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Ozark Country

The people who live in the Ozark country of Missouri and Arkansas were, until very recently, the most deliberately unprogressive people in the United States. Descended from pioneers who came West from the Southern Appalachians at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they made little contact with the outer world for more than a hundred years. They seem like foreigners to the average urban American, but nearly all of them come of British stock, and many families have lived in America since colonial days. Their material heirlooms are few, but like all isolated illiterates they have clung to the old songs and obsolete sayings and outworn customs of their ancestors.

Sophisticated visitors sometimes regard the "hillbilly" as a simple child of nature, whose innermost thoughts and motivations may be read at a glance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The hillman is secretive and sensitive beyond anything that the average city dweller can imagine, but he isn't simple. His mind moves in a tremendously involved system of signs and omens and esoteric auguries. He has little interest in the mental-procedure that the moderns call science, and his ways of arranging data and evaluating evidence are very different from those currently favored in the world beyond the hilltops. The Ozark hillfolk have often been described as the most superstitious people in America. It is true that some of them have retained certain ancient notions which have been discarded and forgotten in more progressive sections of the United States.

It has been said that the Ozarker got his folklore from the Negro, but the fact is that Negroes were never numerous in the hill country, and there are many adults in the Ozarks today who have never even seen a Negro. Another view is that the hillman's superstitions are largely of Indian origin, and there may be a measure of truth in this; the pioneers did mingle freely with the Indians, and some of our best Ozark families still boast of their Cherokee blood. Most of the hillman's folk beliefs came with his ancestors from England or Scotland.

The collection of some types of folklore - riddles, party games, or folksongs, for example - is a comparatively easy matter, even in the Ozark country. If a hillman knows an old ballad or game song any reasonably diplomatic collector can induce him to sing it, or at least to recite the words. But the mention of superstition raises the question of one's personal belief - a matter which the Ozarker does not care to discuss with "furriners." The stranger who inquires about love charms or witchcraft will meet only blank looks and derisive laughter.

Authentic data in this field cannot be gathered by running "Old-Timer" columns in newspapers, because the people who contribute to such columns are not typical backwoods folk at all; the real old-timers seldom read newspapers, much less write letters for publication. The questionnaire method, too, has been tried at our whistle-stop colleges and among rural schoolmarms without any conspicuous success. The man who wants to study the Ozark superstitions must live with the Ozark people year after year and gradually absorb folklore through the rind, as it were. The information obtained in this manner is more trustworthy than that elicited by any sort of direct questioning.

The Ozarker's wealth of folk material shows the extent to which superstition still flourished in this region. A hillman doesn't admit a belief in anything which he regarded as superstition. "I aint superstitious myself but some things that folks call superstitious is just as true as God's own gospel!" Most of the real old-timers adhere to traditions wild and strange, and the fact that many of them contradict each other matters not at all. The man who laughs at witchcraft and supernatural warning is found to be a firm believer in the moon's influence upon crops, while the woman who doesn't believe in dummy suppers takes the question of prenatal "marking" very seriously indeed.

One might expect to find a definite negative correlation between superstition and intelligence, or at least between superstition and education, but this does not seem to be the case. Perhaps the most famous water witch who ever lived in southwest Missouri was a physician, a graduate of Washington University, and a man of really extraordinary attainments. One of the most credulous and superstitious hillmen I ever knew was intelligent enough to learn surveying and had sufficient book learning to enable him to teach the district school with unprecedented success.

Folktales rather than superstitions proper are not really believed by intelligent adults, but are repeated to children just as parents elsewhere tell the story of Santa Claus or assure their offspring that rabbits lay parti-colored eggs on Easter Sunday. The old sayin' that killing a toad will make the cows give bloody milk, for example, is probably just a way of teaching children to let toads alone; the farmer knows that toads destroy insects, and he likes to see them around his doorstep on summer evenings. Every backwoods child has heard a little rhyme to the effect that one who defecates in a path will get a "sty" on his posterior - a notion doubtless promulgated by barefoot housewives who wish to keep the catwalks clean. Perhaps the children don't really believe all this either, but it sometimes amuses them to pretend that they do, and thus the stories are preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next. Sometimes it appears that backwoods parents begin by telling outrageous whoppers to their children and end by half believing the wildest of these tales themselves.

Many of the civic boosters in the Ozark towns are sensitive about their hillbilly background and regard anybody who mentions the old customs or folk beliefs in the light of a public enemy. This sentiment is reflected in the Ozark newspapers, particularly in the smaller cities. The general feeling is that the persistence of the old folklore is somehow discreditable to the whole region, and the less said about it the better.

Educated young folk are certainly less concerned with witchcraft and the like than were their parents and grandparents. And yet, college boys, proud possessors of dinner jackets and fraternity pins, say and do things which would be quite inexplicable to anyone not familiar with the superstitions of their childhood. And there was a pretty girl once, a senior at one of our best Ozark colleges, who obtained her heart's desire by a semipublic "conjuration" which would not seem out of place in a medieval book on demonology.

The wildest kind of superstition was accepted as a matter of course by the grandparents of these backwoods collegians, and resistance to change has always been the chief regional characteristic of the Ozark people. The principle of organic evolution has been pretty well accepted everywhere for a long time, but it is still against the law to teach evolution at the University of Arkansas.

It is difficult to see why our civic leaders and politicians should be so concerned about these matters. Surely they must know that people in other sections of the country, even in the great cities, have superstitions of their own. Some very eminent gentlemen in Washington are known to consult mediums and fortunetellers on occasion, and there are many women in New York who still believe in astrology and numerology.

I think that the hillfolk are somewhat less superstitious today than years ago. One has only to compare the young people with their grandparents, or the isolated settlements with the villages along our new motor highways, to appreciate the present status of folklore in the Ozark country.

Wherever railroads and highways penetrate, wherever newspapers and movies and radios are introduced, the people gradually lose their distinctive local traits and assume the drab color which characterizes conventional Americans elsewhere. The Ozarkers are changing rather rapidly just now, and it may be that a few more years of progress will find them thinking and acting very much like country folk in other parts of the United States. This standardizing transformation is still far from complete, however. A great body of folk belief dies very slowly, and I suspect that some vestiges of backwoods superstition will be with us for a long time to come.

Regular physicians are not very numerous in the Ozarks, and a great many "chills-an'-fever doctors" are practicing illegally. Most of these are men who had a year or two of training at some Southern medical college, but others have just "picked up doctorin"' by assisting some old physician whose practice they have inherited. The "chills-an'-fever doctors" save the overworked M.D. many a long night ride and are frequently protected and advised by the medical profession. The average hillman, of course, knows nothing of this distinction between qualified and unqualified physicians. He calls 'em all "Doc" and lets it go at that.

Besides the regular and irregular physicians, who live mostly in the villages, the backwoods country swarms with "yarb doctors" and "rubbin' doctors" and "nature doctors" who have never studied medicine at all. Some of these nature doctors are women, others are preachers who do a little doctorin' on the side, and many of them are unable to read or write. They rely mainly upon herbs, barks, roots, and the like. For internal medication these substances are steeped in hot water, and "horse doses" of the resulting teas are administered at frequent intervals. In some cases the tea is boiled down to a thick paste called ooze, or mixed with strained honey to make a syrup. The yarb doctors are great believers in poultices, which are applied both hot and cold for all sorts of ailments. Doubtless some of these homely remedies have real value and may be listed in the Pharmacopoeia for all I know. The hillfolk, however, seem to feel that the efficacy of a treatment varies directly with its unpleasantness; bitter tea is always best, and the more a poultice hurts the better they like it. "God Almighty never put us here without a remedy for every ailment," said old Jimmy Van Zandt of Kirbyville, Missouri. "Out in the woods there's plants that will cure all kinds of sickness, and all we got to do is hunt for 'em."

Mullein-flower tea is supposed to be good for colds, sore throat, flu, and even pneumonia. A tea made of sumac berries is favored for coughs and sore throat. Strong cider vinegar, with salt and pepper added, is used as a gargle. Cranesbill (Geranium maculatum) is brewed into a fine astringent medicine for sore throats. Pine needles, steeped in water over night and boiled down with sorghum, make another popular cough remedy, but a tea made of linn or basswood flowers is better for a cold in the head.

Horehound is one of the best cold remedies. Just take a panful of horehound leaves, add water, and keep warm on the back of the stove for several days. Then pour off the liquid and concentrate it further by boiling. This is the standard cough medicine of the Ozarks, but it's pretty bitter. Many people think that horehound tea should be mixed with wild honey - the blacker the honey the more effective the syrup. Some young folk like it better if the mother adds a lot of sugar to make horehound candy, which is poured out on a buttered platter and allowed to harden, then broken into pieces and distributed among the children.

Very different from the yarb doctors described above are healers of another type, who make no pretense to scientific knowledge but depend entirely upon charms, spells, prayers, amulets, exorcisms, and magic of one sort or another. These are the so-called "power doctors," backwoods specialists, each claiming to be endowed with supernatural power to cure certain specific ailments. They seldom attempt any general practice, and most of them take no money for their services, although they may accept and even demand valuable presents on occasion. Some of these people, usually old women, can cool fevers merely by the laying on of hands; others draw out the fire from burns by spitting or blowing upon the inflamed areas, while still others claim to heal more serious lesions by some similar hocus-pocus. One old lady who specializes in burns says that she always mutters a few words which she "l'arnt out'n the Book" - the Bible, that is.

Many Ozark hillmen carry buckeyes in their pockets, and this practice is not confined to the backwoods districts. The two most important bankers in Springfield, Missouri, are buckeye carriers; so is the head of one of the biggest corporations in St. Louis, and also a recent mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. At least one governor of Arkansas not only carried a buckeye but was also known to flourish it publicly on occasions of great emotional stress.

There is an old saying that no man was ever found dead with a buckeye in his pocket, but this is not to be taken seriously. Most people who carry buckeyes regard them as a protection against rheumatism, or hemorrhoids. One of the most successful physicians in southwest Missouri always carries a buckeye; when it was mislaid once he was very much disturbed and let an officeful of patients wait until his pocket piece was recovered. It is very bad luck to lose a buckeye. "No, I'm not superstitious," he said grinning, "I just don't want to get the rheumatism!"

To some people the buckeye means more than mere protection from piles and rheumatism. There was once a young fellow with a very old truck, about to attempt the crossing of Bear Creek, in Taney county, Missouri. The water was high, and the ford was very bad. The boy looked the situation over carefully, then set his jaw and climbed into the driver's seat. "Well, I've got a buckeye in my pocket," he said quite seriously. "I believe I can make it!" There is a persistent story that the custom of carrying buckeyes came from the Osage Indians, who used them in poisoning fish. But the Osages tell that it was the root of the buckeye tree, not the nut, that they used to kill fish.

In dressing gunshot wounds, doctors are often requested by the patient to put a little salve or antiseptic on the bullet which caused the injury, in order to prevent blood poisoning. One man always carried the bullet which had been cut out of his leg; whenever he felt a twinge of pain, he would take the bullet out of his wallet and put a drop of skunk oil on it. He laughed a little every time he did this, and never admitted that he believed in the efficacy of such a procedure.

Something of the same sort is shown in the treatment of snake bites. Several miles west of Hot Springs, Arkansas, some small boys had built a rousing fire by the roadside and were burning a large copperhead. This snake had bitten one of the boys, whose leg was already badly swollen. When asked why they didn't do something for the boy, they replied that their chief concern was to burn the snake "plumb to ashes." As soon as the body of the snake was entirely consumed, the boys said, they were going to take the injured lad to the doctor in a nearby village.

Educated hillfolk, depend upon regular physicians for ordinary ailments, surreptitiously to consult a backwoods magician when bitten by a poisonous serpent. An old woman warned to never to go to an M.D. in case of snake bite. The doctor might fix it up temporarily, she said, but the bite would always hurt on the anniversary of the day it occurred, so long as the patient lived. An old-time healer, on the other hand, would cure it in his own fashion, and it would never cause any further trouble.

There were families of which it was said "them folks don't kill snakes." This is very unusual in the Ozarks, where most people do kill every snake they see. Another Ozark youth, a member of a clan which doesn't kill snakes, was startled into shooting a water moccasin one day, when he was fishing. Immediately the boy began to see moccasins everywhere. He shot and killed about thirty in two hours and then became a little frightened, as there seemed to be something supernatural in the sudden appearance of so many poisonous serpents. When he told his father what had occurred, the old man just looked at him solemnly and said nothing at all. That boy was terribly nervous for several weeks, and he never killed another snake as long as he lived. He would not admit that he was in any degree superstitious but said several times that there was "something funny" about his family when it came to "messin' with snakes."

Some backwoods Christians of the wilder Holy Roller cults - adherents of the so-called "new ground religion," "pokeweed gospel," or "lightnin'-bug churches" - do not believe in doctors and will not take any sort of medicine. Their preachers say that the Word is ag'in physicians, and quote James 5:14-15: "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick."

They claim some remarkable cures of inoperable cancer and the like. They have attempted to raise the dead; in one instance they "wooled the corpse around" for several hours, even pulling the body off the bed by their frenzied "laying on of hands.

In Taney county, Missouri, an old woman was very ill and sent word to the nearest meetin' that she wanted the preachers to pray for her, but did not want them to come to her house because the family was opposed to the "pokeberry religion." Several of the preachers knelt down in the church, took bottles of holy oil from their pockets, poured a little of the stuff on a handkerchief, and prayed over it in the unknown tongue. The old woman applied the handkerchief to her abdomen next the skin and wore it for several days ; then she announced that she was miraculously healed, and the preachers claimed to have effected the cure at a distance of two and one-half miles, without even seeing the patient. The woman died a few weeks later.

In cases of difficult childbirth the "buck-brush parsons" sometimes try to help, and their prayers are so loud as to drown out the screams of the wretched woman; this scandalizes the conventional midwives, who feel that men should not be present at such times.

The villagers of Newport, Missouri, in October, 1934 claimed that Rev. A.D. Etterman's family spread the itch through the whole community, so that the public school had to be closed for two weeks. It was said that Etterman could cure leprosy by supernatural means, but the lowly scabies was apparently beyond his powers.

These Pentecostal fanatics do not patronize the backwoods herbalists or power doctors or granny-women, at least not openly. Sometimes it may be that a Holy Roller veakens under the lash of pain and visits a nonreligious healer in secret. But when a "new ground" religionist calls a doctor he generally insists upon a licensed M.D. from town. Physicians in the Ozark communities say that when they are called to a Holy Roller cabin they usually find somebody at the point of death. "Such people don't want treatment," one doctor said grimly, "they just want me to examine the patient, so that I can sign a death certificate!"

Vance Randolph. . Dover Publications, Inc., NY. 1947.


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