Most everyone enjoys PA Dutch homemade cooking, I know I miss my grandmother’s, but even few old timers even her can remember PA Dutch homemade recipes to protect young children from catching a dreaded or deadly illness when going to an old fashioned one-room schoolhouse. In protecting rural children from such contagious diseases, be it the normal illness or evil spirits children were exposed to when attending public schools sitting alongside classmates, the folk tradition once followed in the 1930s and 1940s practiced by the PA Dutch in the Dutch Country called for parents to protect their young with a small bag of asafetida, worn around the neck when they went off to school.
Undoubtedly, in the winter months, children attending crowded one room schools were apt to share contagious germs, which were certainly passed on in a close classroom, especially one room schools that were not heated sufficiently by an old fashion pot belly stove. In an age without antibiotic knowledge or modern medicine, there were a number of individuals who blamed an illness on hexerei (evil causes), thereby an individual’s illness was the work of the Devil or his associates.
Parents wishing to protect their children from an illness in crowded quarters would go to a drug store and order some asafetida which had a terrible smell, called in the PA Dutch Dialect “Deivel’s Dreck” (Devil’s dirt), which was bagged in muslin cloth bags. Worn around the neck, like an addition to one’s under garment, this secretive piece of apparel was used to offend anyone who might get to close to cast an evil spell since the smell was really repulsive.
Therefore, if someone had a contagious disease, you were safe from contact with this person and you would not be a victim of that disease was the psychology. In jest, older people called asafetida Devil’s Dirt or feces, because it was so repulsive, but only a nickels worth would be hidden in a bag around one’s neck, and according to the Black Arts, this substance would repel any witchcraft spell or evil spirit.
Freddie Bieber, whose farm was in Rockland Township, found that the previous family (the Delong family) had protected each cow’s stall by nailing a lump of Devil’s Dirt in a muslin bag over each (cow’s) stall; a protection that they might not give birth to stillborn calves. But in times of national emergencies, when individuals might resort to any means to protect themselves from dangerous epidemics, pharmacists might be ask for this ancient mixture to protect their customers in case it did actually have abnormal power.
Next to the practice of protecting rural animals with bags of asafetida over the lintels of their stalls, the occult practice of foiling a witch with a small bag of mercury was also used by the PA Dutch. In 1961, several mercury bags were found in cow stalls of a barn stable in Bareville, Lancaster County, built circa late 1700s by the PA Folklife group. However, in modern times, many if not all Powwowers or faith healers have all but lost the popularity this magical substance once was reported to achieve.
Perhaps the practice was already obsolete or in decline when in the 1960s at the Kutztown Folk Festival, folklorist, Donald Roan of the Goshenhoppen Historians interviewed individuals about the past practice of wearing Devil’s Dreck bags when they were young children. To his surprise, this folkway had been only prevalent among rural Americans. For a more in-depth study on Devil’s Dreck bags, I highly recommended reading Roan’s article in the December, 1964 issue of the Pennsylvania Folklife.