The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Ray Medicine Company

By Boyd S. Ray © 1992

Issue: July-August-September, 1992

Developing a remedy to relieve, or cure, arthritis or rheumatism became a major project for my Daddy. He had certain aches and pains which needed relief quite often, as did many people throughout the region. Any remedy that was reported was eagerly accepted and passed on by word of mouth. But nobody, then in the late 1920s, or even later, had a really successful remedy to aid the affliction.

Daddy's remedy started with the mountain tea oil which he manufactured or distilled. He used it to rub on the inflicted areas or joints. To this was added camphor, kerosene and several other chemicals which I do not know. But I do remember the camphor, kerosene and mountain tea oil because of the horrible odor it left through the entire house. He never told his formula to anybody, and to my knowledge he never wrote it down. He just mixed it up out in the garage and tried it on himself. He later gave some to his friends and neighbors. In doing this he gradually developed a concoction that evidently helped relieve the aches and pains and got the person back on their feet.

As time went on his circle of "patients" grew larger. He then began to collect statements, or affidavits, with their permission to print and use as advertising in promoting his remedy. Some of the statements they gave to Daddy were fantastic. He had a stack about three or four inches high of several hundred signed statements. It is a shame they got destroyed or thrown away over time. But I remember reading through them one time and it was very interesting what they claimed the medicine had done for them. Some said they had been down in bed for several days and after using the medicine for a few days they were up and about again. Others said they had tried many other remedies and none helped till this one came along, which did help relieve the pain. But the best one was what Daddy told me. He had heard about this old fellow who had been down in bed for several weeks and nothing seemed to help him. Daddy took a sample out to his home and gave it to his wife and told her how to apply it. He left saying he would return in a few days to check and see how he was doing, or if he needed any more medicine. Well, after about a week Daddy went back out to see the old fellow. He couldn't find anybody at the house. Finally he went out to the barn, about fifty yards away, and found the old man with pitchfork in hand, cleaning the manure out of the horse stables. The old fellow must have thought Daddy was going to try to collect some money for the medicine, because he immediately began to complain that the liniment wasn't any good, didn't do him any good after three or four days trying it. Besides, he got to feeling better, so he got up and came to the barn to work.

Daddy gave this remedy the name of "Rays Rheumatic Remedy." It was bottled in eight ounce, round glass bottles with a green label. He had individual boxes for the single bottle shipments through the mail, and cardboard boxes that held twelve bottles for the wholesale store trade. I remember he would mix up a large batch in a washing tub sitting on the kitchen table. My two sisters and I would stand around and pour it into the individual bottles by using a dipper and funnel. Then we would put on the labels and pack the bottles in the boxes. The odor from this mixture of mountain tea oil, camphor and kerosene together with other chemicals, lingered in the house for days. The retail price was one dollar per bottle, with a full refund guarantee. If not satisfied just send the bottle back for a full refund.

When he first started to merchandise the remedy no store owner would buy any. But they would take it on consignment. So Daddy put it out to several stores and drug stores with the understanding they would pay for what they sold. I believe the wholesale price was nine dollars per dozen bottles.

This arrangement created the necessity for advertising. At first he used the local county papers in the immediate surrounding counties. Later he used the Bristol Herald Courier, a daily paper. But the crowning touch to his advertising program was using the only radio broadcasting station in the area at that time. Emory and Henry College was located about fifty miles away over in Virginia. Being the only station in the area, anybody who had a radio listened to it. So Daddy got together some of the local Johnson County talent. This program, which he developed, was the first in the area to use a live hillbilly band to make music. He wrote out what he wanted the announcer to say. Nobody had ever heard of recording a program, you had to do it live every time. He made a deal with these fellows who played mostly for personal pleasure and local functions, like at the schools and political speakings. He hauled them to the station and back on the days the program was to be aired.

The only name I remember of those in the band was Carmey Johnson. Carmey lived up in the third district, as did his compatriots. Carmey had quite a following for his fiddle playing and the others made up the banjo, guitar and mandolin. I remember as a small boy, down in the center of town in front of the hardware store, on Saturday afternoon, Carmey, who was the centerpiece attraction, and his buddies would play and sing. It always drew a big crowd and everybody had fun. Every now and then someone would slip Carmey and his buddies a drink of moonshine whiskey, and the playing would go on and on. Carmey had a habit, after a few drinks, of closing his eyes as he played, bend over a little more and more as time went on, and he would really lean into that fiddle. It was a great day every time.

That was the band Daddy hired to make up his radio program to promote his remedy.

In time he worked up a small mail order business. The direct sales to the stores he handled himself. As usual, his thoughts and plans turned to much bigger territory and much larger sales volume. Why not go for that large numbers of people out there with rheumatism? Why not get rich at this?

In trying to determine how best to reach that large number of rheumatic sufferers he hit upon the idea of going to Hot Springs, Arkansas. In those days there were large numbers of people who went to Hot Springs to bathe in the warm spring water. Of course it had been touted as a good remedy for rheumatism, and was a big attraction for the area. He figured that, percentage wise, you could get the largest amount of exposure there than anywhere else in the United States. So, if you were there with your product at the right season, you could have satisfied customers going back to all parts of the country, all singing the praises of your remedy for rheumatism. The results would be an enormous mail order business, as well as a national distribution system. He set out to do just that.

My best recollection is that this was about 1930. We had a 1928 Chevrolet coupe with a rumble seat. I remember because I broke two axles in it learning to drive. Daddy took out the rumble seat and filled the space with box after box of the remedy and also the front seat beside the driver? He then set out for Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Some of you may remember the condition of the roads in 1930. They were mostly not so good. A lot of gravel roads, a lot of chug holes, a lot of narrow, crooked, steep and dangerous roads. Daddy had never driven that far from home in his life. He had never been that far from home but twice before, and both times he hurried back to the hills of East Tennessee. But he drove and drove till he got to Hot Springs. I feel sure that when he got there he was a tired, weary and very anxious and very lonely man.

After getting settled in a boarding house he went about trying to get the local merchants and drug stores to push his product. What he encountered was something he had not in the least imagined. Those merchants were, and had been for years, making a good living from the influx of rheumatic sufferers. Why should they accept, and assist, an outsider to provide them a way to leave and never come back. Not only that, but go back home and tell their fellow sufferers they could mail order a liniment that would replace the wonders of the hot springs. They damn near run him out of town.

Daddy came home with just about all the bottles he left with. He was one of the most dejected and beaten men you could imagine. He didn't say too much. Just enough to let the family realize the scope of his disappointment. That was the end of his enthusiasm for the liniment, and any effort to sustain any business he had of it. He just plain gave it up and quit. That is what happened to Daddy's "Rays Rheumatic Remedy."