Doctoring in early Pacific County: Home remedies, midwives and pioneer grit | History

According to the U.S. Census of 1860, 406 people were permanent residents of Pacific County, Washington Territory. About half of them lived in two settlements on opposite sides of Shoalwater Bay, Bruceport and Oysterville. The rest of the population labored on homesteads and donation land claims, clearing patches of wilderness from the Pacific Coast to the Willapa Valley and from North Cove to the Nasel River Basin.

Most had come to this western wilderness to make a better life for themselves and their families. Their numbers included oystermen, blacksmiths, farmers, sailors, school teachers, coopers, carpenters, and fishermen. There were merchants and boatbuilders, laborers and lumbermen and even a saloon keeper or two. But there was only one physician.

He was Dr. James R. Johnson. He had arrived from Olympia in 1854 and set up his practice in Bruceport. His professional domain included the whole of Pacific County. It went without saying that he had his hands full with the emergencies and accidents that were part and parcel of pioneer living, to say nothing of the occasional outbreaks of serious diseases such as smallpox or malaria. Of necessity, most “ordinary” doctoring was done at home without benefit of Dr. Johnson’s assistance.

“Every mother was the family doctor, and prescribed home-made remedies as the ailment required,” wrote beloved pioneer teacher Arthur E. Skidmore in his “Fifty Years in Pacific County” written in 1922. Born in 1862, young Arthur moved with his family to a homestead in the area that would eventually become South Bend. He noted that it took five days and four nights to travel from “near the mouth of the Cowlitz River to Willapa, where now it is possible to make the journey in half a day.” Like many sons and daughters of the first settlers, he later recounted his memories of growing up during the county’s first decades.

“All out-of-doors was her medicine chest,” he said of this mother, “and the contents were subject to the grub hoe, axe, and knife. I remember quite well some of the formulas: For a cough, skunk cabbage root was dug, mashed, boiled, the water drained off, sugar added, and boiled again until a syrup formed — this was very effective. Licorice, found on heavily mossed trees, chewed raw, was good for sore throat. A good remedy for dysentery was the wild blackberry root boiled and the juice sweetened — also thimbleberry leaves treated the same way. A splendid salve was made of mutton tallow and beeswax added to a juice made from boiling bark from the balsam fir and alder.”

‘A wonder we survived’

Dewey DeLong, who grew up in Chinook a generation or so after Skidmore youth in the South Bend area, remembered those home remedies with a little less enthusiasm than did Skidmore. “It is a wonder we survived some of Mother’s remedies, but we did, and with little need for a doctor. We took molasses and sulphur in the spring to thin the blood; mixed lard and turpentine rubbed on the chest for colds; sweet oil or warm chamber lye was for earaches; liquid pitch was used to seal cuts; sugar was sprinkled on wounds to coagulate the blood; sassafras tea was a tonic; Mint tea was taken for the stomach; equal parts of olive oil and lime water was for burns; asafetida was put in a sack and tied around our necks to keep bad germs away (and I’ve never smelled anything that foul before or since!).”

More than one pioneer child complained of the asafetida sacks (small bags stuffed with pungent herbs and other ingredients) that were thought to ward off disease and, sometimes, evil spirits. It was believed they were especially beneficial in treating asthma, colds, or other respiratory ailments and were worn during the winter months.

To add insult to injury, many children were sewn into their long woolen underwear for the winter. In her book, “The Nickel-Plated Beauty,” about Nahcotta and Ocean Park in the 1880s, Patricia Beatty wrote: During that month it rained so hard for days that we all had to wear our oilskins and boots to school. We hung them on hooks in the back of the room and with the Franklin stove lit they smelled of the fish oil Mama put on them to make the water run off. Everybody else’s rain clothes smelled just as bad as ours, and it got so we could hardly breathe in the schoolroom.

To make matters worse: We all had sou’wester hats with brims that hung down over our necks in the back, but no matter how we walked, sideways or backwards or forwards, the water ran down our necks into our long underwear and made us itch… our scratching got on Mama’s nerves when were all in the house in rainy weather. She used to make us go to the barn right after breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays… “

John L. Wiegardt (1889-1958) was born in Bruceport and recalled that “household remedies were very simple and some of these were copied from the Indians. I remember an older brother and sister fighting over toys. The sister was struck on the forehead by an iron toy and blood gushed from a severed vein. An Indian woman, who had seen the fracas, grabbed the kitchen broom and rushed to the woodshed in the back of the house, where she swept down a handful of cobwebs. Using these as a compress, she quickly stopped the flow of blood. No one gave much thought to germs.”

Wiegardt recalled that mothers had a sure-fire remedy for colicky babies. They would place a spoonful of sugar in a saucer and add an equal amount of whiskey and stir in hot water to dissolve the sugar. This was slowly fed by spoon to the child in distress. “After a moment or two, the patient would burp. It never seemed to fail.

“For cuts and bruises,” he remembered, “the Indians gathered spruce gum pitch; melted it in a pan on the stove and stirred in grease. It made a very effective salve for spreading over a wound. For colds, they gathered the roots of the lichen moss, commonly called licorice. The roots were dried and, when they were needed, were boiled in water. They drank the resulting liquid which was, as the Indians expressed it, ‘Yi-yu sweat.’ But the foulest tasting sweat medicine was made from spruce twigs boiled in water.

“For a spring tonic, a la spinach, the Indians and the whites, too, would gather salmon berry bush sprouts. The outside sticky bark was peeled off and the green flesh eaten raw. The whites would often ridicule the older Indians for their diet of seal oil and whale blubber,” Wiegardt wrote, “but from this natural food, they got vitamins that we today pay an exorbitant price for in the drug stores.”

The children involved in Wiegardt’s blood-and-cobweb story were his older brother and sister, Fred and Anna. In a reminiscence of her own, Anna Wiegardt P
arrow said: “When my sister, Augusta, was born, my father couldn’t get the midwife we had always had before, so he hired Mrs. Springer, from Bay Center.

“She had been captured in an inter-tribal war, and the Catholic Sisters had raised her after the Hudson’s Bay people rescued her. She had the flattened head denoting Indian royalty. Mrs. Springer stayed with us for several months. I’ll always remember her neatness. Every day after the dinner dishes were put away, she would put on a fresh white apron. She taught me how to sew and many other skills the Sisters had taught her. She went out into the woods and skinned what we called the devil tree and made a tea for my mother. She said “Your child will have a beautiful skin.” Sure enough, Gussie had a lovely complexion.”

Perhaps it was the Wiegardts’ favorite midwife who was again available when it was John’s turn to join the family. “At the time of my arrival in Bruceport, doctors were few and far between, and an expectant mother placed her life in the hands of a midwife. A few hours before my arrival, our boatman sailed down the bay and rounded Goose Point, then on to the Nasel river above the present highway bridge. At Smiths Island, he took aboard Mrs. Smith, a practicing midwife. Smith’s Island is named after this family who homesteaded it.

“Mrs. Smith could stay only a few days with mother, because she had a maternity case that required her attention in Oysterville, and that baby became known as Mrs. Enola Morehead Petersen. I have heard mother say Mrs. Smith would boast that her reputation as a successful midwife was so well known that an expectant mother, wanting her on the job when needed, should get her application in a year ahead of time!”

Widowed Lucy Irene Smith (always referred to as “Ma” by her family) arrived in the Naselle area in 1873. She had come from New York City with her nearly grown daughters and a young niece, having paid for the trip by selling the family farm in Nova Scotia. They settled into the log cabin on Smith Island (near Johnson’s Landing) that the eldest Smith child, Isaiah, had come ahead and prepared for them.

It wasn’t long before each of Ma’s daughters married and set about raising families of their own. Ma assisted with each baby’s birth and soon was being called upon by other families who needed her midwifery skills — skills she had learned as a young woman in Nova Scotia.

As far as the record shows, Mrs. Smith never lost a baby or a mother during childbirth. She was known for her strictness; she did not pamper mothers-to-be. They were to continue their usual line of work to keep in shape for childbirth. Babies came willy-nilly, when they were expected and when they weren’t, so Mrs. Smith visited in a home from three weeks to a month to “find a baby.” Some of the places she was called to “visit” were the Rhodes’ home in Bay Center, the Loomises’, J. A. Clarks’, Charles Nelsons’ and Moreheads’ on the Peninsula, as well as several families in Bruceport. She was often paid in pork, potatoes, and other food stuffs, instead of with money.

Julia Jefferson Espy

Eighteen-year-old Julia Jefferson Espy on her wedding day, August 7, 1870. Of the photograph her grandson Willard wrote: “It shows a self-possessed, slender young lady with a determined lower lip, a high, broad forehead, and a straight hairline. Cork screw curls hung to her shoulders, exposing her ears. She wore a high-collard, pinch waisted crinoline dress, with a checked panniered skirt, doubtless of her own sewing, that reached the floor. She was lovely.” He did not mention her narrow pelvis.

Mrs. Smith attended the births of most of her own grandchildren and there was often a story attached to the birth such as this one written by her granddaughter Alice: “Aunt Hannah (Shagren) had come up the creek to have her baby at Ma’s house. He was born in the night, a baby boy! Ma brought him in the bedroom for May and Ada to see. He didn’t look like much of anything, scrawny and wrinkled, but Ma said enthusiastically, ‘See what Aunt Hannah got last night! Ada has a new little brother.’

“May rose up and peered into the baby’s face. ‘I’m going right down and get Annie (Annie Lois) so she can come up and get one too.’ They were told that the baby had come from the old chicken house stump. They didn’t wait to eat but went barefoot and prodded around the base of the old decayed red stump. They had no luck to speak of. The baby was named Alvin.”

John G “Jack” Williams (1897-1988) of Ilwaco got a somewhat different account of where he was “found.” In his reminiscences, “Johnny Stories,” as told to Joan Mann in 1987, he said: “My childhood wasn’t exceptional. We lived, at first, down on what they called the Flats in the old days. That’s the part of town below the hill in Ilwaco. Spruce and Lake Streets run through it. When we lived on Lake Street, I was about to make my debut in the world.

“Rees was allowed to stay home for this big event, because he was about six years old. It was the first time that my mother had a doctor for a birth; they always had a midwife then. Well, when I was about 3 or 4 years old, I asked Rees where I came from. (I didn’t believe all that stuff about the stork bringing babies.) And Rees told me he’d seen the doctor coming through the gate with his little black bag to help my mother when I was born. Rees told me that he brought me in that little black bag, and I believed him.”

About that same time in Naselle, Mrs. Kolback arrived on the scene. It is said that she lost only one of the 156 babies she delivered. Many stories were told about her, one of which concerned the fact that, in the early days, the brush was all cut — “slashed out” as people said.

In a 1991 interview with Ruth Busse Allingham, later published in the Autumn 1995 Sou’wester. Frank Oman (1900-1995) said: “You could sit at our house… in the windows … look way down into other people’s houses. You could see both sides of the river. When people would light their lamps in the evening, we could tell who was home and who wasn’t… So, Mrs. Kolback would walk around with her lantern all hours of the night and she probably delivered a baby way up there in the upper (Naselle) … and then hike back at night. And when Mrs. Kolback would return around two or three o’clock in the morning, why everybody was interested where she was working.”

According to Oman, “Women wondered what she was doing and who had a boy or girl… She had a double-barreled shotgun. She rigged up the shotgun and if it was a girl she’d shoot once… and if it was a boy she’d shoot twice. So, the people would go back to sleep again. She was a good egg. She was everywhere… She was quite a leader, Mrs. Kolback. She could talk good English. They were right from the middle of Finland. Did you happen to know Oscar Kolback? He tended everything in Naselle … That was his mother. Grandma Kolback.”

In addition to midwives, many other early settlers were remembered with appreciation by those who had need of their generosity and services. Mrs. John Skidmore, Arthur Skidmore’s mother — the very person he praised for her homespun remedies — spoke, herself, of an unlicensed “doctor” with admiration. She began her account with a description of just how isolated the area was when she and her family arrived in 1872:

“The present South Bend was, at the time of our coming, unknown and unnamed, although there was a very small sawmill built by Captain Valentine Riddell and his brother, John Riddell. There were four houses. These were unoccupied except the one that Captain Riddell and family lived in. The boats did not pass that way, as the hills back of South Bend kept the wind from the boat’s sail.

“Coming out of Mail Boat slough we passed through the part of the Willapa river called the Narrows. That part of the river is just below the Columbia Box mill. S.P. Soule, with his family, lived on the right bank of the Narrows, while his half-brother, C.D. Soule, lived on the opposite side of the river. The journey up the Willapa was rather slow, as the wind grew lighter owing to the obstruction of hills and timber, and the captain was obliged to tow the sail boat with the small row boat. Houses along the Willapa river were very scarce and far between.

“The next house after leaving the Narrows was that of Dr. Hays, a little old man whom everyone loved for his kindness to them in times of trouble. He had never seen a medical college but he knew how to make and use simple remedies. He tended his little ranch and was never too busy to go and minister to the sick. This was done without price, as he was not a licensed physician, and as money was a very scarce article in those days, he received nothing for his services except good will.”


Phrenology is defined today as a “pseudoscience“ involving the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. It is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. The discipline was especially influential in the mid-19th century but still thought popular enough fifty years later to be given two pages at the very end of The Cottage Physician – immediately in front of the final chapter on “Roentgen X Rays.”

Within the next 20 years, Pacific County was much more populated with up-and-coming towns beginning to flourish. Between 1893 and 1910, for instance, in Lebam (originally called Half Moon or Half Moon Creek) the business district included several saloons, a bowling alley, a shoe repair shop, several general stores, a jewelry and optometrist shop, a photography studio, a creamery, several sawmills, a post office, a barbershop, a meat market, a blacksmith, shingle mills, a hotel and restaurant, a theater, a town hall and a newspaper (the Frances News).

To name all of the men who operated these businesses would require more space than is available. Chief among the enterprising businessmen, however were the Handy Brothers and Louis Christen and sons. The Handys operated general stores and sawmills, while the Christen boys operated almost everything else. Their Columbia Saloon included a bowling alley, ice cream parlor and boarding house. a carpentry shop, theater, creamery, electrical plant, shingle mill and logging camp.

Mr. and Mrs. Louis Christen and their 12 children had moved from Switzerland to Lebam in 1893, and then to Frances after the saloon was built in the late 1890s. Louis Christen even acted as unofficial doctor and dentist for a time. He was a master of home remedies (among them pitch salves) and when anyone was suffering from a toothache, they went to the Christen Brothers Columbia Saloon, where, after getting a liberal dose of whiskey to deaden the pain, had their tooth extracted by him.

By 1900, according to the U.S. Census, the population of the county had increased to 5,983. There were then nineteen settlements with populations enough to warrant U.S. Post Offices, and Ocean Park, Raymond, Seaview and Naselle would soon be joining their ranks. Although roads were limited and transportation difficult, the days of extreme pioneer isolation were over. Schools, churches, and social centers were in evidence in most communities, and several also had a doctor or a dentist in residence. Nevertheless, it would be a while before the spirit of the pioneers was forgotten and longer still before grandma’s home remedies would be set aside.