from the upcoming and untitled book about Western West Viriginia
The Miracle of Snake Oil
By Gary C. Childers of Huntington, West Virginia
My mother, Mildred Ann, born in 1923 at home, about five miles from Leet, West Virginia on the Lincoln County end of Big Ugly Creek, still remembers the story of snake oil circa 1936, with a mischievous smile. And, with some background, the story can be painted more clearly for future generations to appreciate.
Mother, the seventh child to survive a number of later-in-life miscarriages, grew up with brothers on each side of her, was raised by a loving mother but a stern, no nonsense father. Although, as you will see, he was a man who could become very angry and downright mean. Yet, she was “blessed” with a strong urge to giggle uncontrollably when something struck her funny bone, which could anger her father even more.
As Mom grew up, she shadowed her mother and learned to cook and perform the household chores thought only woman’s work in those days. She also learned to play front porch music with others on the creek, fish for some relief of boredom, ride the mule to Leet for groceries, be the first one in her family to graduate high school or college, and dream about her future (now long since retired from teaching elementary school after thirty plus years).
Part of Mom’s make up was to find a way around the rules so she could fulfill some of those dreams or wants not traditionally held, while staying out of the way of her dad, and not being caught by her mother either. One of the times that apparently drove my grandmother crazy was when she caught Mom wearing the high heeled shoes of one of the two teachers who boarded at their home. You see, Mom had found out that high heels could hold her on the creek bank more securely than her bare feet could while she fished, by digging the heels of the shoes into the creek bank up to the soles. After a strong reprimand the time she was caught, she learned to clean the shoes much better after each use in the future.
However, part of what made her and my grandmother’s life much tougher was to avoid making my grandfather angry. He was a man who beat animals if they didn’t obey, fought as a first alternative, and acted out his anger without respect to any man. Once he grew very angry, over what is still unknown, and threatened to shoot my grandmother. When he left to get his gun, Grandma gathered Mom and her younger brother, Bud, and headed to the hill across from the house and ducked into an abandoned pigpen. Although it was dry, an odor remained and dust-covered cobwebs filled the inside. It did, however, have a roof good enough to protect them from the dampness of the night as they huddled together to stay warm. After he went to work the next morning, they returned home dreading his return. But as far as Mom remembers, the incident was never brought up again or repeated.
Grandpa ran a store, ran a post office, farmed, made moonshine liquor, hung brandish clot in mines for dust control, and much more over his lifetime. Even though he and Grandma had many problems, she seems to have been a stand by her mankind of woman. Once, during a November election at Leet, the sheriff arrested Grandpa for distributing his “shine.” When Grandma heard, she loaded a gun, mounted a horse, and lit out to get her man back. When she arrived, it was reported she approached the deputy sheriff from behind, stuck the gun in his back, and demanded he let Grandpa go. After all, he wasn’t buying votes but trying to make a living. The deputy agreed and let him go!
It now seems odd to me, with Grandpa’s temper, that he liked anybody. Yet, before sitting down to eat dinner he would look up and down the road to see if any of his old cronies were coming by. If so, he would have them in to eat. As often was the case, Grandma had to start cooking again to serve a second meal to men who apparently had the same mindset as Grandpa or were intimated by his demeanor. After the meal, the men sat and talked of life on the creek, spun stories, and bragged. Sundays were even worse. Many were regulars for a free meal at my grandmother’s expense. It was on one of those Sundays that the snake oil episode was hatched.
Grandpa informed his Sunday cronies that an alleged article in Grit Magazine announced that the rendering from a snake was a cure-all that they needed to try. It healed anything and everything from gout, to skin rashes, and beyond. At his insistence, they all bought into the newest cure, while poor old Grandma was ordered to get ready to make a batch from the rendering of the next snake they could find. Within days, Grandpa came toting in a headless rattlesnake for her to dress and process. Unable to refuse due to his temper and strong belief in the remedy, she agreed. However, she knew she couldn’t do it and was left wondering what to do.
Hastily, she and Mom contrived to use the rendering from a fresh-killed hog as a substitute and with seasoning and the like, maybe they could pass off the processed hog grease as snake oil? After some pretentious labor, a lot of hoopla, and the special presentation of the concoction in a suitable vessel, Grandpa and his disciples applied a liberal portion each Sunday for the next few months, declaring that they felt better. He insisted all new recruits needed to share in the miracle cure.
You know, once my granny presented the newfound remedy, she excused herself quickly and retired to the kitchen two rooms away, hardly able to keep from wetting herself while trying to hold the laughter inside. Her laughter was compounded when she saw Mom hardly able to keep her hysterics out of earshot from my grandfather. Still today, Mom looks over her shoulder before saying she can’t imagine what my grandfather would have said or done if he had found out about their generic substitute.
Sometimes the best humor comes from unexpected places, although it may come basted in “snake oil.”