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“Blesssings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy with cheek of tan.”
By Sam Perry
John Greenleaf Whittier’s romanticized version of rural boyhood is a delight to read and conjures images of a past that many long to recapture, but it ignores an ugly truth that boys who run around without shoes in the countryside are prone to injuries that could have been avoided if they had taken the time to put on a pair of Keds. Trust me. I speak from experience. If they cast their footgear aside when the soil is warmed by the May sun, they also become susceptible to not only injury, but disease. In particular, hookworm. Whittier doesn’t mention hookworm in his poem, but, in all fairness to him, the cause of Hookworm Disease was unknown when The Barefoot Boy was published in 1855. It was still that way in the early twentieth century when the Rockefeller Foundation launched a campaign to determine how, and why, so many in the South were affected by this debilitating disease.
Hookworms are intestinal parasites that cause anemia and malnutrition in places where sanitation is minimal or absent. Both conditions retard physical and mental growth and both are detrimental to the overall health of society. The disease is common in third world countries today, but until the advent of modern medicine in the twentieth century, the same was true in the rural South with its warm climate and high humidity. It is spread by a species of worm called the New World hookworm and enters the human body, most frequently, by way of bare feet walking on soil contaminated by human feces, the vector by which the worm is spread from one person to another. As difficult as it may be to comprehend, outdoor privies were uncommon in some parts of the rural South, southern Kentucky being no exception. Until the cause of the disease was found, no treatment was available to the hundreds of people, mostly children, who suffered from its effects. That is, until the problem reached the ears of the Rockefeller Foundation.
The Rockefeller Foundation was in its infancy when it created the Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease in eleven southern states. By identifying populations afflicted with the ailment, the Commission hoped that, with education, coupled with treatment, the “germ of laziness,” could be eradicated from the South forever and the people in that region could, then, take their rightful place in American prosperity. One of the centers of population identified by the Rockefeller Foundation for study was situated in northern McCreary County.
Buzzard, Kentucky no longer exists. It hasn’t since 1915, when the post office there was closed. But, at one time, the combination post office and general store was the hub of a community bound to each other by kinship and lack of transportation adequate for long distance travel. Established in 1900, with William H. “Billy” Bryant as postmaster, the post office served the people living east of Indian Creek in northern McCreary County. Each day, mail was delivered by a post rider who picked it up at the railhead at Flat Rock.
In the spring of 1913, the post rider delivered a notice to the Buzzard postmaster of a coming event that only the foolish would choose to miss. On July 5, 1913, proclaimed the advertisement, a great ice cream social would be held at the Buzzard post office, compliments of some dear friends from up north. There would be no charge for the ice cream and all who could come were cordially invited.
Word of the event spread like fire roaring across a field of dry “sage” grass. Ice cream was a delicacy that was so rare in that part of the county that, although many had heard about it, most had never tasted it. They were determined not to miss out on the opportunity to do so.
And so it came to be, that on the morning of July 5, Patrick P. Walker loaded his jolt wagon with ice from his ice house at Parkers Lake, along with hand-cranked ice cream churns, and steered his mules across Bullet Mold Ridge to the post office at Buzzard, Kentucky and the announced ice cream social. Sugar and sweet cream, and, perhaps, peaches, would be provided by the store. Accompanying Walker on the trip were two physicians from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Dr. Steele and a Dr. Heizer. Neither had much interest in ice cream, but they were, certainly, anxious to see the people who would attend.
It was a hot day and much of the ice had melted by the time Walker and the doctors arrived at the post office, but enough was left to fill each of the churns. Surrounding canisters of cream, sugar, and vanilla flavoring, and spun by young men who demonstrated their muscular prowess with each turn of the crank, the ice quickly turned the liquid mixture into what many would claim to be the most wonderful thing they had ever tasted. While the young men worked, Dr. Steele and Dr. Heizer stood in the shade of a sycamore tree and watched, and what they saw was astounding.
Almost all of the children were barefoot. So were most of the women. Even a few of the grown men were without shoes. All of them walked about the yard with calloused feet as though they were walking on a silk carpet. The rocks, stubble, and briars seemed not to bother them, so toughened had their feet become. But, to the physicians sent down by the Rockefeller Foundation, the connection between New World hookworm and bare feet was obvious.
To those who would listen, Dr. Steele and Dr. Heizer explained the necessity of wearing shoes while working or playing outdoors. They tried to show how a tiny worm, so small as to be undetectable to the naked eye, could penetrate the soft tissue between toes and take up residence in the human body, there to cause all sorts of preventable ailments and health issues. They also emphasized the importance of not emptying one’s bowels in “catholes”, scattered about the farm, but in latrines where human waste could be confined.
They could have saved their breath. Not until the 1930’s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in one of the many New Deal programs, began a campaign to teach rural Southerners how to construct outdoor privies, did Hookworm Disease show signs of abating. But, it never did go completely away. Even as late as mid-twentieth century, some refused to abandon the old ways of performing bodily functions, and the problem persisted. Fortunately, with the passing of time, and the ascendancy of a younger generation, Hookworm Disease has all but disappeared from the American disease registry.
The Great Buzzard Ice Cream Social has become a legend in McCreary County folklore. It became one because, for many people living in the remote portions of the county, it would be the first, and the last, time they would dip a spoon into a bowl of that chilly goodness called ice cream. The memory of rolling the smooth blend of cream and sugar in their mouths and tasting the rich vanilla was one they would never forget. They talked about the experience as they sat before their fireplaces on winter evenings and wished they had some when they chopped the weeds from their patches of Hickory Cane corn on summer days. They quickly forgot the words of wisdom from Dr. Steele and Dr. Heizer, but they never forgot the wonderful delicacy the friends from up north had given to them on that hot July day in Buzzard.