Medicine in the Saddlebags
Medicine in the Saddlebags


Sandra Nipper Ratledge


Every family seems blessed with its own anecdotes, tales told and retold on all sorts of occasions -- anywhere from homecomings to hog killings. Celebrations like weddings and poundings, communal work like barn raisings and quilting bees, as well as rites of passage like baptisms in the river and graveside services, all were likely settings for sharing stories. Kinfolks, young and old, recounted fond memories of funny incidents in the daily lives of loved ones. Their fun-loving sense of humor brought smiles and chuckles and uplifted spirits.

The tales they told often centered around beloved elders like my own great-grandfather Chief Cline and his uncle David Lewis from Ebenezer in the Knobs of McMinn and Monroe Counties in Southeast Tennessee. Amusing aptly describes Uncle Dave for he was certainly a colorful character. There was no dearth of his own stories about Civil War experiences as a sergeant in Company E, 7th Regiment, Tennessee Mounted Infantry, USA. In fact, he seemed ever ready to supply a story about the olden days of his childhood for any interested listeners. His children and grandchildren enjoyed the story about "Grandpa Lewis and the saddlebags," and his great-granddaughter Mildred Maupin shared this humorous anecdote with me.

Dave's second wife, Elizabeth "Bettie" Walker from Mt. Vernon, was affectionately called "Grandma Bettie" by step-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren alike. For some grandchildren like Ozra (Gay) Maupin, she was the only maternal grandmother they ever knew. Their own grandmother had died before they were born. McMinn County, TN Marriage Books record Dave and Bettie's marriage date as the Fourth of July 1904, one year and six days after the death of his first wife Margaret (Cline) Lewis on June 28, 1903. This was a second marriage for the elderly couple. In fact, he was just three months shy of his seventy-fifth birthday, and she was fifty-four on their wedding day.

As a a senior citizen, Uncle Dave had his fair share of ailments. Stiff joints aching with arthritis, indigestion, fatigue, and other maladies were common complaints in his day to day existence. He often groaned with stomach aches and abdominal pains. Most of his problems were considered typical results of old age; however, incurable stomach cancer was finally diagnosed. By that time, though, there was little to do but pray and wait. His grandson Lowe Carden helped with farming and his care before and after the diagnosis, which explains why Uncle Dave bestowed a child's part of his estate to Lowe in his last will and testament. One daughter Alice (Lewis) Gay and her husband John Gay moved into a small house on the Lewis farm in order to help with his care when he became bedridden.

Uncle Dave's second wife Bettie had learned a little about nursing over the years because she was the widow of "Doc" Walker. Her first husband George W. Walker, interred at Eleazer Methodist Church Cemetery in Monroe County, TN, was known as "Doc" because he served the Knobs of Mt. Vernon, Ebenezer, Eleazer, and Hickory Grove communities as a "country doctor" or herbalist of sorts. This was a time when house calls were the doctor's normal routine. Folks never visited a doctor unless absolutely necessary; moreover, patients were usually incapacitated by the time a doctor was notified. Usually, people relied on simple home remedies such as mixtures of honey, whiskey, and rock candy for cough syrup, poltices of turpentine, coal oil, and lard for respiratory ailments, and the "onion treatment" for reducing fevers. So, when a doctor had to be summoned, there was usually a health crisis of some sort. Typical home visits included various medical procedures ranging from pulling teeth to delivering babies.

Few, if any, doctors residing in the hills and hollows attended medical school, and even fewer attained a medical certificate. Their experience came from assisting doctors in field hospitals and nursing during the Civil War. Others gained experience simply as an "apprentice" to older doctors from nearby towns. They followed doctors on house calls and assisted with patients. Likely, they learned to prepare medicines using a mortar and pestle thus also serving in a capacity similar to modern pharmacists. Whatever concoctions they mixed as liniments or brewed for droughts were usually welcomed by the ill and trusted by tired, worried, and desperate families.

Like most local doctors of the nineteenth century, Doc Walker journeyed on horseback, the most sensible and fastest mode of transportation. Roads in the mountains and foothills were narrow, unpaved dirt paths through gorges and across creeks. Accessing remote cabins high in the hills made these house calls a logistical challenge. For convenience, he carried tonics, elixirs, and other medications safely inside his saddlebags to keep them high and dry above creek level. After his death on October 4, 1900, at age sixty-four, his widow Bettie Walker kept his saddlebags in tact.

Years later, long after her marriage to Uncle Dave Lewis in the summer of 1904, a few relatives noticed the old worn saddlebags at the Lewis cabin and commented on them. With curiosity, they opened the dried out leather pockets and found some of Doc Walker's ancient medicines still tucked inside. Uncle Dave, who had been complaining earlier with some sort of ailment, was watching the proceedings and declared, "I believe I'll take it. Maybe it'll do me some good! Might help me!"


©1999--present year by Sandra N. Ratledge. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Any reproduction or inclusion of this website's contents in publication whether online or in print is prohibited. Do NOT copy photographs and upload on Find a Grave or any other internet websites, blogs, attach to family trees, or print in publications. Do NOT copy stories, articles, documents, sketches, anecdotes, letters, obituaries, content data, etc. and attach to family trees or upload on other websites of any kind.

Sandra Ratledge

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.