Aunt Nancy Range
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Aunt Nancy Range

No more picturesque personage ever traveled the woodland bridle paths which wound their way through the dense forests of Warren County ninety years ago, than Aunt Nancy Range, the herb doctor.

Aunt Nancy was born in Clarion County and raised there. She spent a number of years in Warren County, died in Erie County, and is buried in a little hilltop cemetery near Union City. Her name was Nancy Myers before she married Anson Range. In the days when she rode the Warren County bridle paths on her stalky roan mare Mollie, and indeed for many years after she had passed away, no license was necessary for the practice of medicine, a man who had not made a success at running a store, in the making of ox yokes or at blacksmithing, might any day put up a shingle and announce himself to the neighborhood as a doctor, ready for "practice," which, if you look in the dictionary, you'll find means "experimentation." These untutored practitioners made practically all their own medicines, sometimes even distilled their own whiskey, which was liberally used in a medicinal way. The law was not fussy, a man just went ahead and made an honest living in whatsoever way he might; if he happened to feel inclined to enter the medical profession he might make his own medicines, more power to him, there was no pharmacopoeia. When the law was passed, making a medical diploma necessary to those who wished to practice, the old time, self-made doctors were allowed to continue practicing as long as they lived, their experience was construed to be a medical education, or they enjoyed squatter's sovereignty. A few of these selftaught doctors are living, and practicing, today.

In her middle age, when she doctored in Warren County, Aunt Nancy Range had a fairly rotund figure with a full, high bust which vibrated with the trot or canter of her roan mare. She was above the medium in height with large bones, strong hands, a nose and jaw denoting enduring strength of mind and body. She wore steel rimmed "specs" with black strings on their bows, fastened behind her head, to keep the glasses from jog gling off when Mollie trotted hard, or went at a gallop. Aunt Nancy rode astride, with voluminous saddle bags behind, filled with her herbs and roots from field and garden. She wore heavy wool stockings the year 'round, an extra pair drawn over her shoes in winter, a home-spun coat cut very much like a man's but trimmed with a black braid that betrayed the eternal feminine. Calf-length skirts were the common thing among early pioneer women and those of Aunt Nancy, containing copious pockets, were neither shorter, nor longer than the ordinary style. Her skirt pockets were always full and bulging, making her already ample form enormously wide. Aunt Nancy's legs looked well able to support their burden.

She was a character, was Aunt Nancy Range, the cabin dwellers scattered in the clearings and settlements loved and respected her. Even little boys and girls who had known the terrible taste of some of her potions liked this stern yet kindly woman whose grey-blue eyes seemed to see right into them as they gleamed through her large spectacles. For if Aunt Nancy gave horrible mixtures of boneset and mandrake and nauseating sulphur which tasted in the mouth for hours after, she also was known to produce from the hidden deeps of her great pockets little round cakes of rich, brown maple sugar and bestow them on small boys and girls who knew no other kind of candy.

The pioneer doctor, man or woman, was always welcome at every pioneer home. Every cabin offered food and lodging and the warm hospitality of hearth to Nancy Range; it was an honor to entertain the doctor, and then of course, these medical practitioners who rode the Warren County bridle paths in days when there were no newspapers, carried the news from cabin to cabin and were doubly welcome on that account. So when the hoof beats of Aunt Nancy's roan mare were heard approaching a home, the family hoped she'd stop, and very often she did, whether there was illness or not. To be caught on the road at night worried the herb doctor but little, every log cabin and early frame house was a potential stopping place. There is a story of how a band of wolves followed her one night in the region of Lottsville, followed so close and howled so menacingly that Aunt Nancy Range was glad to see the candle glimmering in a window of Ransom Davis' home and was still more thankful to get her horse safely into the log barn and herself into the house where the iron pot, with plenty of a venison boiled dinner still warm in it, was swung out from the chimney corner.

Calling a doctor in the days when Nancy Range brewed her herbs for all the ills that flesh is heir to, was often a problem. Only a few of the settlers owned horses, slow-plodding oxen were the common beasts of burden. When sudden illness made its appearance, it had to be a serious illness if a doctor were to be sent for. A horse was procured if possible, it could make better time than a man or boy on foot. Men walked twenty and thirty miles, running down all the hills as Billy Ray used to do, in order to make time. And when the messenger came for Aunt Nancy Range, she answered the call with a promptitude and unfailingness that made a reputation which lingers to this day. The plump saddle bags hung always behind her door, ready for an emergency. When the call came for Aunt Nancy, she instantly dropped her herb brewing, her spinning or dyeing while a stout son saddled and bridled the roan mare and brought her to the door. Through rain and wind this good woman was on her way to relieve the sick, through snow, belly-deep on her horse, over precipitous icy paths that wound and dipped through the winter woods, through inky darkness and torrid summer heat when the dense forests held the humidity like a sponge, she went to her patients, nor asked if she would be sure of her pay. Aunt Nancy worried but little about her pay, very little was in cash. She might often be seen riding homeward with a quarter of lamb, a bolt of homespun or a sack of onions, accepted in payment for her services.

When Aunt Nancy arrived at the patient's home and found the case acute and serious she would stay right there till the sick one was better. And if, perchance, things went the other way and her patient died, Aunt Nancy Range herself laid out the body, cooked a meal or two if necessary, and attended to things generally, which was certainly carrying medical service as far as anyone might desire. She was really nurse and doctor combined and often would order the anxious family off to bed while she sat in a rocking chair by the bedside, reading her bible by the light of a shaded candle, reading the whole night through, watching the fever and the pulse. Many the long night Aunt Nancy sat thus by the bedside of the sick, reading the Book of Books, watching the progress of her patient, watching for the turn of a fever, the sudden dropping of the pulse, the change for better or for worse. While the family slept, she would keep the wood fire going on the hearth, swing the kettle in against the flickering back log that the hot water, so often necessary in sickness, might be ready at hand. With shoes off she would slip silently about the house in the night hours, her wool-stockinged feet padding the floor. No wonder they loved her, no wonder they told tales of Aunt Nancy Range to the children, children now grown to old men and women in Warren County.

At her cabin home near the headwaters of the Little Brokenstraw Creek, Aunt Nancy Range had a large herb garden; it was a hundred yards long and something like half as wide. In it grew the various simples she regularly employed in her practice, the foxglove, catnip, lobelia, peppermint, elecampane, smartweed, golden seal, spearmint, spikenard. And all the forest was Aunt Nancy Range's herb garden too, for there she gathered the fragile bloodroot, the fragrant myrrh, the waxen-flowered mandrake or (May apple), the ruddy-rooted sassafras, tag alder, slippery elm and a score of others. If there was a blossom, leaf, bark or root that was good for something, Aunt Nancy was familiar with it and knew just where to find it in wood or clearing or swamp.

Foxglove reduced dropsy, sassafras thinned the blood, yellow dock was a wonderful blood purifier, golden seal acted as a general tonic and was a cure for stomach ailments. Boneset had few equals as a cure for colds. Hemlock tea, used in connection with the famous "hemlock sweat," a standard home remedy in by-gone days in Warren County, was a simple brew made from the aromatic needle-leaves of green hemlock.

Queen of the Meadow was an herb much used by the Indians for colds. Aunt Nancy Range never loved Indians but she was nevertheless fond of saying that this and that among her collection of curatives was a "reliable Indian remedy."

Although she was very religious and read her bible, Aunt Nancy believed in witchcraft and in charms and was not above using a charm occasionally to aid in her treatments. There was a horseshoe over the door of her home, and another horseshoe handy in the kitchen to be heated and dropped in the cream when the butter wouldn't come, or boiled in grease if things were going badly generally. Aunt Nancy Range knew what the owls were talking about when they whimpered in the forest at night and a howling dog had been known to make her more zealous in the treatment of a case.

But they do say Aunt Nancy never had superstition daunt her and would labor unceasingly with her herbs and roots and barks, even when all "the signs" were bad.

That Nancy read her Bible is testified by the names of her four sons, James, Hezekiah, Elijah, and Noah. Yet superstition had its part in her life and when news of the invention of the telegraph penetrated the woods of Warren County, Aunt Nancy Range called her four boys together and solemnly warned them to have nothing to do with this new thing called the telegraph because it was the work of the devil.

In the latter years of her life, Nancy Range administered to the souls of men and women as well as their bodies; she preached on Sundays in a log school house and the good folk came from miles around, afoot and on horse back to hear her sermons. Her's was the good old fashioned hell fire preaching with eternal bliss for the righteous and sulphurous suffering for the damned. She could make her listeners hair stand up on end with graphic descriptions of the lower regions, she loved that sort of preaching, thought nothing else was real preaching and stepped from the stern, vindictive, pulpit personality into her kindly character of nurse and doctor with a swiftness few could understand.

When she was in her seventies, and living in Erie County near the present site of Union City, Aunt Nancy Range, who then wore white curls at her temples, had a premonition. She announced she would not be here long and would preach her own funeral sermon the following Sabbath. A large congregation assembled on this most unusual occasion, a woman preaching her own funeral sermon!

It was a good sermon, her hearers agreed on that, preached with power and persuasion, there was little hint of approaching dissolution. But two weeks later Aunt Nancy Range went to her reward, which must have been a good one, for she did a deal to relieve the sufferings of her fellow human beings while here.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 211-217: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


Return to Warren County Homepage

© Warren County Genealogy Project