Granny Woman and Yarb Doctors were the male and female counterparts of Ozarkians who healed primarily with herbs. The “Doctor of Oto,” who was featured in a previous column, was a Yarb Doctor. But there were many more Granny Women.
In the days before modern medicine, and for a while afterward, medicinal skills were where you found them. Since doctoring sick kids and helping other women giving birth fell to the women, they were often the only ones to call on when you needed medical attention. Those who had a special knack for healing earned the name of “Granny Woman” or “Granny Doctor.”
Some of their methods and cures may seem very strange and primitive to us today, but they probably had some curative powers because they stood the test of time before the availability of modern medicines made them obsolete. When I was a young man working as a carpenter, I stepped on a nail one day and my boss wouldn’t let me go to the doctor until I soaked my foot in coal oil (kerosene). I don’t know if it did any good, but that was the traditional Ozarks method of treating a puncture and besides making my foot smell bad, it didn’t seem to hurt.
A Granny Woman might have her own concoction for treating whooping cough (boil red clover blossoms, strain out the blossoms and add honey) and in addition to potions, she could make a variety of ointments and poultices. A salve made from persimmons was used as an astringent on wounds. They generally treated the symptoms rather than the underlying illness, but creating relief from the symptoms helped their patients heal.
Doctors would later complain that some Granny Women also used superstition-based practices in their healing. While this was true, since their patients believed in those superstitions, it was like using placebos on modern-day patients.
Granny Women were, of course, the midwives of their day and time. They not only knew about birthin’ babies, since they had given birth themselves, they could use natural medicines like blackberry tea to prevent hemorrhaging and a potion made from slippery elm bark to speed the delivery. They also stayed to take care of the infant after its birth. If a baby was “born blue” which signified it wasn’t getting enough oxygen, the Granny Doctor would scrape the black build-up off the bottom of a skillet and make a tea. The black build-up was creosote created by the wood-burning range and it stimulated the heart and thus provided more oxygen to the newborn.
In Taney County, Ella (Ingenthron) Dunn was born in 1890 in Forsyth. She married at the age of fourteen and in her later years she would admit that was too young to get married. “(Instead) I ought of been home being spanked and washing the dishes,” she said.
In her twenty-year career as a Granny Woman, Ella delivered seventy-one babies in Taney County. She learned this skill from her own mother and would have delivered considerably more youngsters, but she retired from delivering babies when Skaggs Hospital was built in Branson in 1949. Many trips by horseback were required to deliver the seventy-one babies and she never asked for a dime. Sometimes she was given a dollar and at the most, five dollars, but most often her only reward was a heartfelt “thank you.” In those days, many women would not let a man help them with their delivery so Ella assisted several local physicians.
In 1953 she traveled to Wichita, Kansas and took a course in physical therapy. When she returned to Taney County, she worked with stroke victims until her health caused her to retire. For many years Ella was a country correspondent for the “Taney County Republican,” and wrote her own biography, “The Granny Woman of the Hills.” Ella must have taken some of her own medicine because when she died in 1994 it was at the age of 104 years.
In neighboring Christian County there are recorded accounts of Granny Women who plied their trade well before Ella Dunn’s time. One was Barbara (Ollis) Harvill who was known simply as “Granny” Harvill. She and her husband moved to Christian County from Kentucky in 1850. They had ten children and lived in a log home on Swan Creek. She delivered many babies in her area of Christian County and doctored with herbs. You had to be tough to service your area as a Granny Woman in those days and I think she qualified. Just three days after giving birth to her fourth child, she planted potatoes with her newborn tied up in her apron. Granny Harvill died in 1915 as she was approaching her 92nd birthday.
In the Nixa area, Martha Cassinda (Ruyle) Bolin, who was called “Aunt Cindy” Bolin, served as a Granny Woman. She was born in 1831 in Illinois and married in Greene County, Missouri in 1850, where her husband Granville was born. They set up home near Nixa and raised their nine children. Aunt Cindy spent many years serving as a Granny Woman and died in 1910 at the age of 78.
Without these courageous and caring women, the Ozarks pioneers would have been much worse off.