Henry “Hank” Blumer, a farmer living near New Glarus, Wisconsin, made a jar of skunk-grease medicine about 1920 for his neighbor Adolph Strahm (1886-1955) in nearby York Township. Strahm suffered from pleurisy, an inflammation of the cavity surrounding the lungs, and used the remedy to alleviate its symptoms. In addition to farming Blumer was also a hunter. He likely trapped the skunks used in making this particular batch of medicine.
Strahm used skunk grease like we today use Vick’s VapoRub. The conventional wisdom of the time claimed that fumes from skunk grease applied to the chest would penetrate the skin into the lungs, helping the sick person breathe. People suffering from whooping cough or croup also rubbed skunk grease on their chests or drank skunk oil to induce vomiting, thereby clearing their lungs and calming their coughs.
One way to make skunk grease was to boil the fat from several skunks and add about 2 tablespoons of an adult male skunk’s glandular secretions before the fat congealed. After the grease cooled it could be stored in a jar or can; the mixture would last for years. Some people who used skunk grease for respiratory problems swore it became better with age.
Tracing the exact origin of home remedies such as this one is nearly impossible, as most remedies were passed along through word of mouth and represented combinations of several different traditions. However it’s possible early settlers learned this remedy from Native Americans. Anthropologist Wilson D. Wallis in early 1900 observed the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia mixing skunk grease with squirrel grease to induce vomiting in people suffering from whooping cough.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, rural Wisconsinites relied on the resources and capabilities of themselves and their neighbors. Town and village doctors often needed to travel long distances or brave bad weather to see patients in outlying areas. Many farming families used home remedies to treat common illnesses and only called on doctors in times of urgent need.
Strahm’s family emigrated in 1891 from Switzerland to Green County, an area heavily populated by Swiss immigrants. Strahm married Ella Schiesser in 1910; they farmed in the Farmer’s Grove area of York Township for several decades. In 1938 their daughter, Elda, and her husband, Frank Schiesser, moved onto the farm. During that period the Schiessers rented from the Strahms and jointly farmed the land. In 1942 the Strahms retired and moved to New Glarus, while the Schiessers continued to rent until 1947 when they purchased the farm for themselves.
Both generations living on the farm exemplified the self-sufficiency of many Wisconsin farm families in the early to mid-20th century. In addition to relying on home remedies, the family also produced many of its own foods, beverages and household items. Besides growing traditional crops and raising animals, the family produced a wide array of home-grown resources. They kept bees to produce honey. They made and bottled some of their own beverages, including wine and juice from home-grown grapes, and root beer. The family made many of their own household items – such as lye soap, crafts and much of their own clothing.