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Park Pick: The Truth About Lye

At Sauer-Beckmann Farm, making soap requires working up a sweat.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Ah, the choices of modern life. Go to any store, and a staggering variety of scented bath soaps, heavy-duty cleansers and concentrated detergents stock the shelves. Which ones should you buy?

A century ago, people had only one option: lye soap. What's more, they typically made their own supply, a grueling chore that took most of a day.

This month, interpreters at the Sauer-Beckmann Farm - part of the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, near Stonewall - will make lye soap the old-fashioned way during a special event that's part of a yearlong celebration honoring the centennial of President Johnson's birth.

Visit Sauer-Beckmann any day and you'll find park staff dressed in period attire, portraying life on a Hill Country farm in the early 1900s. You can watch as women in long skirts cook lunch on a wood-burning stove, churn butter by hand or can fresh vegetables. Outside, men wearing leather suspenders tend to chores in the garden and barn, which houses the farm's resident cows, chickens, pigs and sheep.

During this month's soap-making event at the farm, Virginia Grona and other interpreters will cook up two batches of lye soap in a big cast-iron kettle. Their vintage recipe calls for 24 pounds of lard, 4 gallons of water and four 12-ounce cans of lye.

"We butcher our own pigs, then use the lard to store our cured ham, bacon and sausage for a year," Grona explains. "That lard is then used in our soap. It's how people recycled back then."

Over an open fire in a nearby pasture, interpreters, using a large wooden paddle, will stir the lard and water until the lard dissolves. "Then we'll carefully add the lye," Grona says. "You never add water to lye because it can explode."

When done, the soap will cool for several days before it's cut into small bars. Visitors that day will receive complimentary samples. Handmade soap from the farm is also sold at the park's visitor center.

"People in the early 1900s used that soap for everything," Grona says. "They washed dishes and scrubbed floors with it. They washed their hands and face with lye soap. And on Saturday night, they bathed with lye soap. Back then, you took a bath once a week, whether you needed it or not."

The soap-making event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 24. Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site is located two miles east of Stonewall on U.S. 290. Admission is free. For more information, call (830) 644-2252 or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lyndonbjohnson. For more information on the Centennial Celebration, visit www.lbj100.org.

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