Lett's Set A Spell

Watkins and ‘citified’ remedies to the rescue
Feb. 24, 2013 @ 11:00 AM

Old Arthur had come to visit ... Mr. Arthritis, that is. “Only a man could inflict that much pain,” Aunt Gladys would humorously comment. An unwelcome guest, mind you, but one that had to be treated with care — Gladys would reach for an ointment she had made from dried herbs mixed with olive oil to relieve her misery. She said arthritic pains were worse during the cold months and also affected by changes in the weather and phases of the Moon.   

Mr. Gout is kin to Mr. Arthritis, only meaner. Grandpa (Puzie Lett) laughed at his own cleverness as he boldly said, “Gout is a royal pain in the ass and the toes, the knees and other places.” He explained that the large toe is usually affected, but gout “hurts like the Devil” in joints in the leg — the knee, ankle and foot — and sometimes, joints in the arm — the hand, wrist and elbow.

This painful affliction was marked by sudden, severe attacks of pain, tenderness, redness and swelling in some joints. He said gout was caused by indulging in too much rich food and/or too much whiskey. Grandpa told me, “They call it the kings’ disease because it curses folks who eat high on the hog.” Cutting back on fatty foods like meat and booze would help gout symptoms, but Grandpa said this sacrifice was worse than the disease.   

For a while, Grandpa got excited about a remedy for gout he read about in “The Farmers Almanac” — eating 1/2 to 1 pound of cherries a day. Aunt Gladys would do anything to keep Grandpa happy, or at least shut him up, so she would cook the cherries and drain them so he could drink the juice. She would also make cherry pies topped with fresh whipped cream. Grandpa ate cherries or drank their juice every day for months and said he didn’t hurt as much, but finally got tired of this rigid regime.

WHILE HOME REMEDIES and household products ranked high on their list of cure-alls, Grandpa and country folks were mighty pleased when the Watkins man made their lives easier with his fancy healing aids. When I asked Aunt Gladys about the Watkins remedies, she said they were effective because they contained natural medicine from herbs and trees. “The red liniment had camphor taken from an evergreen and combined with red pepper extract; it created heat, comforting pain, aches, soreness and stiffness,” Gladys told me.   

The Watkins theories also related to treating symptoms with heat and/or cold. Another remedy featured menthol extracted from peppermint and worked like a modern-day ice pack, according to Gladys. “We used it on back pain, muscle aches and minor arthritis,” she said.

The overall favorite remedy of the Lett family was the Menthol Camphor Ointment, which they referred to as “camphorated salve.” This colorless salve soothed the stuffed-up congestion of a chest cold and quieted the accompanying cough. It was also used for dry skin, sunburn, windburn, burns and scalds.   

The Watkins products came from a salesman who traveled from place to place throughout the countryside. The women loved to gather around the kitchen and watch the Watkins man open his big suitcase of wares, and the men liked to listen too. If the money pouch was low, the salesman was usually willing to take chickens, ham and eggs for trade since he had a family to feed, too.

AFTER GRANDPA opened the country store in 1946, called Lett’s Grocery and Filling Station, the Watkins man would stop there often and chew the fat with the local yokels and, of course, sell his products to the set-a-spellers. “Captain Puzie” was in charge of his ship and made all the decisions about offerings at the store, so he didn’t even charge the Watkins man a commission. After all, the smooth-talking salesman was like a zealous missionary conducting a revival — he was as excited about his medical wonders as a preacher was about his religious beliefs. Both promised to heal the ails of body, mind and spirit!

There is still a Watkins catalog. Since 1868, the pain-relieving liniments have been known by their “Trial Mark.” Customers could use the product down to the mark, and if they were not satisfied, they could return the remedy and get a refund. This may have been the first money-back guarantee in history.

From an ounce of prevention to a pound of cure, oldsters trusted Father Watkins as well as Mother Nature to make them feel better. Where, oh, where is today’s Watkins man?   

At the country store, Grandpa always kept a few Watkins remedies on hand and also stocked Sloan’s Liniment. Later, he purchased BC Powders, Goody’s Powders and Vick’s Vapo-Rub, and various other over-the-counter “citified” potions for his customers to buy.

When it came to ails, Grandpa’s family believed in combining nature’s goodness and old-timey wisdom with a few “citified” products. Seems like a prescription for common sense to me! 

AlexSandra Lett is a professional speaker and the author of “Natural Living, From Stress to Rest;” “A Timeless Place, Lett’s Set a Spell at the Country Store;” “Timeless Moons, Seasons of the Fields and Matters of the Heart;” “Timeless Recipes and Remedies, Country Cooking, Customs, and Cures;” and “Coming Home to my Country Heart, Timeless Reflections about Work, Family, Health, and Spirit.” Lett can be reached at (919) 258-9299 or LettsSetaSpell@aol.com.