"Folks have called me a backwoodsman, or a mountain man, and I tell folks I'm a hillbilly without a guitar." Tommie Bass introduced himself in this way to hundreds upon hundreds of people who sought his help and advice. Another Bass trademark statement was "Same address since 1925." He was born in Jackson County, Alabama, at a time when his father was constantly on the move looking for congenial business locations as he bought and sold furs and herbs and "anything else." However, in 1925 the family homesteaded in the area of Leesburg, Alabama. Hard times when young Tommie Bass was growing up fostered ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, and the ability to work with the seasons.
"I've actually been working ever since I was eight years old. I've done everything. On the farm, picking cotton, cutting cordwood, making crossties, trapping, taking care of the stock." All this honed his skills with the broadaxe, bucksaw, mattock, sickle, hoe, carpenter saw, and steel trap.
Bass's interest in herbs started early as, like his father, he followed a long Appalachian tradition of herb gathering and trading. A retentive memory and an eye for income fostered his growing knowledge, garnered from the oral and printed traditions.
One of his early advertisements (Alabama Farmers' Bulletin, March 1, 1945) is typical of those he used for the next 30 years or so: "Wanted: Star of Grub root, Star grass root, lady Slipper, Snake root, Black Haw bark or root, Calamus and Bloodroot, etc. Write for prices -- A. L. Bass, Leesburg (Cherokee Co.)." Although Bass's local reputation grew, it was only from the 1970s that he began to be widely sought after as an herbalist.
The "ease" that Bass gave to many often rested on more than his extensive knowledge of herbs, though he never wanted to admit that. A meeting with him generally took place in his yard -- which he aptly described as a junkyard -- or inside his shack or on its porch. In the winter a coffee pot of warm sassafras tea standing on a stove greeted the visitor to a roomful of clutter with walls decorated with countless old calendars, photographs of friends, and pictures of President and Mrs. Reagan and Senator Jesse Helms -- testimony to a wide circle of acquaintances and to a spirit of Republican independence.
A visit was often marked less by a discussion on herbal medications than by conversation ranging over local events, births, marriages, and deaths, Alabama politics, and general chats on herbs, all laced by Bass's charisma, stories, and jokes. When visitors left, Bass's last comment was generally, "I'm sure glad you came." Bass's advice for, say, such common problems as ulcers and rheumatism, was that he could provide relief ("ease") rather than a cure, and that the visitor would be a "guinea pig to see if the medicine works." Often no charge was made for the "trial" of medicine ("I'm going to make a present of that. Don't tell on me."). If the medicine "worked," a repeat of the herbs or tea commonly cost one to two dollars.
Tommie Bass often said, "I can't quit jabbering." While we can no longer hear directly his wonderful story-telling, his own words and wisdom have been captured many times in the media (film, print, radio, and television) as well in Herbal Medicine, Past and Present by J. K. Crellin and J. Philpott (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990, 2 vols.) and Plain Southern Eating, ed. J. K. Crellin (Durham: Duke University Press, 1988).
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By J.K. Crellin