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The Traveling Medicine Man

Interview with Mrs. Sarvility E. Ellis, February 8, 1995.

             By Lois Barefoot Mays

Free entertainment was hard to resist in the midst of the economic depression of the 1930s so small groups of people gathered when the traveling medicine show came to town. Picking the best spot to set up his stage the “Doctor” some times chose a small park behind Thomas’s Camp on the Dixie Highway, about a half mile south of Folkston’s city limits. Good-natured Wilbur Thomas was known for his many kinds of car hubcaps strung all over the outside of his store near the camp. Junior Thomas, his son, is still a favorite with the women of Folkston for his teasing ways with the older generation.

Whole families attended the medicine show, many having walked from their homes – mothers carrying the baby and daddies with an older one on his shoulders so the child could see above the laughing crowd. Gathering late in the evening just before dark, usually in the fall of the year, they enjoyed this seasonal entertainment. The comedy was so amusing that some would return each evening for the weeklong visit of the wandering salesmen.

The doctor and his comedian partner, the entire cast of characters, bounded up on a makeshift stage anchored to the tailgate of a rickety truck. The comedian’s face makeup brought much laughter before he even started with his rapid-fire patter. For the next ten or fifteen minutes he entertained with jokes and fast-stepping jigs in order to get the audience in a mood to part with their money. Wearing a black swallowtail coat and the outlandish makeup, the comedian kept the audience laughing. As his routine wound down, he sailed off the stage and the “doctor “ jumped on, waving a bottle of snake oil in each hand.  The “doctor’s” name was printed in bold letters on the front label and the reverse listed many ailments that could be “cured”.

Mrs. Sarvility Everett Ellis, known as the best apple tart baker in Georgia, and who died recently, recalled “The medicine man came up there with bottles of medicine that he said would cure anything. ‘Buy this! Good for arthritis and different things’ And some in the audience would gladly buy a bottle.” 

Pacing the small stage the doctor urged the audience to come closer so that he could sell another bottle of the so-called miracle drug, while he stuffed the money in his pocket and then picked up another bottle from the stage floor.

“My daddy used to buy it. He’s say ‘That medicine is good for anything. I’m going to get me a bottle and a jar!’ ” she said. There was bitter liquid in the bottle and slippery ointment in the jar.  “He said it helped him!” she recalled.

But most of the audience, forgetting about the economic depression, and laughing about the ridiculous claims for the medicine, turned back toward home. Pulling their sweaters closer in the night air, they smiled and laughed with their friends at the foolishness of the traveling medicine men.


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