Sassafras tea – THE spring tonic

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 3, 2015

My mother was a great sassafras drinker. And every spring we had to have sassafras along with our poke salad (that was a wild green). The mountain people particularly gathered a lot of wild greens to supplement their diet, because most people back in those days lived mostly on cornbread and peas. My mother used to enjoy going into the mountains and picking the wild greens. They have a thing called (and I like it today—they cultivate it, by the way, in Tennessee and Virginia) highland creeces. Oldtimers called them creecy-greens.

Eula McGill
born Resaca, GA 1911
February 3, 1976 interview
Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Interview G-0040-1.

To some Appalachian farmers, it was simply an aggressive weed tree cluttering old fields. Others believed its wood could prevent chicken lice, and so used it to build chicken houses and chicken roosts. But sassafras’ most famous attribute has always been the healing properties of the springtime tea –a spring tonic- made from its roots.

The Cherokee people utilized sassafras tea to purify blood and for a variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and ague (the tree is sometimes called an ‘Ague Tree’). “The country people of Carolina crop these vines (Bigonia Crucigera) to pieces,” said William Bartram in Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, “together with china brier and sassafras roots, and boil them in their beer in the spring, for diet drink, in order to attenuate and purify the blood and juices.” The Cherokee would also make a poultice to cleanse wounds and sores, while they’d steep the root bark to treatment diarrhea or for ‘over-fatness.’

They emphasized that the tea should never be taken for more than a week at a time. They didn’t know about safrole, though they knew its long term effects. The bark of sassafras roots contains volatile oils, 80% of which is safrole. Commercially produced sassafras was pulled from the American market in the early 1960s after experiments showed that safrole caused liver cancer in rats and mice.

Sassafras 'Sassafras Albidum'Early white mountain settlers, perhaps influenced by the vine/brier/sassafras concoction described above, made a beer by boiling young sassafras shoots in water, adding molasses and allowing the mash to ferment.

The varied leaf shapes are the Mitten Tree’s trademark—in fact, its Latin name was once Sassafras Varifolium. Today Sassafras Albidum ranges widely over the eastern United States (only two other species of sassafras exist elsewhere in the world: one in central mainland China, one in Taiwan).

‘White sassafras’ grows along roadways in thick clusters, usually from three to six feet tall. It has roughly the same characteristics as ‘red sassafras,’ however the bark does not turn pink to red when the root is damaged.

The red variety is the species that is most prized. Generally found on hills and ridges, it sometimes grows in mountainous areas to a height of thirty or more feet. The American Forestry Association’s National Register of Big Trees lists a 77-foot champion in Owensboro, KY.

According to H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (1936), the word sassafras traces back to 1577 and is of Spanish origin, probably deriving from the Spanish term for saxifrage.

Native Americans in Virginia pointed out ‘wynauk’ to British settlers, and in 1603, a company was formed in Bristol, England to send two vessels to the New World, principally with the intention of bringing back cargoes of sassafras bark. Thus, sassafras was one of the first, if not the first, forest products to be exported from what is now the mid-Atlantic states.


sources: Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, by William Bartram, 1789, From “Transaction of the American Ethnological Society,” Vol. 3 Pt. 1. Extracts
The singular sassafras, by Henry Clepper, from “American Forests,” American Forestry Assn 1989

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You must know the six types of married folks

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 2, 2015

Shenandoah Herald
Woodstock VA
April 2, 1909

‘To Find Your Affinity’

Your affinity is your mate, but unless you know the six types of happy married folks on Olympus, up to date, you may miss yours. Jupiter, king of heaven, ruler of men, house and business, must marry Juno, the queenly woman, plump, domestic, wise as Minerva, yet loving as Venus.

Goddess MinervaVenus should mate with Apollo, but being fond of all men and usually pretty, a Venus woman marries any one, often several times. Marry and be petted and adored she must or die.

Minerva, on the contrary, can be happy only with a Vulcan, a man her counterpart, wise, lofty, patient, a reformer, teacher and philosopher. Both have contempt for frivolity and meanness and vice.

Most all of the elderly single women in the world, especially those descendants from Puritan or Calvinistic stock, are single just because they are the Minerva type and too wise to marry anyone but Vulcans. And Vulcans, being the best of their sex, are scarce.

source: Library of Congress/Chronicling America:

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The salient feature of ramps is the smell

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 1, 2015

They’re the first greens of the season, and they’re coming up right about now. Ramps, (Allium tricoccum or Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, Alliaceae) also known as wild leeks, are native to the Appalachian mountains. Ramps can be found growing in patches in rich, moist, deciduous forests as far north as Canada, west to Missouri and Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee.

Back before supermarkets arrived they provided necessary vitamins and minerals following long winter months without access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The salient feature of ramps is the smell. The Menominee Indians called it “pikwute sikakushia”: the skunk. “Shikako,” their name for a large ramp patch that once flourished in northern Illinois, has been anglicized to Chicago: “the skunk place.”

Ramps are pleasant to eat and taste like spring onions with a strong garlic-like aroma. They are often prepared by frying in butter or animal fat with sliced potatoes or scrambled eggs. They are also used as an ingredient in other dishes such as soup, pancakes, and hamburgers. They can also be pickled or dried for use later in the year.
On the heels of ramps a host of other greens start popping up: dandelions, poke, shawnee lettuce, woolen britches, creasies, and lamb’s tongue. And around these, women have fashioned womens’ worlds. “That was the big deal, when everybody used to go green picking,” says Carrie Lou Jarrell, of Sylvester, WV.

“That was the event of the week. Mrs. Karen Thomas would come up and she always brought Jessie Graybill with her, and then Miss Haddad would come, and most of the time Maggie Wriston came with her. And usually Sylvia Williams was always there to do green picking with them. I knew from the time I came into the world that she was just a good friend. But that was the thrill of my life to get to go with all of these women, because they talked about good stuff.”

The women laugh over how Violet Dickens once mistook sassafras tea for bacon grease and poured it over the frying ramps: “We need you to come season the ramps,” Mabel kidded her. They compare the aromas of poke and collard greens, and marvel at how window screens get black with flies when you’re cooking them. They wonder where the creasies (dry land cress) are growing this year, and Jenny points out that creasies won’t grow unless you till the soil.

“Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia”; Library of Congress/American Memories

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"Que te parece! Now I believe in the egg!"

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 31, 2015

“Benito Fernandez, known by all the Spaniards as Benito El Tuerto because he couldn’t see out of his left eye, lived just two houses away from our house on Ashton Lane. His wife, Cristina, was a short, heavy woman who spent most of her time sitting in a rocking chair and saying her rosary beads. She always had a small bag of asafetida on a string around her neck and did little of anything except keep her daughters, Juliana, Felipa and Marta busy with the cooking, washing, milling and other household work. She was very religious and sent her daughters to church regularly, while the padre would come to see her every Friday morning to give her communion.

“On St. Joseph’s Eve, she would never forget to perform the egg-in-a-glass ritual and would be the first one in the morning to hurry to the window to see what had taken place in the glass during the night. For this custom, a fresh-laid egg (it would have to be laid on the eve of the Saint’s Day) would be broken just before midnight into a glass filled three-fourths to the top with well-drawn water. Care was taken so that the yolk would not disintegrate. Then the glass would be placed on the sill of an open window.

“The next morning a ship in full sail might be formed in the glass, with the yolk forming the hull of the ship and the white of the egg making the sails. This would signify that some member of the family would be making a trip somewhere by ship. If instead of a ship, however, one saw a long, white candle with what looked like a flame on top (the white of the egg would form the taper and the yolk the flame), this would mean that some member of the family would die within the next twelve months.

Asturian woman, Clarksburg WV“If on the morning after putting out the glass, Cristina let out an Hay, Dios mio! Ave Maria purisuma!, her husband and daughters would know she had seen the candle. On this particular morning, however, she exclaimed, Gracias a Dios! She had seen the ship.

“A few days later, she received a letter from her parents telling her they were going to sail from La Coruna within the next two weeks. This meant that they were on the high seas at the moment she had looked at the sailing ship on the window sill!

“When her husband, who was always telling her that she was too superstitious, came home from work, the egg was beginning to disintegrate in the water. She told him about it having been a ship and said that her parents were coming to Coe’s Run to live. He said, ‘I’ll have to see them before I believe there’s anything to this foolishness.’

“She decided to make a believer of him. Instead of showing him the letter from her parents, she brought forth a calendar and said, ‘They will arrive in Clarkston on either this day, this day or this day. Mind what I tell you. If they do come within the days I point out, will you then believe in what you call superstition?’

“‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘If that happens, you’ll have made a believer of me.’

“And sure enough, on the first day she had pointed out on the calendar, a telegram came from New York City. It had been sent by Valentin Aguirre and said the Senor and Senora Ovies would arrive by train at five p.m. on the B&O train from New York City.

Que te parece! Benito exclaimed after hearing the telegram read to him. Now I believe in the egg!

“The egg in the glass had long been a Spanish custom. According to the local Italians, it was also a custom in Italy. Although the Italians enacted the custom on St. John’s Eve, it was done in the same manner and had the same significance.”


Pinnick Kinnick Hill, an American Story
by Gavin W Gonzalez (b 1909),
WV Univ Press, 2003
Spanish (Asturia) immigrant
Clarksburg, WV

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Radio and the Blue Ridge

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 30, 2015

Wilson150Please welcome guest author Joseph Wilson. The folklorist is a 2001 NEA National Heritage Fellow, most well known for his work since 1976 as the Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the oldest organization in the nation devoted to the presentation of folk arts. From this position, Wilson has had a profound influence on folk and traditional arts programming in this country. His mark can be also be seen in the shaping of national institutions such as the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, the Arts America program of the United States Information Agency (now in the Department of State), the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has organized or given programming direction to nearly 40 folk festivals, including the National Folk Festival that is produced annually by his organization. He has organized 21 national tours by musicians, dancers, and storytellers. The following excerpt is from the forthcoming book The Joe Wilson Reader, from University of Tennessee Press’s Charles K. Wolfe Music Series, edited by Fred Bartenstein.


When we got the first radio that had a speaker, we’d set it out here on the porch, and people would come listen to it with us. Sometimes the yard was full. Not long after we got it, an old man from over in Beaver Dams was here listening to the first big boxing match. When the fight heated up and Dempsey began pounding that Frenchman, the old man got real nervous and said ‘Tip, if you don’t turn that dang thing off, he’s a-going to kill that feller.’

Tipton Madron
Trade, TN
December 25, 1961[1]

It seemed like magic, this box that could grab voices from the wind and reproduce them on headphones or speakers. Here were the words, songs and tunes of people who stood hundreds of miles away, words heard instantly as they were spoken — the modulations of voice perfectly audible, the intake of breath heard as if inches away. It was magic, a form of transporting, ancient witchcraft made science; the future had arrived. Nowadays, it is common to equate early radio with early television in assessing impact. This is an error. Nothing like radio had happened before. Radio came before sound films and ignited what was called a craze. That is an apt term because one has to go back to the ancient manias in Europe to find anything with the intensity of excitement that radio generated.[2]

Radio was made possible by the superheterodyne, the so-called ‘tuning circuit’ invented during World War I by Edwin Armstrong. That new development brought startling clarity to voices carried by radio. Before the superheterodyne (the etymological components of which roughly translate as super=above [the sonic], hetero=other, dyne=force) radio had primarily been a medium for wireless telegraphy—messages sent point-to-point in code, the wireless companies decoding and delivering them by messenger boys. Hundreds of amateur radio fans owned receiving and sending equipment before this invention, but the idea of ‘broadcasting’ was unthinkable before the superheterodyne. Point-to-point messages might be overheard, but they were individual communications, not news, not entertainment.

Boyle's Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ.  Jack Dempsey posing in ring in boxing position.  Copyright 1921, FC Quimby; Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ. Jack Dempsey posing in ring in boxing position. Copyright 1921, FC Quimby; Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Change came with amazing rapidity. The first event that could be called a broadcast happened on July 2, 1921, the heavyweight boxing championship match between Jack Dempsey and French challenger Georges Carpentier. An estimated 300,000 people heard a blow-by-blow description of this fight, the largest audience that had ever simultaneously heard a single speaker.[3]

Corporations began building radio stations as part of their advertising and public relations gambits. Some selected call letters that reflected their business. Chicago radio station WLS was owned by Sears, and its call letters were an acronym for ‘World’s Largest Store.’ Nashville’s WSM was owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, and its call letters reflected the company slogan: ‘We Shield Millions.’[4]

The number of Americans owning a radio soared: a handful in early 1921, 100,000 in 1922, and 500,000 in 1923. There was one station in 1920, 30 in 1922, and 556 in 1923.[5]

The technology of popular entertainment may greatly accelerate the presentation of older forms and even ‘use them up’ (for example, the use of older films by television.) Among older forms taken up by early radio was blackface comedy. This was a popular form that presented racist caricatures derived from the minstrel stage. Such presentations began around 1840, developed into an internationally popular form, and continued to television in the early 1960s, when the early civil rights movement finally pushed it into obscurity.[6]

Though the form was old, tired, and as unrelentingly racist on radio as it was at its nineteenth-century beginnings, such radio presentations as ‘Amos and Andy’ became hugely popular.

Beginning in 1925 as a serialized story of various black stereotypes performed by white actors, the show was syndicated to scores of radio stations. ‘Amos and Andy’ became so popular that restaurants had to put the show on speakers to keep customers when it was on the air.

Nothing could compete with it, and the country almost shut down during its weekly broadcast. President Coolidge made plain that he was not to be disturbed during the time it was on the air. That most of the nation listened was a claim so often made that it must be given some credence. The audience grew until the mid-1930s—unprecedented popularity, escapism on a grand, even national, scale.[7]

Amos ‘n’ Andy was the story of two black characters—the modest, pragmatic Amos and the blustery, self-confident Andy— created by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Collection: National Radio Hall Of Fame

Amos ‘n’ Andy was the story of two black characters—the modest, pragmatic Amos and the blustery, self-confident Andy— created by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Collection: National Radio Hall Of Fame


Blackface comedy was not the only older form of entertainment form adopted by radio. Sopranos and other classical vocalists, violinists and orchestras, pianists, and poetry reading were heard. At first, virtually all performance was live. Early radio avoided recordings, seeing the recording industry as competition; likewise, some recording companies did not allow the use of their recordings on radio.

At first, stations were on the air for limited periods. As it became evident that people would listen all day, however, stations scrambled to find programming to fill the hours. Exactly when and where older, rural forms of music took to the air is disputed, but it had certainly happened by 1922. Atlanta’s WSB put Fiddlin’ John Carson on the radio that year, and other fiddlers and singers of traditional American musical forms were soon heard on stations across the country.[8]

Consumers of the arts are often interested in the context in which the arts arise, and this is especially true of folk arts. The intensity of a typical sports fan’s interest in where an important athlete was reared cannot compare with the importance the devotee of fiddle music places on the background of a great fiddler. If, as with folk art, the art arises in a community and reflects it, the audience craves to know that community.

This was as true of early radio fans as of other audiences, and the producers made much of the origins of the performers of older music forms. An interest in the ‘other world’ qualities of the Southern Appalachians had been growing for more than a half-century before radio became a craze. This interest seems to have had origins in the North at the time of the Civil War, when major portions of the mountain South opposed the Confederacy and sent many thousands of ‘Mountain Yankee’ troops into Union armies. President Lincoln praised these loyal citizens, and after the war this national interest was fed by the fundraising appeals of home missionaries and local-color writers.



[1] Tipton “Tip” Madron, interview with the author, Christmas Day 1961. “Uncle Tip” had the first radio, automobile, bathroom, electricity, telephone, and refrigerator in Trade, TN, a community 11 miles from the Blue Ridge summit, as the crow flies.

[2] Tom Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (New York: Harper-Collins, 1993). This is by far the best analysis and the best narrative I have read that is concerned with early radio, its makers, and its amazing effects.

[3] H. L. Mencken, ‘Dempsey vs. Carpentier,’ New York World and Baltimore Sun, July 3, 1921. Mencken initially ignored the broadcast, but took note of it later when this piece was reprinted in such collections as ‘A Mencken Chrestomathy’ (New York: Knopf, 1949).

[4] Bill C. Malone, ‘Country Music, USA’ 2nd ed. (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1985). First published in 1968, this is a good introduction to country music and how it evolved from folk musics, although even the second edition incorporates a number of small errors involving names and locations.

[5] Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air.’

[6] There are several books concerned with the history of the minstrel business. The best known is Robert C. Toll’s ‘Blacking Up’ (New York: Oxford, 1974). But Toll is a fan, and his work is as much apology as analysis. Nathan provides a great deal about the massive business and how it grew, but relatively little about where it came from and why. The role of free northern blacks in creating material and models for the form has been ignored until recently. Howard and Judy Sacks’ book about Ohio’s Snowden family, ‘Way Up North in Dixie,’ (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 1993), will help fill this gap.

[7] Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air.’

[8] ‘Atlanta Journal,’ September 10, 1922. WSB is called a ‘radiophone,’ and there is an individual photo of Carson along with a band photograph. This is reproduced in Gene Wiggins’ ‘Fiddling Georgia Crazy,’ (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1987). This excellent biography is another good offering in the ‘Music in American Life’ series of the University of Illinois.


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