Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Fourth-Grade Dropout Practices Folk Medicine

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Fourth-Grade Dropout Practices Folk Medicine

Article excerpt

Catfish Gray's days are filled with shaving slippery elm roots, mixing sassafras and ginseng, and meeting people from miles around who come to ask him about home remedies made from herbs.

Clarence "Catfish" Gray, 76, is a purveyor of folk medicine, do-it-yourself cures passed down orally from generation to generation.

Gray's one-room cabin may be hard to reach high above the Ohio River, but it's not hard to spot. It's the one with the cardboard-box facade.

His cabin, his rawboned frame, his nasal accent, and a belief in tradition dating back to the Cherokee Indians, make Gray a throwback to a time when pioneers settled the Appalachian Mountains.

Until well into the 20th century, herbal medicine was preferred by millions of rural people who had no doctors, or remained suspicious of doctors because of their cupping, bleeding past, according to Appalachian folklorist Barbara Duncan of Franklin, N.C.

"It's a way of living closer to nature that appeals to many people," Duncan says. "It's part of traditional cultural values. People use it as an alternative to Western scientific medicine.

"The point is to stay well and feel good."

Penn State University medical folklorist David Hufford says Appalachian medicine men aren't a dying breed, "but they are changing."

"Traditions have always been changing," Hufford says. "There are more people using herbal medicines today than 75 years ago. The health food stores today are, in many respects, a modern popular equivalent of the herbal traditionalists."

After he failed the fourth grade, his teacher told him to quit school, Gray says, "because I couldn't learn anything. So I had to learn the hard way."

Gray's mother, a child of three generations of Appalachian herb practitioners, taught him that certain herbs have certain medicinal powers.

But he gave herbs little thought as he grew up along the Ohio River. …

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