A salve for all seasons, by Leslie Allen

If you grew up in Big Bay in the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s, fell down and skinned your knee, got a cut or a burn, it’s likely your medical treatment consisted of a good swathing in “Grandma Salve.” At that time, the salve came out of any old jar Pauline Cram, the salve’s maker, had available. Or perhaps your mother brought Mrs. Cram a jar from her own cupboard when she went for a refill of that homemade remedy that seemed to cure all.
I was introduced to Grandma Salve at the 2007 TV6 Fall Spectacular Craft Show in Marquette. Three of Pauline’s daughters had a table with a simple display of two-ounce jars stacked in pyramids. Grandma’s-Pauline’s face-smiled up from the top of each lid. A short pamphlet described what the salve was made of (beeswax, camphor, phenol, vegetable lipids) and what it is good for (acne to hemorrhoids and every scrape, cut, blister, diaper rash, insect bite and burn in between). This reminded me of The Andy Griffith Show “Miracle Salve” episode, when Opie tries to sell jars of an incredible ointment that is sure to cure all known skin ailments including “poison ivy, athlete’s foot, prickly rash, complexion and spring itch.” Of course, Miracle Salve didn’t work (except on the mange). But, would Grandma Salve? For $5.95 plus tax, I bought a jar and took it home.
I put it on a funky rash. It disappeared. On some dry cuticles. Softened. Mosquito bites; no itch. I’m just waiting for that next wood stove burn.
Meanwhile, I sat down with three of the Cram sisters-Mary Cram, Joyce Cram and Pam Bowers – to learn more about the salve, which is being made and sold commercially by Mrs. Cram’s nine children, ranging in age from fifty-five to sixty-six. Pam remembers her mother telling her how she first learned to make it, back in the late 1930s. Pam would hear the story many times while helping her mother to make yet another batch of the healing balm.
“My grandfather, my dad’s father, was a diabetic, had one leg cut off,” Pam said. “Back then your prosthetics were a wooden leg, and he used to get sores quite a bit, and my dad used to take him once a month to town.”
One month, Mr. Cram couldn’t get his father to the doctor, so the sores got worse.
“[My grandfather] told my mother…that there was a salve that his mother made, and he was going to make some to see if it would help. He made it. He showed her how to make it. The following month my dad took him back to the doctor. The doctor told him: whatever you’re using keep using it ’cause it’s working.”
Pauline Cram continued making and using the salve, especially on her children and other children in the neighborhood.
“You didn’t go to the emergency room unless something was dangling off and she knew it was broke,” Pam said. “Anything you got, it was Grandma Salve and band-aids, no stitches. That was the end of it. And it worked, eh.”
Even then it was called “Grandma Salve.”
Mrs. Cram would cook some up as often as needed, for anymore that needed it.
“Go to Pauline, she’ll give you some salve,” Pam said. “Right before winter she’d make it, and if you had a cold or something she’d make you stand over it, because of the camphor. The whole house would smell of it.”
“She gave it away, but she never gave anyone else the recipe,” Joyce said.
Although the sisters carry the recipe in their heads, Pam made sure that it was written down.
“My mom was a really good cook, but when you would ask for a recipe she would say, ‘Oh, a little bit of this, a little that,’ you know, and that’s the way she cooked. So one day I told her – we were making Grandma Salve-and I said: You need to sit down and write that out.”
“We have a safe like the Bush Bean thing, right?” Joyce asked.
Laughter.
“But no dog,” Mary said.
Pauline’s handwritten recipe is framed and locked away.
Pauline, one of ten children, was the first in her Yugoslavian family to be born in the United States. Her father, a logger, eventually settled on the Yellow Dog River.
“She only went to eighth grade,” Mary said. “She’s probably one of the smartest people I know.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Joyce said.
“A lot of common sense,” Pam said.
With nine children, common sense and a little Grandma Salve came in handy. For instance, there was the case of the wedding and the burned feet.
“Now tell the story about Dad when Nora’s wedding … ” Joyce prompted Pam, the group’s unofficial spokesperson.
“When he cut his feet?”
“When he burned his feet. Remember when the dresses caught on fire?”
Gales of laughter.
The six Cram girls shared one big bedroom in the family’s three-bedroom house on County Road 550. The night before sister Nora’s wedding, one of the girls hung something too close to the light in the closet-the closet that held the dresses for the wedding. A fire started.
“Dad came,” Pam said. “And we were screaming. He came to put out the fire and he got burnt.”
“The bulb had busted, and there was all the glass,” Mary said. “He was barefoot.”
With the help of his sons and some water from the bathroom, Mr. Cram was able to put out the fire. But his feet were badly cut and burnt.
“He couldn’t even put his feet in the shoes he was supposed to wear at the wedding to give [Nora] away,” Pam said. “They slit the tops and dressed his feet with Grandma Salve-it seems to help the pain a lot, too.”
After using the salve for many years on their own families, sharing it with friends, neighbors and co-workers, and being told now and then that they should try selling it, about three years ago the Crams started talking about just that. Pam recently had returned to Big Bay after a number of years in Montana, and most of the others were still in the U.P. There were meetings with a lawyer, and the Grandma Salve trademark was obtained in 2006. The siblings created a limited liability corporation and started packaging their product.
“It’s all been one step at a time,” Pam said. “Now, how are we going to market it, how are we going to do it. We haven’t really pushed it. We have a Web site. We do craft shows.”
The salve can be found in Big Bay at brother Joe’s Cram’s General Store and at the TV6 craft shows; it can be ordered through www.grandmasalve.com
It’s also being sold at a health food store downstate and at a hardware store in Montana. Pam has e-mailed Oprah Winfrey, the queen of promoting good causes and good products, and also the University of Michigan Program for Injury Research and Education, which works closely with the school’s Trauma Burn Center. At this point, though, most sales have been by word of mouth.
“We’ve proven to ourselves from the four craft shows that it’s marketable,” Pam said. “People are coming back. Remember that guy at the craft show? Remember we were sitting there and he comes up and put his elbows right in our face and I’m looking at him and he goes, ‘See them?’ I said, ‘Uh-huh.’ He says, ‘They were really bad and you sold me some of that salve. Look at how nice they look.’ Then he goes, ‘It worked so good on my elbows I put it on my dog’s elbows.'”
Pauline, ninety-three and living in a local nursing home, still uses the salve, putting it on her face and hands every night. The plan is simple: “We want to sell a lot of it,” Mary said.
And why not? It may not be a miracle salve, but, as Pam said, “It works. It just works.”

—Leslie Allen

 

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