Superstitions and Home Remedies

Prior to World War II, many residents of Northeast Texas lived in rural areas. Poverty and isolation made transportation and communication difficult. These people could not turn on the television or listen to the radio to find out what the day's weather would be like or what weather conditions would be like in the near future. Medical technology was not as advanced as it is today. Also, rural life styles impeded access to medical treatment. These people had many adages that they used concerning home remedies, weather, and superstitions in their everyday lives. The adages usually worked. People also relied on the Farmer's Almanac. This book told them when to plant their crops, when to make lye soap, and when to slaughter their hogs.

I've collected many expressions about weather, home remedies and superstitions through interviews with numerous people that live in Northeast Texas. The people interviewed have grown up in or near Gilmer, Texas. They remember their parents and grandparents using these expressions to aid them in their day-to-day lives.

Although sound medical treatment was not readily available, people used numerous home remedies to recover from such medical ailments as the common cold to deep wounds. Common objects found around the house and many other items provided the necessary articles to aid the people of that time in their recovery.

Before cars were a common sight on highways and farm-to-market roads, horseback and walking were the most readily available forms of transportation. If someone suffered from a deep cut that required stitches, and could not be carried to a hospital, the medical procedures needed to stop the bleeding had to be performed at the house. One familiar way of terminating blood loss was to place boiled elm bark on the cut. Other remedies included gathering spider webs and placing them on the cut or applying soot from the fireplace to the cut. Although the soot usually stopped the bleeding, the person was left with a black scar that stayed with him the rest of his life. Severe nose bleeds could be suppressed by placing a pair of scissors on the back of the neck with the point down.

Ear aches and tooth aches were frequent hardships. The most common way to alleviate these pains was to heat a sock that had salt in it to provide a heating pad. Other suggestions for a sore tooth were to tie a red pepper on the bottom of one's big toe if the sore tooth was on the lower jaw. If the sore tooth was on the upper jaw, a person had to tie the pepper to the top of his/her toe. The average remedy for an ear ache was to drop some type of oil in the infected ear. Certain people suggested that the oil be obtained from the fat in a possum's hide, and others advised that the "Betsy Bug", a hard-shell bug found in decaying wood, contained a drop of oil that could be procured by pinching its head off. The useful drop was located at the joint of the head and neck.

Although these methods are not in practice today, they were useful treatments in the life of the rural farmer.

The common cold and sore throat were very common. Many things were used to prevent them. To prevent school children from getting a cold, a clove of garlic or a block of camphor was tied around their necks. Nightly prevention of a cold for an adult involved touching a bottle of turpentine to his/her tongue twice. One of the cures for a cold was the use of a "Sally Rag". This rag consisted of a piece of flannel cloth rubbed with turpentine, Vicks salve, and coal oil. After the rag has been heated, it was kept on the chest or throat of the sick person while he/she slept. The juice from a baked onion was given to small children to help treat colds. Many forms of homemade cough medicine existed. One recipe simply consisted of placing hard peppermint candy in a mason jar, covering it with whiskey, and using a teaspoon at a time to relieve the constant coughing associated with a cold. Other recipes composed of sugar, pepper sauce, water and coal oil.

Prior to the invention of toothpaste and the plastic tooth brush, oral hygiene consisted of a wooden twig and snuff. Snuff toothbrushes were made from blackgum, elm, and birch twigs. Indigo and fig roots also provided softer material with which brushes could be made. Bristles for the brush were made by chewing one end of the twig until it became frayed. Snuff toothbrushes served as the only form of oral hygiene in many country communities.

Stone bruises, splinters, "risens" and bad sores frequently occurred in the average household. A piece of fat meat was used to heal stone bruises, remove deep splinters, and bring "risens" to a head. Another common treatment for "risens" was to place the inside lining of an egg on the swollen area or to make a poultice from raw potato shavings in order to bring it to a head. The majority of splinters, sores, and sties were treated with pieces of fat meat. Routine treatment for a sty was to rub a coin over the infected area.

"Cradle Cap" and "thrush" regularly occurred in babies. To relieve a baby of "cradle cap" a wet diaper was rubbed on the child's head. It was said that a person who had never seen his natural father could blow into a baby's mouth to cure "thrush".

Poke salad greens and sassafras had a variety of uses. In the spring they were used to condition the body after winter. Many people said that the greens and tea cleaned out the rust that had accumulated in the body while people remained indoors during the cold part of the year. They provided a good source of protein and vitamin C. Sassafras leaves were rubbed on the legs to act as a repellent for redbugs. To treat severe itching, some would boil poke salad greens and bathe in the water.

It was believed that warts could be removed by being rubbed with one's mother's dirty dishrag. It was further believed that after placing the dishrag under the doorstep the wart would disappear in less than two weeks. Many people recommended applications of ear wax on fever blisters. To relieve painful itching a mixture of arsenic of lead and water was applied to the irritated area. Broken bones could be healed by setting the bone and making a cast with a mix of red clay and vinegar. Bronchitis was treated by placing a mixture of salt and lard on the indention of one's neck just under the Adam's apple. Ringworm infections were cured by rubbing a green walnut on the infection.

Some common weather predictions were as follows:


  • If it thunders before 7:00 AM, it will rain before 11:00 AM
  • If a herd of cattle settle on the side of a hill
  • If a quail whistles after sundown
  • If a tree frog hollers
  • If you turn a dead snake on it's back
  • If you hang a dead snake on a fence
  • If "mare tail" clouds appear, it will rain within three days
  • If flies gather in large numbers in dry areas (such as porches)
  • If ants close their mounds
  • If sunbeams are shining through broken clouds
  • If the crescent of the moon is shaped like a bowl on its side, it will be a wet month because the bowl is spilling water (others say that it will be a dry month because the bowl has already spilled its water
  • If a rainbow appears in the morning
  • If you hear a rain crow holler in the morning
  • If a silver maple shows the lining of its leaves
  • If there is a ring around the moon; count the number of rings inside the ring, this is the number of days until it will rain
  • If the wind blows from the east
  • If cats lick their feet
  • If it rains while the sun is shining, it will rain the next day
  • If the wood in the fireplace will not burn properly, it will rain soon there will be an overflow of rain when blackberries are in bloom
  • If a cow shakes its leg backwards, it will rain within three days


  • If it clouds up on a frost
  • If the smoke from a chimney goes to the ground
  • If there is a ring around the moon in the winter
  • If snow stays on the ground for three days, it will snow again
  • A green Christmas means a white Easter
  • If a pig squeals in the winter, it will snow
  • If wild hogs begin to make beds in the creek bottom

Clear Weather

  • If a rooster crows after a shower
  • If locusts are heard
  • If the moon's crescent is shaped like an up-right bowl
  • If lark's fly high and sing for a long time

Seasonal Predictions

  • One extreme season follows another
  • When pecan trees bloom, freezing temperatures are over
  • If a whippoorwill is heard, cold weather is over and warm weather crops can be planted
  • Thick shucks on corn is a sign of bad weather
  • Thin skins on onions is a sign of mild weather
  • When cattle egrets appear, freezing weather is over

Cold Weather

  • If a pig carries a stick in its mouth
  • If cattle stand along a north fence
  • If cows fail to give much milk

General Predictions

  • A green cloud and green lightning are signs of hail
  • If it thunders in February, it will frost in April on that same day
  • If the wild animals are more active than usual, the weather will change

Superstition played a very big part in rural communities. Many natural occurrences could not be explained. These mysteries usually signified an important event about to occur in the viewers life. Phases of the moon and the behavior of animals dictated many situations in the lives of rural settlers.

Many signs foretold of death. But, there were also a variety of ways to delay these events. If a screech owl hollered three times it meant that someone was going to die. To make the owl leave before it hollered was the only way to deter the death of a loved one. Turning one's pockets wrong side out or laying a hot coal on the window sill would encourage the owl to leave. Another way to scare the owl was to take a red hot fire poker to the end of the porch and make a big figure-eight and say "Now damn you, Hush!". Whenever a bird flew into a window at night when a candle was burning signified that someone very close would soon be dead. If ashes were carried out on New Year's Day it meant that a dead person would be carried out during the year. After the death of a person, if a little ball of feathers were found in his pillow it meant that he was a child of God and that he had gone to rest in heaven. Another belief was that when someone died of murder or suicide and spilled blood on the floor that no matter how many times the site was scrubbed, the stains would always appear when the weather was damp or the floor was wet.

Marriage was a big topic of young ladies. Their husbands-to-be could be predicted in a variety of ways. One way to tell was to have her go to the well with a mirror on the first day of May, bend over backwards, and look into the well with the mirror to see the reflection of the man she was to marry. Another way was to place a jar of fresh water on the hearth, lay down on a pallet, and inside the jar her future husband could be seen.

Many adages existed to determine when to do chores and several other trivial events. For example, the phases of the moon dictated when to cut wood. If wood was cut on the light phases of the moon it would burn very well. If it was cut on the dark phases it would not split properly nor burn well. Many people would not get their teeth pulled until the moon was right, because some believed that they would bleed less than normal during certain phases of the moon. Several farmers thought it was bad luck to start a field on Friday. They believed that if a task was started on Friday that it would never be finished. Some housewives believed that if they accidentally dropped a dishrag that someone dirtier than they were was coming to visit them and that the first night one slept under a new quilt his/her dreams would come true. If, in the course of a journey, someone had forgotten something, before returning home he/she had to make a cross in the middle of the road and spit on it. Black cats were believed to be bad luck. The only ways to avoid this omen were to either turn around and go home, take a different route, turn your hat around backwards, or take your hat off and spit in it. Mothers often told their children that if they did not stick their tongue in the hole caused by the loss of a baby tooth that the new tooth would grow back gold. Many people still believe this to be true.

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