In his 1988 book about Tommie from whom this article is derived, Local author Darryl Patton writes “He is one of those rare and endangered species; a truly kind and honest person- a giver not a taker.”
“At 80, he has been treating those in his community with herbs for over 70 years…Tommie Bass is truly a diamond in a lump of coal.”
Arthur Lee “Tommie” Bass was an Appalachian herbalist who lived near Lookout Mountain, Ala. At the time of his death at age 88 on Aug. 31, 1996, Bass was one of the best-known local herbalists in the United States. He was profiled on the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 1985, subject of a film on his life, interviewed on national television, subject of a master’s thesis, and subject of scholarly and popular books. Tommie’s immense knowledge of herbal lore encompassed more than 300 local plants in his personal pharmacopoeia and others that might not be useful to “give ease” to others. He was well known for his tinctures, salves and compounds.
The youngest of six children, Arthur Lee “Tommie” Bass was born on Jan. 24, 1908, to Kate and John Bass, near Scottsboro in Jackson County, where his parents had moved from Greene County, Tenn., around the turn of the century. John Bass was a fur trapper, trader, woodsman, and subsistence farmer. Kate was a resourceful woman known for making an herb salve remedy from a family recipe that, according to oral tradition, had English origins.
During his childhood, Bass’s family moved several times to locations along Lookout Mountain before settling in 1917 in Cherokee County.
Their new home was a major cotton farming area near the Coosa River, but the Bass family continued its self-sufficient practices, raising some cotton and corn, but engaging primarily in truck farming, berry and herb gathering, fur tra-ding, fishing, and producing railroad crossties.
Tommie Bass attended school only one day in his entire life, but he was constantly absorbing the plant and animal lore of the Southern Appalachians, as well as a variety of jokes, tales, and songs. His mother taught him to write, and he learned to read from local newspapers, the Bible, and popular magazines.
At age 16, he was baptized in a local creek as a Free Will Baptist.
Bass served a six-month tour in the army in 1942 but otherwise he spent his entire adult life near the small town of Leesburg, where he worked at various jobs.
Bass gained a widening reputation after a Gadsden newspaper ran several stories on him that highlighted his knowledge of medicinal plants and the salves and tonics he made.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Bass received visitors seeking cures and knowledge from throughout the South, and eventually from across the United States, at the small, wood-frame shack that served as his herb warehouse and consultation office. He conducted countless walking tours through the woods of Shinbone Ridge and Little River Canyon, teaching everyone from school children to medical school students and professors how to identify the plants and good-humouredly passing along his knowledge of botanical remedies.
Late in his life, Bass made several out-of-state trips to folk festivals in neighboring states and lectured about Appalachian medicinal plants at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. He has been the subject of a two-volume scholarly study of his herbal knowledge and a documentary film.
Tommie Bass died in Rome, Ga, on August 31, 1996, and is buried in Cherokee Memory Gardens in Centre.
Tommie on his “CHRISTMAS” past:
“We were so poor back when I was a boy, I knew Christmases when we didn’t get anything at all. Generally speaking, if we got an apple and a stick of peppermint candy, and maybe a tea cake or something like that, why, it’d tickle us good.
I remember one time when it came a big snow back in Nineteen and Fourteen. My daddy told us that Santy Clause couldn’t make it that year. Mother told us, ‘You can hang out your stockings New Year’s Eve and he’ll be here.’
We did, and got a tea-cake, though we didn’t know then that mother had made it.
One year I believe I got two teacakes. We never did get an orange, though we might get an apple, but you only saw one of them back in the summertime in those days out in the country, and so that was a big treat.
The only thing in the way of a toy that I ever got was when my daddy gave me an old Barlow knife that cost a quarter. I thought I was the richest guy in the world having that Barlow knife. I carried that thing for years.
We lived over there on the side of the mountain just above where the landfill is now. We had a sweet potato patch down below the house and I lost my knife. I didn’t have the least idea where I lost it, and about two years after that, I was plowing this here patch where we had sweet potatoes, and I plowed up my knife. It was as rusty as could be, but the handle was still on it.
An old gentleman that was cutting ties with me named King said, ‘Son, you soak that knife in kerosene a week or so, then take a pair of pliers and open the blade. That will be the sharpest knife you ever had.’
That being buried in the ground tempered it and you could might near shave with it, brother. I carried it until finally somebody stole it, but I had it wore nearly out. That was the only toy I ever got for Christmas.
We never did have Christmas parties at all and never did have a tree. I remember Mother would sometimes do some baking…an apple cake…dried apples…three cakes high…and wrapped…a week or two before Christmas…set it up in the cupboard; we didn’t have a refrigerator, of course.
The juice would go all through that cake, and you talk about good eating. Then she would make a sack of teacakes.
That would be all we had for Christmas back in my day.”