Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hills and Hollows Granny Women

                                              HILLS AND HOLLOWS GRANNY WOMEN
By Karen Utter Jennings 
            Disclaimer: In writing this article, I make no claims to persuade folks to choose folk remedies over a medical doctor should a person have an illness. I merely write historical articles about interesting topics, and especially enjoy researching women and history. So with that in mind, I give you information about midwifery in Southwest Missouri. 
            Women have always been the backbone of families. They served in many capacities and their duties included caring for their children, their husband, and many times their elderly parents, siblings, as well as neighbors and friends. Homemakers did not need a job outside of the home, for homemaking included everything from making soap and doing the laundry, caring for the needy and the ill, to helping tend the farm work when need be.  
            In days long gone, Ozarks women learned from their own mothers and grandmothers how to care for the sick and how to help bring babies into the world. Their medicine came from the earth; the plants, flowers and trees provided remedies to cure the sick and afflicted.
            The most knowledgeable and experienced of these women were healers and midwifes, often-called Granny Women. They were known far and wide for their giving service and helping hands. Folks depended upon the woman to come when the need arose and they relied on the Granny Woman’s special knowledge of herbs, roots, and concoctions. Those women had skills and the wisdom to use the native plants for healing purposes.
            In early days, doctors were few and far between. Sometimes the great distance a doctor had to travel was a hindrance for those who were gravely ill. Before the turn of the century, many doctors were not trained in the knowledge of germs. The states lacked standardized licensing requirements, the quality of their education varied, and so their medical practices were handled with crude effectiveness. 
            Many rural Ozarkian women preferred the familiar Granny Woman to treat them with their mild herbal remedies and to deliver their babies. Traditional midwives met the concern for modesty during the birthing process, an important consideration in areas where the use of male doctors might offend an entire community.
            Some midwives carried a “midwife’s book” to reference when complicated childbirth procedures arose. Sometimes they used superstitious rituals to give mothers psychological relief such as having the mother hold something that belonged to her husband to symbolically bring him into the delivery room. Their use of herbal remedies and teas helped speed the birth along; but they might also use morphine tablets or quinine when the pain became unbearable, if the medicine was available.
            After the birth of a baby, the Granny Woman might stay for a week or longer to help about the house and allow the new mother time in bed to heal. Caring for the new mother, the new baby, and doing housework and household chores was of great importance to keep the woman from hemorrhaging or having other childbirth complications.
            Many times Granny Woman was not paid with money. Rather, they accepted whatever offering the family could provide at the time, possibly giving her meat or chickens, vegetables from the garden or enough material to make a dress. If the family had nothing, that was all right, too.
            As midwives became certified within their home state, they were able to charge to attend births. The going rate in 1906 was $3.00 her birth attendance.
            Granny Women knew how to prepare herbs, roots, tree bark and other native plants and flowers to make healing ointments, teas, poultices, and concoctions. Most native roots had to be gathered before the sap began to rise because they lost their value after that. And, some plants became poisonous at certain points in their growth cycle.
            For example, Southwest Missouri midwives surely combined sage, peppermint, black walnut, slippery elm bark, pokeroot, horseradish, elderberries, dill weed, with honey, black strap molasses, lard, onions, vinegar and whiskey to make tonics, potions, plasters, poultices, and teas. And many a child with an earache had tobacco smoke blown into their ears as a cure.
            The Missouri Medical College was originally organized in 1840 as the Medical Department of Kemper College. It was the first medical school established west of the Mississippi river. In 1845, it became the Medical Department of the University of Missouri. There are a few women midwives listed on the Missouri History Program website, all of whom lived in St. Louis, Missouri for the years of 1888-1892.
            The American Medical Association was founded in 1847. Eventually doctors began to resent midwives. They looked upon the granny women as competition for business. The medical profession was growing and insisted upon education, standard examination procedures, and licensing requirements for all practicing physicians. Throughout the nation, doctors waged a campaign to run midwives out of business. They portrayed the women as being ignorant of medical procedures and lacking cleanliness.
            Midwives practiced cleanliness by scrubbing and cleaning their homes on a daily basis. After attending deliveries, they cleaned up the bed and the new mother and infant. Sterile environments did not come along until years later when hospitals flourished.
            Even though European countries were establishing schools of midwifery, American doctors were refusing to admit women to medical schools. When the American Medical Association demanded that all people practicing medicine be trained and then licensed, that was the demise of  midwifery.  
            However, in the isolated hills and hollows of the Ozarks Mountains in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, as well as other isolated parts of the United States, Granny Women continued to serve their communities with their skills into the twentieth century. Ozarks folklorists have collected information about these women and their healing practices.
            Until the New Deal programs and World War II changed the region’s financial system and transportation, bad roads and the lack of money forced most Ozarkians to rely on native remedies prepared by the womenfolk of the family.
            Eventually, pregnant women began to enter hospitals to give birth and Granny Women went by the wayside. The science of medicine scoffed at the nurturing and holistic care that midwives had provided their family, friends and neighbors.
            The era of the women’s healing art of domestic medicine is now history. But if we look closely into our own family history, we would surely find Granny Women.  
            My great, great-grandmother Nancy Smith Johnson practiced midwifery and the healing arts in the hills and hollows of McDonald County, Missouri. Although I have not found any legal certificates providing that information, it is noted in her obituary. Taken from her obituary, it reads: “The nights were never too dark nor the times too hard for Nancy Johnson to willingly lend a helping hand in time of need. She could count by the dozens the babies she helped into the world and the lives she practically saved. Her cheerful disposition and pleasant smile made her most enjoyable to all around her.”
            My family photographs of Nancy Johnson show her as short and petite, with black hair and a thin face with a sharp jutting chin and high cheekbones. She bore five children in her lifetime and passed away in 1949 at Rocky Comfort, Missouri.
            Among the acquisitions at the McDonald County Historical Museum, we found Delpha Laughlin’s midwife certificate. Issued on October 20th, 1884, at the State Board of Health in Hannibal, Missouri, it certifies that Laughlin had practiced midwifery for a period of ten years and was therefore legally authorized to practice in the state. Laughlin received her certificate at Powell, Missouri, on January 1, 1885.
            Today midwifery is an internationally recognized profession. The American College of Nurse-Midwives includes the primary health care of women and their newborn children. A Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM) is a woman who is educated in nursing and midwifery, who possesses certification according to the requirements of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
            The Nurse-Midwifery practice manages women’s health care, focusing on pregnancy, childbirth, the postpartum period, care of the newborn, and the family planning and gynecological needs of women. The Certified Nurse-Midwife practices within a health care system that provides for consultation, collaborative management or referral as indicated by the health status of the client.
            Despite the evolution of medicine, Ozarks women continued to practice the healing arts that had been handed down from mother to daughter. Instilled in the women, they did whatever was necessary to care for their family and friends, in sickness and in health.
            The herb garden was grown right alongside the vegetable garden. In the fields and woods native plants, trees, and flowers grew in abundance offering their healing properties for those who gathered and gleaned.
            In this modern world, there are those who scoff at and become quite angry with the thought of people seeking holistic health and “folk,” “home,” or “natural” remedies. And of course, after doctors spend countless years of study and pay for it all, they do not want to hear of someone seeking backwoods cures.
            Today herbs are a big industry. Herbal stores and natural food stores run a brisk business. Women have always known how to care for their own. I remember my grandmothers using herbs and plants to put a meal on the table and to heal what ailed us. And I am certainly proud to have found a Granny Woman in my family history and to have the certificate for Delpha Laughlin at the McDonald County Historical Society.
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References for this article come from online sources: Missouri History Museum: Genealogy and Local History Index; Missouri Medical College (; an online workshop, “Herbal Lore and The Historic Medicinal Uses of Herbs”; a copy of Delpha Laughlin’s Midwife Certificate; and from the obituary of Nancy Johnson from the Wheaton Journal on DVD, courtesy of the MO Historical Society. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Legacy of the Hope Chest

The Legacy of the Hope Chest
Karen Utter Jennings 
            Hoping and wishing and thinking and dreaming…..
            Weddings play a big part of nearly every little girl’s dreams. The tradition of the hope chest began in the middle Ages when all families expected that their girls would marry a handsome man and live a blissful life. Preparations began as soon as the daughter was born and a family’s hopes and dreams for their young girl were placed in a wooden chest or box.
            In Italy, these highly- decorated boxes were called “cassones,” in Germany they were “shranks” and when European immigrants arrived in America, they brought their idea of chests with them. They were called “hope chests” or “blanket chests” and were made of cedar wood to protect the contents from bugs.  
            During Word War I, the Lane Company, based in Virginia, manufactured wood ammunition boxes for the United States government. After the war, the market for the boxes faded, and they turned to producing wooden chests geared to the natural romantic spirit of girls. The Lane Hope Chest was born. Today, Lane chests are a popular choice for hope chests.
            But, what goes into a hope chest? The answer depends on the personal ideas, choices and thoughts for the chest’s owner. Typically, things such as collections of all types, books, photos and albums, linens and quilts, dishes, antiques, and baby items may be placed inside.  
            Today, the idea of a hope chest does not necessarily mean a young woman’s dream is to get married. She may dream of being an entrepreneur and having her own business after she graduates university and decides to remain single. Anything that represents your interests should be cherished. Hope chests are just that: place your hopes and dreams of whatever kind of life you want, inside. When you are ready for that life, the hope chest is there with all your planning inside.
            Hope chests are not just for girls. Boys, too, need to be encouraged to keep their memorabilia and keepsakes. One might want to title a chest for their son as a “treasure chest.” You can envision what a treasure chest might look like. Explore the possibilities with your son or grandson to peek his interest in keeping such a chest.
            Today’s market offers plenty of styles, shapes, sizes and colors. From the traditional “folk art” piece to the modern sleek chest, explore the possibilities before you choose which chest will hold your hopes and dreams. The future can be placed in a chest.            
            I have my own hope chest. As a child, we lived in the same small town as my paternal great-grandmother, Ollie Johnson Utter Brier.  And I was in her house just as much as I was in my own home.
            One of the pieces of furniture Ollie owned was an old cedar chest. The chest is made of cedar wood and is a traditional size. It sets on the floor (there are no legs) and has carved-wood handles on each end of the lid. Rectangular diamond-shaped wooden pieces adorn the front and sides of the cedar chest and it is very heavy.    
            As I grew into a young girl, one day when I went to visit, the cedar chest was setting in the living room under the front window. Great-grandma Ollie and I sat on the hardwood floor next to the chest. She explained that the chest would be mine when she died or when I got married, whichever came first. She called the cedar chest a hope chest and explained the meaning of it.  She encouraged me to cherish my keepsakes. She said she was “setting things back” for me when I grew up and married, so the things inside were mine for my new life that lay ahead of me.
            She told me that my grandfather, her only son, Perry Utter, made the chest when he was a boy.  She said Perry was talented in woodworking and he loved to make things.  Ollie’s father, Thomas “Bud” Johnson, was a logger and hewed lumber on the old home place in McDonald County, Missouri. Perry learned the wood making trade from his Pa Johnson.
            As Ollie’s gnarled hands lifted the lid, I saw several things inside wrapped up with doilies and handkerchiefs (hankies as we called them) and laying next to each other. She lifted the first item out of the chest, unwrapped it, and handed me a German pickle dish that was very old and worth a lot of money. She told the story of the dish and that it had belonged to a female family member.  
            Ollie brought out a square box that housed her Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. Her story about cameras and her love of taking pictures is one that I will always remember.  As soon as cameras became available, she bought her first one and began snapping pictures of everything around her, especially her family. Along with the camera, she gave me her photo album.
            When we reached the bottom of the cedar chest, we rewrapped each item and placed them back into their safe place. She closed the lid on the chest and I ran off to play.   
            I am happy to say, I got married before her death, so the cedar chest came to live at my house.  Over the years, it lost its strong scent of cedar and it needed a good cleaning and a few repairs. I used soap for wooden furniture and left it as it is. I never want to refinish it, as doing so would diminish the vintage charm.
            As time goes by, I add things to the old hope chest and someday I will sit with my granddaughter to explain the history of the ephemera and memorabilia. I have placed my hopes and dreams that they will one-day carryon the tradition of passing down heirlooms through the generations into my hope chest.
            What about you? Have you created legacy for your children or grandchildren? Do you have a hope chest filled with your hopes and dreams?

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Disclaimer: in my legacy writing, I do not intend to be sexist, bias, or unethical toward gender or nationality. I merely write and report the facts that I have found and those that I know from my own personal experience.