Less than a century ago, Americans faced diseases that crippled them or brought sudden death, especially in remote areas such as the Appalachians. Many of these ailments are unknown today, while others can now be treated with over-the-counter remedies. Here’s a summary of the first chapter of the Handbook of Medical Treatment, edited by John C. DeCosta (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1920).
Milk sickness? Polio? We seldom hear of them today, but they were serious threats back then. (This textbook was published just a year before Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio on a family outing in New England, leaving him dependent on crutches and metal leg braces for the rest of his life.)
How might the world be different if FDR hadn’t gotten polio in his 40s? Or if Rudolph Valentino hadn’t died in his prime of peritonitis?
Fatalists like to say that you’ll die when your time has come, but in the 1920s and 1930s your “time” might come suddenly and doctors could do little to help you. More so in the hill country, where doctors were hard to find and folk remedies might make your illness worse!
The Great Depression of the 1930s forced mountain people to “make do” with what they had or create substitutes for what they didn’t have. Store tokens were good examples. Cash was scarce because so many banks had failed, so people hoarded whatever money came into their hands. To stay in business, local stores made their own money in the form of paper scrip or metal tokens.
Here’s an aluminum token issued by Hampton & Perkins of Linville, NC. (a store established by a distant cousin of mine). When a farmer sold his produce to the store, he got paid in store money like this, which he could then use to buy other merchandise. The Linville community was so tightly knit that their make-do monetary system worked quite well. In some mountain villages, this commerce in homemade money continued until World War II. These tokens are now collectors’ items.
Hampton & Perkins still operates at 77 Ruffin Street in Linville as the Old Hampton Store, a tourist attraction that sells some of the best barbeque sandwiches you’ll find anywhere. And you can buy them with regular US greenbacks.
Reading bouquet cards beside my mother’s casket, I was reminded again of how resourceful she had been. One basket of flowers from The Posy Shop honored “Our Former Employee’; so did one from a retirement center. After my parents divorced more than forty years ago, Mom worked a variety of part-time jobs to support herself and my two sisters who were still at home. She was a maid at the local Holiday Inn; she cleaned passenger cabins of planes at the airport; she loaded thread on looms at a textile mill. She did whatever she could in order to survive.
Eventually, Mom remarried and became “just” a homemaker again, but that fierce determination would reemerge whenever she felt threatened.
It’s a familiar trait of mountain people, especially women, who are portrayed in Southern literature. A recent example is Jennifer Niven’s heroine, Velva Jean. Without family, without home, and without prospects for marriage, feisty Velva Jean makes a life for herself in the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. Her indomitable faith is rooted in the Appalachian folk religion of tent revival meetings with evangelists “on the take.” Often naive but always resilient, Velva Jean learns to drive her own life, as well as sporty cars and supercharged pick-up trucks.
Mom was just as tenacious and confident of her ability to learn whatever she needed to bounce back when life threw her down. She cracked jokes even when she was crying, an art that all four of us children have learned. Alzheimer’s disease finally took control of her body, but not her spirit.
Yes, Mom was resourceful. Mountain women usually are.