Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Edna Mae was my prize calico cat of at least three colors. A woman once looked at her and said, "She’s uglier than a pan of homemade lye soap!" I understood the insult intended, as my visions went back to when my grandmother Mary Fellows made dishpans of soap a shade lighter than pumpkin pie, with a consistency somewhat resembling candle wax. Grandma’s product was a far cry from the colored, perfumed, oval bars of "homemade" soap wrapped in bright foil paper that hippie girls often displayed and sold in California stores during the 1970s. It was unattractive to say the least, but it was an excellent cleanser. I don’t have her recipe and I never helped her make soap, but I have her sister-in-law’s description of soap making. 

This was one of the many things Lizzie Fellows Heckart described in Four Seasons, a small book printed by the Van Buren County Historical Society after her death. According to Aunt Lizzie, wood ashes were accumulated in a large hopper measuring six feet by four feet, sloping to smaller dimensions at the bottom. The hopper stood on a huge stone that had a groove cut in it for the lye to run through. Care was taken to keep the ashes clean, and when the hopper was full, water was poured over the ashes. When a brown liquid began trickling down through the groove, it was caught in a jar. This was pure lye, the basic ingredient of her soap.

At exactly the right time of the full moon, fat rinds from beef and pork that had been saved during the winter were placed in a huge iron kettle with the lye. Water was added to the desired strength. A brisk fire was built under the kettle so that the mixture could boil. They made a year’s supply of sweet-smelling soap in this manner. It would take the dirt out of farm clothes, kill germs, and would also take the hide off the knuckles if you rubbed your clothes too hard on the washboard. Grandma used a similar method, but modified it to a much smaller scale. There was a difference in her final product, however. It was never very clear, it was almost as hard as rubber, and it was repulsive brown on top. With a sharp knife, she cut the soap into rectangular pieces. When she removed a piece of soap from the pan, it was a yellowish-brown color beneath a quarter inch of brown crust. Thus, I quickly got the picture when the lady said that my cat was as "ugly as a pan of homemade soap."

Everyone in our household preferred milder, gentler, more attractive cakes of store bought soap for bathing, thus Grandma used her soap mostly for laundry purposes. I do not recall that it smelled particularly great, but on the rare instances that I washed myself with her ugly pan product, my skin felt and smelled really clean.

Once when we were gooseberry picking a mile south of Leando, my grandmother and I rolled under a barbed wire fence only to discover that we had just been in a patch of poison oak. She told me not to scratch myself, but I couldn’t resist. When we got home, she scrubbed herself with her lye soap and had no problems. I insisted on using commercial soap, and suffered from a poison rash all summer! 

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick