Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Nordstrom Medicine Show

I had a blast from the past from the Sunday, Apr. 8, Dispatch/Argus newspaper. Their “Today in History” featured Rev. W. S. Nordstrom as the 50-year-old story.

I discovered Rev. Nordstrom’s unique Medicine Show at the Henry County Historical Museum back in 2010 and wrote about it for the Galva News.

This is what I submitted:

The Medicine Show
By Mary Davidsaver

At the Henry County Historical Museum in Bishop Hill, tucked away in the back of room B, visitors will find a glass case with an odd assortment of memorabilia.

The case contains a variety of patent medicine bottles, a yellow vest and a small 4-hole Hohner harmonica, among other things.

Nearby an old button accordion rests on top of a wooden box with “Bumstead’s Worm Syrup” stenciled on the front.

It all comes together as soon as Roger Anderson slips a CD into a TV set and turns it on.

“I had CDs made from a video tape of Wayne Nordstrom,” he explained. “I thought this would add interest to his bottle collection.”

It seems that the late Rev. Nordstrom, the Methodist pastor put out to pasture, had more interests than just flying his airplane around the countryside visiting the churches in the Central Illinois Conference.

His program, recorded in Mesa, Arizona in 1998 and titled “Laughter is the Music of the Soul,” features jokes, music and humorous stories about the bottles he found under his house.

Nordstrom had ventured under the 8-bedroom farm house that lies between Galva and Bishop Hill when his wife complained that natural “air conditioning” wasn’t a good thing to have in the wintertime.

While down there he discovered a trash heap sealed within the brick foundation. He found nearly 500 bottles of all kinds, dating from 1850 to 1890.

Apothecary and patent medicine bottles of all sizes, shapes and colors, many with their labels intact, comprised the majority of the hoard.

His curiosity got him started doing research. He wanted to figure out why there was a need for Dr. Warner’s Liver Cure or Dr. Foley’s Blood Purifier. There seemed to be a great many medicinal elixirs for the stomach, bladder, liver and kidneys. Some liniments promised immediate relief, but remained vague about what kind of relief one would find.

A personal favorite was Pierces’s Pleasant Purgative Pellets. “It does the work of dynamite without the danger.”

Then there’s Mexican Mustang Liniment. Guaranteed to “heal ‘em up and head ‘em out.”

The list of ingredients for some of the so-called “cures” is impressive: opium, chloroform, ether, turpentine, cod liver oil. These on top of an assortment of roots, leaves, and bark. And alcohol—lots of alcohol.

It’s enough to make one really appreciate the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Nordstrom wondered how people could be so gullible. But he reminds us that these were down to earth people desperately trying to cope with real problems. Look at us today; we are still taking drugs and herbs to manage our problems. He asked us to imagine what it would look like if we kept our trash under our house.

He also brings up the point that maybe folks back then didn’t want a cure at all. He found 50 bottles of a particular consumption cure. That’s a lot of horehound syrup—along with more than a fair amount of alcohol.

Nordstrom probably wasn’t joking when he called some of this stuff “hooch.” The high alcohol content may have made it a socially acceptable way to do a little imbibing. It certainly could have delivered the cure it promised; after drinking it, no one would want to cough by an open flame.

Toward the end of Nordstrom’s performance, with the help of the button accordion and his wife on the piano, he led the audience through several tunes and sing-a-longs.

The retired Reverend put on quite a successful version of a medicine show. It’s hard not to applaud him right along with the audience.

Stop by the Henry County Historical Museum for more information and take a look at the medicine bottles. Copies of the CD are available for purchase.

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