The Ozark Mountains of the 1800s were full of superstitions and vestiges of some of these beliefs still remain. Signs and practices, which today might be regarded as strange, were an important part of daily life in these mountain communities. Researchers have established a large portion of the Ozark population were of Scottish descent.
But, no discussion of early life in this region would be complete without mentioning Vance Randolph. He was a professional writer, folklorist and photographer who lived most of his life in the Ozarks. Randolph was born February, 1892 in Pittsburg, Kansas and moved to southern Missouri in 1919.
Randolph scoured the region gathering superstitions, ghost stories, and pictures of daily life there.. In the 1920s, Randolph wrote many books about life in the Ozarks. He journeyed tirelessly throughout Missouri and Arkansas recording Ozark life and culture for posterity. There were ballads, music and stories that had been handed down from one generation to the next.
His published accounts have been hailed as a great value to historians and folklorists. He died in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on November 1, 1980.
These simple people believed God had put a natural cure on earth for every illness…and recent discoveries have proven many of these alternative medicines worked very effectively. However, mountain medicine frequently came in the form of smelly poultices and teas. Teas were made from a variety of things to treat colds and sneezes such as Cherry bark and Horehound. Some poultices were made from skunk oil or onions. Perhaps, one of the few items they did buy was Castor Oil which seemed to cure everything. Alternative medicine of the Ozark’s, is a story all unto itself.
That being said, hill people observed signs and omens to determine the course of their daily lives. Early Ozark settlers spent much time thinking of the weather, which was natural since most were farmers. There were many indicators used to forecast the weather. These are a few:
· Naturally, the Farmer’s Almanac
· Weather signs
· Superstition or folklore.
A few predictors of rain would be:
· A hog carrying a piece of wood in its mouth
· A rooster continuously crowing at nightfall
· Rabbits playing on a dirt road
Of course, there were many predictors of bad luck. It was bad luck to tease a praying mantis. Conversely, the praying mantis is regarded as good luck in some Asian countries. If your right eye itches, bad luck will follow. If your left eye itches then it means good luck.
The following guide about sneezing was recorded by Randolph as a good example:
· Sneeze on Monday–kiss a stranger
· Sneeze on Wednesday–good luck will follow
· Sneeze on Thursday–bad luck will follow
· Sneeze on Friday–sorrow will follow
· Sneeze on Saturday–you will find a new friend
· Sneeze on Sunday and the devil will be with you all week
Superstitions affected friends, family, neighbors and strangers. A sputtering fire was said to signal a family fight sometime in the following twenty-four hour period. When people visited a neighbor they left by the same door they came in or else bad luck would befall them.
Death and burial superstitions were also numerous. If a body wasn’t properly interred it could spell doom for others in the household. Upon someone’s death the house timepiece would be immediately stopped to prevent another death within the year.
All mirrors in the house of the deceased were covered with white cloths to prevent mourners from seeing their reflection. It was a common belief a person reflected in a house of mourning would die within the next year.
Ozark Mountain people were said to have been the most superstitious group of people in American history.
Signs of Courtship
Courtship symbols abounded in mountain communities and were treated with seriousness by rural residents. While many seemed silly, mountain folk believed an array of happenings, animals, or accidents were signs that marriage was impending for someone within the household, or that some were doomed forever to be single.
A girl who caught her skirts frequently in briars was soon to catch a husband; whereas, a girl who rode a mule would never be married. Three candles or lamps placed accidentally in a row signaled there would soon be a marriage within the family. Finding two snakes in the house, albeit a less pleasant coincidence, symbolized the same event.
Plant and Animal Omens
Health, happiness, and personal safety were guarded or promoted by certain aspects of nature. Mountain superstitions regarding the natural world created a lengthy guide on using or interacting with natural elements, both plants and animals. Plants like the burdock root, when strung like beads, were believed to protect children from witches. A necklace of elder twigs eases a child’s toothache during teething.
It was declared bad luck to tease a “Devil’s horse” or praying mantis; the seemingly-harmless wren was declared a symbol of supernatural evil, possessed of a poisonous bite should humans attempt to harm it. The wren’s nests and person remained largely unmolested by mountain children.
Friends and Neighbors
Many superstitions governed relationships between people in general. Superstitions oversaw interaction between friends, family, and neighbors. Even strangers, both people and animals, were greeted according to mountain wisdom on the subject.
A sputtering fire with no apparent cause was said to signal a family fight between two members within the next twenty-four hours. When visiting a neighbor’s house, a mountain dweller made sure to leave by the same door he originally entered, to avoid bad luck.
From protective acts to personal habits, these symbols were heeded by mountain folk of old. The power of those beliefs live on, with vestiges of those superstitions still present in some rural regions.
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