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Friday Foodie: Dandelions Come to Wyoming

As spring moves into summer here in Wyoming, a profusion of little yellow flowers are showing their cheery, if cursed and cussed, faces on the fleetingly green plains and in town lots. But how did the dandelion make it all the way out to Wyoming? While there are most likely several accounts of the scourge’s first appearances, at least two are found in the collection here at the Wyoming State Archives.

In 1883, the Goldsmith family, lately from Iowa, homesteaded the barren plains several miles north of Cheyenne. There, Peter, Eva, and their five children scratched out a living from the virgin prairie. Their daughter, Eva Goldsmith Guy, later told the story of her mother’s careful cultivation of her dandelion patch:

“I remember my mother sending back to Iowa to one of her sisters for dandelion seed. She knew it was a hardy plant and thought perhaps if carefully planted and carefully tended, it might grow, and we could then have greens in the early spring besides the beautiful gold blossoms. They grew just a few at first. We were delighted, and when my sister was married in ’86 and moved forty miles farther north in the blue grass country, my mother very carefully gathered a few of the precious seeds to give them to her so she could have greens. Little did we dream what that innocent looking plant, with the glorious yellow blossoms, would mean in the years to come…” WPA Bio File 386, “Recollections of 1883” by Eva M. Guy

Woman standing beside shelves of plants grown in tin cans outside a log cabin

Many early settlers, especially women, experience an intense culture shock, especially when it came to growing plants on the virgin prairie. Like Eva Goldsmith, these women would carefully tend seeds and seedlings brought with them or sent by family. Here, a ranch wife proudly displays her collection of plants growing in tin cans. It is difficult to tell from this distance, but they may be flowers. (WSA Sub Neg 9196, Bob Fullerton Ranch, Shell Creek, Wyoming, 1890. Cropped to show detail)

Wyoming homesteaders weren’t the only ones looking for a hardy ray of sunshine. Set in Nebraska, the picture book Dandelions by Eve Bunting tells the story of how these resilient little flowers became a metaphor of hardiness and resilience for one lonely homestead housewife and her family on the great plains.

On the other side of Wyoming, in Evanston, the scourge arrived as a stowaway:

Mrs. Jubb, or “Auntie Jubb,” as she was called, also had an eye to floral decorations, though her efforts were not a joy to the residents, as they consisted in the importation of dandelion seeds from England. No doubt this common pest would have reached the country in time even without her agency. She was well known and well thought of, and her services were in demand in many an emergency such as nursing and the management of homes. Uinta County, It’s Place in History (1924)

Cover of the First Report on the Flora of WyomingWhatever their origin, dandelions were a common sight in disturbed soil across the state by 1896. That year, a disgusted Dr. Aven Nelson [1]  described them in his First Report of the Flora of Wyoming:

Taraxacum officinale… Apparently the Dandelion found its ideal home when it reached Laramie. It occupies every foot of ground along the irrigation ditches of our streets and takes complete possession of the lawns where eternal warfare is not waged upon it. In luxuriant growth and blossom from April to November. 

 

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put local writers to work gathering stories, histories, and folklore from around the state. Of course, the dandelion made an appearance here, too. This schoolyard fortune-telling game didn’t look too kindly upon the prospects of the Victors, Xaviers, and Zebulons.

Blow seeds from the dandelion until none remain, counting each puff as a letter of the alphabet; the letter which ends the blowing is the initial of the name of the person the blower will marry. — WPA Subject File 1348, Uinta County Folklore

Children playing on a teeter totter beside a one-room schoolhouse

The cheery dandelion, which thrives in disturbed soil, has been a common sight on playgrounds for many years. (WSA P76-9/98, Children at the Diamond Flats School, Goshen County, 1918-1919)

Used as medicine since at least the Romans, it is no surprise that dandelions also appeared on the list of Mary Elizabeth Simmons Robison’s home remedies:

Cooked dandelion greens, also water-cress, for liver trouble. — WPA Subject File 1348, Uinta County Folklore


  1. Dr. Aven Nelson was the head Botanist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and an expert in plants of the Rocky Mountain region.

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Combating a Contagion

By: Carl Hallberg, Wyoming State Archives

No Neg, WY General Hospital X-Ray Department, Rock Springs, WY, nd, C6, ROCKS-9

Wyoming General Hospital, interior, X-Ray Department, unidentified man laying on an X-Ray bed, anatomical chart on the far wall. (WSA, Cities & Towns–Rock Springs, Wyoming #1 of 4)

Controlling infectious diseases has been a daunting task facing Wyoming physicians and public health officials since the state was first settled. Readers may find echoes of the current day  in this account of the fearful ailment, smallpox. In later years, containing smallpox was a particularly troublesome endeavor for health officials, when it could be readily prevented beforehand through vaccination. However, educating the public on this preventive measure proved to be a significant public relations hurdle.

Smallpox is characterized by disfiguring blisters and pustules on the body, notably on the face and hands. The skin rash creates a burning sensation, and sores develop in the throat. Infected individuals become even more uncomfortable with the onset of severe chills, aches, pains, and sometimes convulsions, delusions, and nightmares. Many people survived with only pockmarks on their face. In more severe cases, smallpox can cause blindness or death.

Because it was so contagious, local physicians took all reports of smallpox very seriously. Infected individuals were immediately quarantined in their homes or the county pest house. A sign was placed at the site to warn away visitors and travelers. Both measures – quarantine and public notification – were “not a form of punishment,” noted Dr. John Hinds of Buffalo, “but a public duty for the protection of others.” Until the disease had run its course, doctors tried to make the patient as comfortable as possible. Also, clothes, furniture, and buildings at the place of infestation were fumigated and disinfected. Anyone in contact with the infected person was advised to be vaccinated.

Rock Springs miner 11-5-1903_page-0001

The Rock Springs Miner, Nov. 11, 1903

Newspapers published notices about local outbreaks. When such occurred, readers were warned to avoid the respective homes and areas until public health officials said otherwise. Frequently, publishers reaffirmed the severe nature of the disease and urged readers to take proper precautions. Following a report of smallpox in Laramie in 1902, the Laramie Boomerang commented that there was no need for residents to be alarmed. The report also said, “but it is a good time to look up that old [vaccination] scar.”

Smallpox did not discriminate between large and small towns or urban and rural areas. Wherever an infected individual went, there was a high probability that others would contract the disease. In 1875 an infected man was found on a train to Rawlins. The railroad car was disconnected from the train. The man and his fellow passengers were quarantined outside of town.

A Campbell County health official determined that a Rozet teacher contracted smallpox from clothing worn by a visiting girls’ basketball team. The disease had been reported in the neighboring town. Smallpox outbreaks could disrupt communities. An outbreak in Savery in 1902 threatened to close the school for the entire winter.

Smallpox - 3 of 3_page-0001

Session Laws, 1901, see section 9

Local physicians and health officials responded quickly to quell any fear of an epidemic. Beginning in 1902, compulsory quarantine and vaccination following the confirmation of the disease remained the standard medical practice. The State Board of health required a quarantine period of at least 30 days. If an individual died from the disease, burial was to take place within 36 hours. All people exposed to the disease were to be vaccinated and isolated for ten days, but the public imagination could run wild. In 1902 Rawlins, during the construction of the penitentiary, steamfitters immediately left the grounds on the first report of smallpox near the site. Only after being assured by a local doctor did they return to work. Following another outbreak in Rawlins in 1910, rumors spread that 79 people were ill when only about a dozen had the disease. The stories also said the disease was spreading rapidly and threatening to get out of control when, in fact, it was confined to 11 houses.

The only effective deterrent to smallpox was a vaccine developed by Edward Jenner, an English physician, in 1796. However, in Wyoming, the vaccination agent for the disease was not mandatory for the general populace. To the frustration of public health officials, many people refused it or did not take smallpox seriously. Dr. J.WS. Hunter of Gillette wryly suggested that by quarantining smallpox patients,” these [healthy] people will be anxious and willing to be vaccinated.”

In March 1919, the State Board of Health passed a rule requiring compulsory vaccination for school children against smallpox. It was a bold move. The board could “adopt such measures for the general vaccination of the inhabitants of any city, town, or county in the state” in order “to prevent the introduction or arrest the progress of smallpox.” Even so, the board questioned whether its policy could be applied to schools. Nonetheless, the order was sent, and in the fall of 1919, it was challenged in Natrona County District Court.

In Brokus vs. Wheeler, et al., the plaintiff argued that the rule was arbitrary because other children who had not been vaccinated were attending school. The school district countered that given the prevalence of the disease in the plaintiff’s residential area, the action was a prudent one. Judge Ralph Kimball concurred with the defendants and dismissed the case.

P2009-4_1 crop, Ralph Kimball WY Supreme Court Chief Justice, portriat

Ralph Kimball, WY Supreme Court Justice. (WSA, WY Supreme Court Time Capsule Collection (P2009-4/01)

Shortly afterward, in Root vs. Wheeler et al., the plaintiff’s argument was much the same; the defendants could not prove that their action was based on a real public health need. Subsequently, Judge Kimball ruled that compulsory vaccination would not be mandated when the disease was not prevalent. For the State “Board of Health, the judgment was a tremendous setback. Dr. C.Y. Beard, secretary of the board, said that insufficient funds prevented the board from allowing a state health officer to be present throughout the entire trial. As a result of Root vs. Wheeler, only the legislature could prescribe vaccination as a prerequisite for school attendance. A mandatory immunization law was not passed until 1979.

In the meantime, health officials campaigned heartily for voluntary immunization. Their efforts had mixed results. Some years no cases were reported, and then suddenly cases flared up. For example, the State Board of Health reported 486 smallpox cases in 1921, 179 in 1922, and 20 in 1923. Epidemics occurred in 1929 and 1935 when 347 and 321 people were infected, respectively. Eventually, through perseverance, health officials won the battle, and the majority of the population was vaccinated. By 1930, the number of smallpox cases began to drop dramatically. The last report of the disease in Wyoming was in 1953. Several years later, since no cases were being reported, the Department of Health decided not to keep statistics on smallpox anymore. By then, the disease was non-existent in the United States.

In 1971 the smallpox immunization for children was discontinued. The disease was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980.


Resources

Board of Health Annual Reports

Local Ordinances

Wyoming Newspapers from Newspapers.wyo.gov

Wyoming Statutes

1901 Session Laws

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Filed under Events, In The News, Pandemics, Smallpox, Vaccines