This pandemic, like a corset, has shaped a “new normal” for everyone, cinching in our activities, entertainment, and budgets. Educational institutions especially are experiencing budget angst as teachers and administrators craft new models for in-person and remote learning, and terms like “learning pods” and “cohorts” have entered our vocabulary. This brought to mind some stories about how residents in the drylands of Weld County coped with social distances, educating children, staying healthy, and practicing good hygiene. Our story starts in Sligo.

Sligo, between Grover and Keota, was a station established along the Colorado & Wyoming Railroad, a subsidiary of the Burlington and Missouri Railroad that installed 105 miles of track between Sterling, CO and Cheyenne, WY starting in 1884. Irish track laying crews named it after County Sligo, Ireland.  In 1907 and 1908, the dryland community boomed when young people from the Atlantic, Iowa area filed for homesteads southwest of Sligo. Sisters Beulah and Oneta Kringle came to Colorado for their summer vacation and met with Mr. Proctor of the Wilson-Proctor Land Company who was promoting and locating people on homesteads in the Crow Creek valley. Oneta and Beulah were the first homesteaders in the Sligo area and filed their homestead entries in the U.S. Land Office at Denver on Aug. 19, 1907.

As fall approached, the Iowans asked the directors of School District 49 to provide a school in Township 10 closer to their homesteads. District patrons were expected to furnish the school building and the students. Miss Beulah Kringle was hired at $45/month to teach a six-month term starting September 8th. Unfortunately, the Iowans didn’t have a school building or the money to construct one. Instead, a Mr. Maris found and pitched a tent and school commenced on time with 18 students representing grades 1 – 8. Miss Kringle’s students sat on “boxes and planks laid across nail kegs”, or on overturned milk pails, and “wrapping paper and grocery sacks, cut in tablet size, were used to do arithmetic problems and grammar lessons.” After two weeks, Mr. James Nagle offered to rent his shack to the district for the rest of the school year. Eight double desks and a blackboard were found for the “upgraded” school, where cow chips and coal were burned in the stove. Some Sligo students logged a daily distance of 8 – 10 miles walking to and from school, and got lots of heart healthy exercise and fresh air in all kinds of weather!

Teachers in many rural schools conducted opening and closing exercises each day. Opening exercises included roll call, the Pledge of Allegiance, singing patriotic songs, calisthenics, and grooming and hygiene inspection. A teacher’s job was to build sound minds in strong, and hopefully, clean bodies.  Children knew the drill: A clean handkerchief every day was mandatory; hands and fingernails, arms and elbows, face, ears, and neck had to be scrubbed clean, and teeth brushed.  Bright, shiny eyes were a sign of good health, and a hot forehead meant a fever. Heads were routinely checked for lice. Good grooming, even for those wearing hand-me-downs was expected. Clothing had to be mended, washed, and ironed. Shoes needed to be polished and laces properly tied.

David McLean, in his memoir, The Homestead Years, recalled a number of pioneer remedies used to cure or prevent disease.  Doctors in the Olive Branch School District where his parents homesteaded were non-existent. Ault was the nearest town and neighbors with varying degrees of skill served as midwives. A homesteader’s “prairie pharmacy” consisted of simple provisions. Sulphur powder mixed with black molasses was given to children as a spring tonic to thin the blood. Vermifuge expelled worms and other parasites from children’s intestines, and McLean recalled that this medicine, unlike castor oil, was good tasting, sweet, and most likely, laced with alcohol. Ipecac induced vomiting, paregoric relieved pain and Sloan’s liniment relieved sore muscles.

David McLean recalled that poultices of various mixtures (bread and warm milk or ground flax seed and water) were used to “draw out” festered splinters and eliminate soreness.  For burns and inflammation, a salve called Denver Mud or Antiphlogistine was applied. This product was made from a kaolin clay found in the Denver area.  Rattles from a rattlesnake were bound tightly against one’s forehead as a headache remedy, although McLean doubted the efficacy of this particular homesteaders’ cure.

Contagious diseases, especially in young children could prove fatal. David McLean recalled that some children came to the Olive Branch School with a bag of asafetida hanging from a string around their necks and next to their chests. The liquid extracted from the root of the asafetida plant solidifies into a gum-like substance that has a strong garlic-like odor and very bitter taste. Nicknamed “devil’s dung”, asafetida purportedly repelled germs. Most-likely, it was the “bad smell” emanating from the kids who wore this medicine that prevented other kids from getting too close, so Voila! Prairie style social distancing! Asafetida, though, has been used as a respiratory medicine to ease breathing and throat problems, among other things.  This got me thinking about PPE (personal protective equipment) recommended in the fight against the novel coronavirus. Perhaps a bag of asafetida hanging around one’s neck should be included to the prescriptive list (mask wearing, hand sanitizing, quarantining, social distancing, etc.) in the Center for Disease Control’s fight against COVID-19!  Crowded grocery store aisles might become a thing of the past if everyone wore their “eau de asafetida”! Does anyone have Dr. Anthony Fauci’s number?

by Peggy A. Ford Waldo
October 6, 2020

the Olive Branch School that David McLean attended as a child. Image circa 1946-48. 1996.58.0083, City of Greeley Museums, Permanent Collection.

Share This