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Lye Soap Making: A Burton Ridge Tradition

Kelly Robertson had a WKU English writing project which resulted in this special memory:

The year was 1995. The dogwoods were blooming the palest of pink, and the bluebirds were chirping a new morning song. The season of spring was approaching Burton Ridge, the place where Granny Ruth dwelled...

Granny Ruth Burton knew all the tricks of the trade, and making lye soap was at the top of her list. This particular spring was the one she felt the need to pass the family trade onto the younger generation.

Granny Ruth made anything enjoyable, even work. She would always say, Most people think soap-making is a hard job. I just look at is as a necessity to life. Granny Ruth said making soap took a long time. The process began in the fall and ended in the spring. In the fall, when the animals were slaughtered, the fat was stripped off and rendered in the large cast-iron kettle. The air was cool enough that it strained. The hardened tallow would stay sweet until spring.

I had to stop Granny to find out what tallow was. She told me it was another name for the fat of the animals.Granny Ruth continued her story about the process. Once the snow had melted after the long winter, the kettle was released from its duty as a sap evaporator and pressed into service as a soap boiler. The melted fat was boiled with lye water leached from the winters ashes to produce a harsh jelly-like soap. Granny said once the process was completed, she would store it in a wooden barrel. The strong soap washed anything from clothes to wooden floors. She said occasionally it would leave a foul-mouthed child temporarily speechless.

After Granny Ruth explained the making of lye soap, I asked what lye actually was, to appreciate the tradition that Grandma was so fond of. Most rural housewives made their own lye from wood ashes. The container was first a hollow wood stump with a hole augured near the bottom. The lye dripped down a bark-lined trench into a pail. A fifty-gallon barrel with a hole m the bottom was raised a few feet off the ground and tilted. A sheet of tin bent to form a trough, or a grooved board, directed the flow into a porcelain pail or stoneware crock.

As Granny Ruth was explaining the meaning of lye, the twinkle in her eye masked the rest of her face. It was so vibrant and distinct that I couldnt wait to hear what else she had to say. The bottom of the barrel was stuffed with twigs or stones, then a layer of straw to act as a filter. Burlap bags fitted snugly on top of the straw and up around the edges to isolate the ashes, which had been accumulated over the winter. We stored them in a bark-covered bin. The hardwood ashes were kept separate since they made the best lye. They had a reputation for producing the whitest soap. A barrel of good ashes made about four pails of sting lye, which together with twelve pounds of fat, produced a barrel full of soft soap.

Granny Ruth said making lye soap always made her feel important as a small girl because she had a major role in the processshe was the person responsible for pouring the water into the ash barrel. She said it seemed at first that when she poured it in, it just disappeared. It took the longest time for that leach to start running. At first the leach was strong and brown. Then it weakened as water was added, until all the alkali (an acid neutralizer that served as a soap base and a skin softener) was extracted from the ashes. Dropping in a fresh egg or potato tested the strength of the leach. If it sank, the leach was weak and needed boiling down. If it buoyed up high, the leach was too strong. It was ready when the egg floated at about half-mast. Once Granny was done reminiscing about the traditional ways of soap making, she told her daughters and me an easier and more modem way to produce lye soap. She said today nobody had time like people used to. This was a quicker way to get the same end result.

We were about to engage in the making of cold water soap. All that was needed was two quarts of cold water, a 16 oz. can of Red Devil Lye, and four pounds of lard or bacon grease. She said all there was to do was stir the cold water and lye together. Next, the lard or grease had to be heated and strained, then mixed with the lye and water. She told us we would have to stir forever. This soap was different because aluminum or granite wouldnt produce any soap, so stainless steel had to be used. The texture of the others wouldnt allow the soap to form.

My aunts and I began mixing and stirring until our arms and hands went numb. Granny Ruth told us that when a stick stood up without falling over, it was time for the next step. We then poured the liquid into a cardboard box lined with wax paper. It had to cool completely until it was firm-. We then cut it into blocks for use. Unfortunately, we had to wait two weeks before we could put it to use. Once Granny Ruth explained that easier process, I could understand why they used to fool with the other. She told me that time was all people used to have. Sharing chores with family members was a part of life. She said she, along with her three older sisters, always looked forward to this annual activity. Once their father had killed the beef, it was time to begin. She said the best kind of fat from the beef was called suet, supposedly found around the heart and main organs of the beef But the smell was horrendous, and the entire house stunk of suet while it rendered down on the stove. Granny Ruth said lye soap could be dangerous. She told the story of her mother, my great-grandmother, setting a big tub of soap in the barnyard to cook before pouring it into the soap barrel. She forgot about it all day. When she went out to milk the cows, she found one of the animals bloated near to bursting. The soap tub was licked clean.

The doctor calledthere were no veterinariansand made a slit on her side, and the soap came pouring out. The cow lived all right, but we never cooled soap in the barnyard again.)Learning the steps of making lye soap, both past and present, is something neither Granny Ruth nor I will ever forget. Seeing the enthusiasm that Granny Ruth feels about this topic makes me appreciate the process. I now can pass on a tradition to my children that will help them understand that everything hasnt always been available to walk in a store and buy. This project made me realize that time spent with family is treasure, even when it includes work.

(Reprinted with permission in issue 42 from Broomsedge Chronicles of Western Kentucky University. Dr. Loretta Martin Murrey Publisher)


This story was posted on 2002-10-24 05:00:00
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