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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Hair-raising stories
from pioneer days

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

If you had lived before, during and immediately after the Civil War and had been seriously wounded, your life might have depended on the hair from a horse's tail. How could this be? Well listen up to some "hair" stories.

To suture wounds, surgeons used plain old cat gut as this was the best material offered. However great this unique material worked, usually serious infection arrived later causing fatality. There seemed to be little alternative at the time.

During the Civil War, the supply of cat gut to the Confederate armies was interrupted and not available. The only suitable substitute was a long hair snipped from a horse's tail. A fine hair worked very well for strength and pliability. A heavy coarse hair did not bend to fit the contours of the wound and had to be boiled in hot water to make it more pliable.

At some point, doctors noticed that the infection rate of patients sewed up with the boiled horsetail hair was much less than patients sewed up with nonboiled hair.

This eventually gave birth to the sterilization theory thus saving countless lives with the simple process of boiling.

Other much earlier stories also involved the hair of a horse's tail.

Trappers and mountain men learned from the Indians that an internal wound such as caused by a bullet, arrow or spear healed quicker and better if kept drained from its lowest point.

To carry out the continued drainage, they kept the drain hole open by inserting several long coarse hairs cut from a horse's tail into the hole then worked them back and forth several times a day to keep the poisonous fluids draining. When the drainage stopped the hairs were removed allowing the drainage hole to heal.

Another use for hair, buffalo hair to be exact, was used to mix with moist clay or mud used to chink the cracks between the logs of a cabin. Usually this mud was made using local grass or hay which invited mites and other insects to lodge in the chinking then come into the cabin.

No, they did not cut the hair from a live buffalo. It seems the itchy critters were continually harassed by hide vermin and scratched on every tree and rock. This released great gobs of loose hair which the settlers gathered and added to their mud. This natural fiber gave strength and flexibility to the mud much like fiberglass is used today yet did not attract the insects.

My favorite hair story was experienced a few years ago in a watermelon patch near Alanreed.

While purchasing big, ripe, Black Diamond watermelons from a neighbor for our family reunion on Labor Day I kept noticing gobs of gray fuzz lying on or adjacent to many of the largest of the melon crop. It appeared to be hair and a lot of it.

I asked what it was and learned it was really human hair gathered from the neighbor's son who owned a barbershop in Memphis.

Handfuls of hair were placed on the selected melons to keep the coyotes, raccoons and deer from destroying them before harvesting.

Now, if you have any hair left, don't you appreciate it a little more?


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" March 10, 2008 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
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