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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Cedar Fever's
Nothing to Sneeze At

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

As sure as the coming of a new year, every December one biological process begets another when pollen produced by the male juniper (incorrectly but far more commonly known as mountain cedar) starts making a lot of Texans sick with allergies.

Cedar pollen is only one of many varieties of spore that bring misery to many, a bodily reaction technically known as allergic rhinitis first medically described in the 10th century. Another half a millennium passed before Charles Blackley, an English physician, in 1859 correctly pegged pollen as the culprit. Initially, people thought the smell of fresh hay caused their problems and the malady came to be generally known as hay fever.

But on the Edwards Plateau of Texas, where an estimated 10 million acres are covered in evergreen cedar, cedar fever supplanted hay fever as the most common allergy-related condition. Ragweed would be the second-worst offender.

In the 19th century, it didn't take long for the more entrepreneurial types to deduce that from the suffering of others they themselves could gain relief--financial relief. Before Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, the field was wide open for medical quacks to offer "cures" for allergy sufferers. As early as the 1870s, Texas newspapers were publishing ads touting allergy relief drugs.

"Hay Fever...Have You Got It?" began one pitch for Zola's Hay Fever Cure. "It is a positive and guaranteed Remedy that will relieve in 24 hours," an ad in the Sept. 25, 1896 edition of the Houston Post assured. Druggist George W. Heyer, located at Main and Capitol streets, was the Texas agent for the product.

A few years earlier, the Evening Marshal Messenger noted that members of the clergy were invited to call at E.J. Fry's drug store "and we will give them (free of charge), one $2.00 box of 'Cacterine,' or Extract of Mexican Cactus..." According to the ad, and who could question the veracity of something published in an 1890s newspaper, Cacterine cured pretty much anything connected with the throat and nasal passages, including hay fever.

In Waco, a traveling "Specialist," one Dr. Willis, placed an ad in the Waco Morning News that "owing to increased business," he would stay in Waco until summer. Tellingly, the ad ran in the January 6 issue, the height of cedar fever season. The good "doctor" offered a hot medicated steam inhalation regimen that the ad averred promptly relieved hay fever. His ad said that in addition to hay fever, his steam treatment was generally a "positive cure" for female disorders, rheumatism, liver and kidney diseases and neuralgia.

Allergies such as cedar fever indirectly contributed to Fort Worth's economy with the opening of a new business, the Aztec Medicine Co. The company produced a "safe, simple and economical" steam generator that cured allergy problems as well as consumption (aka tuberculosis.)

The Wise County Messenger ran an ad early in the cedar fever season of 1885 speculating that a century might be spent in search for any better cure for allergies than Ely's Cream Balm. "Being pleasant and safe, it supersedes the use of all liquids and snuffs." Not only that, "Its effect is magical. It relieves at once and cures many cases which baffle physicians." Relief cost only 50 cents at the drug store, 60 cents by mail from the Ely Brothers plant at Owego, NY.

Those unwilling to try for a medical cure could seek geographical relief.

In 1887, the Fort Worth Gazette suggested another benefit of the newly arrived Fort Worth and Denver Railroad: "Fort Worthites who may be suffering from hay fever next spring can jump on Fort Worth and Denver trains and in 36 hours be in the regions of eternal snow and finding relief quickly, return inside of a week to their bright southern home."

The newspaper did not mention that while a dose of cold mountain air would sooth allergies for the price of a train ticket, when the recently afflicted returned to Texas so would their immune system's physiological reaction to pollen.

Well into the 20th century, removing oneself from cedar country was still seen as a quite viable alternative to suffering. In October 1935, at the depth of the Great Depression, the management of Galveston's Buccaneer Hotel bought newspaper space all over the state to tout its method of relieving the symptoms of cedar fever and other allergies: "Plan now to spend your Hay Fever season where thousands have found freedom from this and other annoying pollen ailments." In other words, Galveston.

Indeed, the ad continued, freedom itchy eyes, runny nose and other symptoms could be attained by spending time in a room at the Buccaneer. "Your physician will tell you that ocean-filtered air is pollen free." (Your physician, back then likely to have studied medicine at Galveston's University of Texas medical school, might also tell you not to miss the island city's entertainment spots, its civically sanctioned houses of ill repute along Post Office Street and its virtually wide-open gambling venues.)

The most news cedar fever made in the state's dailies came in 1947 when UT regents generated big headlines by refusing to allow faculty member and nationally known writer-storyteller J. Frank Dobie any more leaves of absence so he could escape Austin's cedar fever season in the fall and winter.

These days, while over-the-counter and prescription medicines actually do lessen or eliminate cedar fever woes for some, the suffering continues.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January 11, 2018 column

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales"

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    Mike Cox's "Texas Tales"

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