Home remedies in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Islanders weren't able to visit the neighbourhood walk-in clinic for colds, flu and other minor ailments 100 years ago. Instead they used remedies concocted at home — some that have even stood the test of time, like fish oil supplements.

It wasn't unusual to take turpentine to cure a cough

The codfish were big in Rustico in decades past, and people saved the livers to make cod liver oil. (PARO)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

Islanders weren't able to visit the neighbourhood walk-in clinic for colds, flu and other minor ailments 100 years ago. 

Instead many used remedies concocted at home — some that have even stood the test of time, like fish oil supplements. 

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Ralph Cooke fished off Cape Wolfe in western P.E.I. for many years, catching cod that weighed more than 45 kilograms (100 pounds). Their livers were always saved to make homemade cod liver oil, Cooke said, which he and his 10 siblings took daily. 

Nowadays blueberries are recognized as a healthy food with lots of antioxidants. Ben Clow at Clow's General Store in Murray Harbour North was years ahead of his time making and drinking his own homemade blueberry wine, said his nephew Roy Clow. 

"He was a big, big man, about six foot four, and a big square-built man — he'd weigh close to 300 pound. And he was good on his feet too, light on his feet," said Clow. 

"He bought blueberries from the ladies in the country and he shipped them to Charlottetown in boxes. He had one of them whiskey kegs, a 45-gallon keg, a hog's head they call them."

Blueberry wine and Epsom salts

Clow would put 30 pounds of blueberries in the keg with 20 pounds of sugar, then wash his feet, get in the barrel and stomp on the berries.

Roy Clow back in 1998 at his home in Montague. (Dutch Thompson)

"I seen him doing it and he was laughing to kill himself," Clow recalled. His uncle would leave the concoction in the sun for 30 days before drinking it.

"You talk about strong! He gave me a glass — I was only a little fella, and he set me drunk. I was drunk as hell when I went home," Clow said. 

Clow's uncle Ben also dosed himself with a heaping tablespoon of Epsom salts in cold water every week, and was never sick and lived to an old age.

'Didn't kill you but it stopped you coughing'

Bessie Ching was born in 1912 and lived to be 96. She recalled some home remedies from her area in northeastern P.E.I.

'For a cold I would have a teaspoon of sugar with a drop of Minard's Liniment,' recalled Bessie Ching. (Dutch Thompson)

"For a cold I would have a teaspoon of sugar with a drop of Minard's liniment. It didn't kill you but stopped you coughing," Ching said. Minard's liniment was invented and manufactured in Nova Scotia beginning in 1860 and is still sold today, according to its web page — its main ingredient is camphor. 

Her mother rubbed goose grease mixed with turpentine on Ching's chest for a cold, something Ching continued with her children. 

"We never took our kids to the doctor — if they had a sneeze now they run somewhere. But in horse and wagon days you couldn't do that, you had your own remedies," Ching said. 

An ad for Minard's Liniment which was invented in Nova Scotia and was popular in the Maritimes. (Stella Pharmaceutical)

She also made mustard plasters for her husband, who had pneumonia several times. 

"We didn't have nothing really. We would walk to school, and for our lunch ... they made the biscuits then pretty big, or a bannock, and we put molasses on it, stuck it together and wrapped it in a piece of brown paper or a newspaper," Ching said. They'd put glass bottles of milk — often recycling those old liniment bottles, she said — in a brook near the school to keep cool. 

"At dinner time we'd run to the hill and have our molasses biscuit and our bottle of milk. That was lunch, and it was good."

Salt herring on the feet

Jean MacCann's family ran the post office in Covehead where a tin of goose grease was always kept handy.

Families with a bit of money in 1915 might have bought some cough syrup or liniment at Two Macs Drugstore in Charlottetown. (PARO)

"For earache or colds, I'd take a halibut liver oil all year long, one a day, and I'm never troubled with colds," MacCann said. She shared a cold remedy from a local minister: half a teaspoon of baking soda for two days "dries the head up, nothing to it."

MacCann's daughter also created cough syrup by fermenting spruce buds for a year. 

Tommy Duncan was born in Mill River in 1900 and lived to be 100 years old. 

"If you had something the matter with your feet they'd put salt herring on them," Duncan said. His father also bathed young Tommy's feet, which were sore from going barefoot, in water boiled with bark from alder trees. His wife Pearl Duncan believed that was a cure her father-in-law had learned from the Mi'kmaq. 

Tommy and Pearl Duncan recalled treating one of their children with salt pork on his chest. (Dutch Thompson)

Pearl also recalled treating their son George with a last-minute home remedy. 

"He was about four or five, he took bronchitis. I didn't know what in the name of time to do. I got a piece of salt pork and put it on his chest. In the morning it was pretty near cooked, [and] he was alright," she said. 

"They used to get the dead chickens and put their feet in them, for high fevers," said Rose Deighan, who was originally from Newfoundland and married Charlie Deighan from Summerside.

"They'd slit the chicken and put one for each foot," to draw out fever, she said.

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