters around her. But she also paid careful attention to the natural world outside her door.

Suzanne: She would come to know the plants that grew in the giant terraces of her hillside. By noticing which ones popped up according to which seasons, which months. She wanted to capture what she saw, and it was natural for her to write a book that was oriented around the seasons, because that’s how she paid attention to the world.

Adele’s most famous book, called Herbs: Partners in Life, was published in 1991. But she also shared her knowledge one person at a time, one cup of tea at a time.

Suzanne: So she would grab anybody by the scruff of the neck, teach them what she could by touring them around through the magical growing medium of her terraced hillside. And she would turn her students into teachers as quickly as possible. And that is something we need to treasure about our memory of Adele, she would empower people. So that the knowing about plants would live on long after she was gone.

In addition to being a writer, Adele was also an accomplished painter. In time, her garden became a destination.

Adele: I consider myself a liver. You know, not something you eat, but one who enjoys living more than anything and I particularly enjoy painting and woodcarving and organic gardening and walking in the woods and swimming and outdoor things. And people, I guess, more than anything else. I just love having them romp through here all summer.

Suzanne: Everybody has their truths and I think Adele had her truth for certain. And her truth was the plants heal and I’m going to see to it that I can educate everybody I know and even those I don’t know through my book.

Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Amanda Gustin, Eileen Corcoran, Ryan Newswanger and Abra Clawson.

Thanks to our guests: Mary Labate Rogstad, Alison Cornwall, Paul Heller, and Suzanne Richman. Thanks also to Jason Broughton for voicing the Kendall’s Spavin Cure testimonials, and to Marjorie Strong for research help.