Granddaddy's Search for Sassafras
Granddaddy's Search for Sassafras


Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Granddaddy McKeehan cured asthma that plagued me as a small child, or so Mama always declared. Theirs was an old and simple home remedy, but it gave hope to distraught mothers for the eventual recovery of their little ones. Perhaps "the cure" served only as a type of placebo -- I don't know. No matter, it worked wonders with my case according to Mama and my paternal great-grandparents Bill and Bessie McKeehan, who lived next door to us in Athens, Tennessee.

Weakened by a worrisome bout, I showed few signs of improvement even after a doctor's visit. That was the last of an era when physicians still made house calls, the main reason being that most patients lacked transportation. We had no car until I was in high school. During my childhood, only doctors, undertakers, and rich folks owned automobiles. Grocers with small neighborhood markets delivered groceries in an old but reliable truck. A few large churches in town provided a car to the pastor for visitation purposes, etc. Other than that, very few cars traveled our neighborhood streets. Since there were no city school buses, children always walked to and from school. Everybody walked safely wherever they went.

So, when Dr. Ed Foree's big black sedan arrived, everyone noticed and knew immediately that a neighbor must be ill. All inquired and offered to help. It was an age when everybody knew and cared about neighbors. Many were related and could explain their kinship, no matter how distant -- that is, if one could listen long enough.

One cool but sunny morning soon after Doctor Ed's visit, Granddaddy donned his old felt hat and plaid jacket and headed for Railroad Avenue, the nearest route into the country. He was on a mission for me, his youngest great-granddaughter, the wee lass he fondly called, "Sandal." He was bound for the woods around Mt. Verd and Clearwater communities that he knew so well. There he sought the slender sassafras tree, now scarce within cities.

Maybe it was the blossoming yellow flowers that made this tree easy to spot among so many others in the dense green woods, or maybe he simply recognized the distinct shape of sassafras leaves. At any rate, Granddaddy knew where sassafras grew in the familiar woodlands near Clearwater and Rogers' Creek. He knew all the indigenous trees. Wood and lumber, he certainly understood after a lifetime of work as a sawyer at various sawmills in McMinn County.

He had dug, cut, and dried sassafras roots to make tea more times than he could remember. When boiled and strained, the liquid from the roots made a delicious aromatic tea, especially if sweetened with a little honey or brown sugar. From time to time, he relished a cup of the fragrant, spicy hot tea. Old folks used it medicinally, however, as a stimulant or stomachic, an elixir to strengthen the stomach. In 1864, sassafras was listed as a curative and treatment in a Catalogue of Herbs, Roots, Barks, Powdered Articles, & c.. This tree was useful in a variety of ways. Its bark was boiled to create yellow and orange dyes for yarn. Also, the Pennsylvania Dutch always used a sweet-smelling sassafras limb for stirring lye soap in an iron kettle over the fire.

This time, though, he wasn't root-hunting, nor did he actually need the roots. On this particular hunt, he was determined to cut either a sapling or a limb from a fully-grown tee. In his pocket, was a length of string wound carefully around a piece of cardboard. This string had been measured and cut to match "Sandal's" exact height when standing straight against the wall. The branch had to equal or somewhat exceed my height. According to the home remedy, when a child outgrew the length of such a branch, then the youngster's asthma would be cured.

Although exhausted from the long, tiring trek, he was successful and his search productive. By day's end, he walked up the dusty, unpaved road toward home carrying a sassafras limb only slightly longer than I was tall, just as he had promised early that morning. The remedy required placing the limb in the loft above where I lived and slept. It had to be left there, untouched, until I had grown taller than the length of that limb. Daddy climbed up into the loft of our house and placed the sassafras limb in the ceiling area above my bed.

All of this seemed to ease my mother's anxiety and stress. Somehow, it enabled her to cope more easily with my prolonged coughing bouts and the constant wheezing so typical of this illness. It allayed her fears. There was no logical explanation for the changes that occurred subsequently. Old-timey remedies were recipes using natural ingredients gathered by loving hands and woven together with the gossamer threads of hope. Mama always said, "By the time Sandra had outgrown that sassafras branch, she had no more asthma." Never again in my entire six decades have I suffered with this illness -- thanks be unto God! Even today, somewhere in the loft of our old house is the brittle branch, yet untouched. At about seventy-two years of age, Granddaddy had found Sandal's sassafras and never again searched for more.

photo of Granny and me about this time
"The Face in the Well" by Sandra (Nipper) Ratledge (another story about Bill and Bessie McKeehan)

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This site is dedicated to the memory of my parents, Tommy and Beulah (Cline) Nipper.

Sandra Ratledge

All you kinfolks, put some mail in that old box!