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Home Remedies

In Alberta’s rural landscape, settlers had limited access to health care. Most of the communities had no doctors, nurses, or hospitals. Children were often delivered by midwives and settlers employed their own system of health care for minor illnesses. For more serious illnesses or accidents, finding a doctor in a nearby town was mandatory. Parents and grandparents each had an arsenal of homemade medicines to protect and cure their families. Alberta’s Black pioneers gained their rudimentary medical knowledge from their relatives and ancestors and from the Creek Indians of Oklahoma.

Black settlers in rural Alberta employed a number of different methods to treat cold and flu symptoms, common during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Mustard plasters, made with cornmeal and mustard, were placed on the chest to remove excess phlegm from inside the body. Onion poultices, made by frying onions and mutton tallow, were placed in a pillowcase and were effective for clearing nasal passages. Another poultice, made with rabbit droppings, was effective as a decongestant. Maintaining a consistent body temperature was vital for settlers struggling with a cold or flu. Pioneers believed that illnesses could be “sweated out” by keeping the sick in a hot, stuffy room and covering them in blankets. They were rubbed down with goose grease and given lots of fluids.

Oral medicines were also popular. Sulphur was combined with lard and ingested as a means of combatting the common cold. Cough syrups were made from honey, lemons, and grapefruit. Teas made from peppermint or lemons were used to treat minor illnesses.

Coal oil and turpentine were popular medicines in the community, even though we now know them to be poisonous. Mixed with sugar or molasses, coal oil and turpentine were thought to prevent and cure colds when ingested. Coal oil was thought to be a cure-all medication and was used on anything from typhoid fever to skin blemishes. Coal oil was mixed with corn syrup and given to children as a spring tonic. With the changing weather at spring time, illnesses tended to hit the community hard, and coal oil was believed to boost the immune system and prevent illnesses.

Settlers frequently had their own unique methods of curing illnesses. Based on limited or no scientific evidence, home remedies reflected traditional medical practices and incorporated the use of the natural environment as a way of fighting off illnesses. For example, there were several steps to curing ringworm that included the removal of all body hair, covering the infected skin with iodine, placing copper pennies over top, and sitting in the sun for days. Settlers believed that if all of these steps were closely followed, the ringworm would dissipate in a few weeks.

Other home remedies included drinking mare’s milk to cure whooping cough. Constipation was combatted by wrapping lye soap in bacon fat; this combination would then be used as a suppository. For diarrhea, a White doctor from the town of Evansburg, Dr. Chisham, recommended ingesting two egg whites mixed with water. Some settlers wore copper bracelets to cure their arthritis. Linseed meal or bread soaked in milk was thought to be effective against carbuncles. To stop insect bites from itching, dirt and spider webs could be rubbed in the wound.

Settlers seldom used aspirin for pain relief because it was rarely available. Resourceful, they found other methods for pain relief. Concoctions of boiled herbs and willow bark and twigs were effective for relieving menstrual cramps. Another belief, passed down through several generations, stated that headaches could be cured by tying a rag around the head and smudging ash between the eyes. A nagging sore throat was soothed by gargling salt, coal oil, and hot water.

Ideally, settlers wanted to avoid illness rather than concoct various ways of curing the sickness. Keeping their homes free of germs was the best means of prevention. The most popular method was to carry asafetida, a bitter and acrid-tasting resin closely related to parsley, in a muslin cloth around the neck. Most Black children in Alberta’s rural settlements, particularly during the flu epidemic of 1918, wore the vile-smelling cloth. Germs around the house were killed by burning pine tar and asafetida on the stove. Another home remedy, rooted in tradition going back generations, stated that red onions attracted germs. Therefore, settlers would nail a red onion to the ceiling and leave it there until the onion shrivelled up, consumed with germs and bacteria. Burning the shrivelled onion would effectively kill the germs and cleanse the house.

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