(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Sassafras tea – spring custom of old dates back to Indians” was originally published in the March 30, 1972 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)
It used to be that when the first signs of spring began to appear around the countryside, it was time to give everybody in the family their spring tonic. This was done to “purify the blood” and rid the body of all traces of winter colds and flu. Sassafras tea was the most common of all the spring tonics due to the fact that the sassafras bush was plentiful and the tea was little or no trouble to make.
The drinking of sassafras team was adopted from an old Indian custom that was practiced long before the white men set foot on the North American continent. When the settler came to the wilderness, he had to adopt some of the ways of the red man to survive. The healing herbs and medicines of the tribal medicine men were quickly put to use because doctors were few and far between. The ones that learned to live from the land were the ones that most often survived.
The tea made from the sassafras root was not only a spring tonic; it was used in the place of such things as coffee, tea and other stimulating drinks when times were hard and supplies were low or exhausted. The roots from sassafras bushes were dug up and cut into short pieces. This was done for storage purposes, and it was easier to place the short lengths in the boiling pot. Some of the larger pieces were split in half in order to fully utilize the sap or juices. Three or four small pieces of sassafras root will usually make about a gallon of the delicious liquid.
The process of making the tea is quite simple. After the roots are dug and washed, the small pieces are boiled for about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the desired strength of the tea. Then sweeten to suit individual taste, usually about a spoon and a half per cupful. Drink while hot for the most desired flavor.
I asked my friend Pearlie Broughton for the location of some sassafras bushes. Pearlie has helped me on several other stories in the past few weeks. He told me that some of the bushes were growing at the edge of his field. It wasn’t long before we had some sassafras roots ready for making tea.
Shortly thereafter the tea was made, and as I sat and drank it, I thought of the changing times and the many customs that have been forgotten or discarded through the years. I took another sip from the cup and was glad that I had remembered.
(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County in June 1964 (some sources say 1961) and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. Some of his earlier columns also appeared under the heading of “Monroe County History: Did You Know?” He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)