Homemade soap as strong as the memories of the old ways of doing things

Some of Mychal Wilmes' earliest memories involve wash days and his mother's homemade soap -- remnants of their ancestors' more communal lives in Germany.

A washboard is in a tin tub with a cloth over it. Clothes are hanging on a clothesline.
Washing clothes with a washboard and tin tub was more labor intensive for Mychal Wilmes' mother than the rest of the family realized.
Courtesy / Pixabay
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Grease and mud stood no chance against Mother’s homemade soap.

The ingredients — since Mother didn’t bother adding fancy oils to make the soap smell pretty — were basic. Ashes, lard, and powerful lye were the primary ingredients. Lye required careful handling as the skull and bones logo proved. Mother made sure to add the lye to the water and not the other way around to reduce the risk that lye fumes would cause problems.

Solidified at the base of a large Red Wing crock, Mother cut the soap it into large squares, which was shredded into a large circular cardboard container. It was my job to do that, which I relished because it meant contributing in a small way to the household good.

Long ago, before relatives left Germany for better opportunities, communities gathered for soap-making days. It was at its most basic both a necessity and a celebration, not unlike bread-making days when women brought their risen loaves to outdoor brick ovens for baking.

Outdoor ovens kept houses cooler in summer heat, but perhaps just as important provided an opportunity to share family news and gossip about the men who were spending too much time in the local beer hall. If a stream passed through town, clothes were washed in its water.


Living was shared in many other ways. Many farmers had homes in town and worked small parcels in the countryside with oxen or horses. The town employed a hog keeper to lead the swine from their small pens in town to the forest where they ate acorns and foraged for other food. Before sunset, the swine were led back to town and willingly returned to their own pens.

Mother, who was aware of the old ways, dealt with new challenges. The clothes worn by her husband and hard-working sons were often covered with grease and dirt. A wash board and large tin tub that at holiday time doubled as a bathtub were her tools. Working a washboard was much labor than any of us realized.

However, as a Mother’s Day present, her sons pooled their money to purchase an automatic washing machine. She was not overjoyed when it arrived, and even less so when she said it didn’t do a good job. As a result, the fancy machine was rarely used.

Mother was aghast at her youngest son’s habits involving his work jeans, which weren’t changed until they slippery shined from spilled milk, milk replacer and manure. My sisters, who were much more aware of such social faux pauses, pressured Mother to change my ways.

"He stinks," was their unbiased assessment of their brother. Mother was more tolerant, given that the several-times patched jeans were hand-me-downs and on their last legs.

My earliest memory of wash days involved a fuel-powered washing machine Mother used on the screen porch. The poor screens invited flies to come in. When I was five or six, Mother sat me on the floor with a fly swatter and said to kill as many flies as I could reach.

I have always thought that it might have been nice to live in the time before my ancestors left Germany. The shared lives, hopes and dreams made for a strong community.

Mother said there were reasons why our families left. Europe endured many wars, and the resulting upheavals dried up factory and farm opportunities. Her great grandmother had enough of wars, so it was made easier to see her sons leave for new lives across the Atlantic.


I wonder whatever happened to the washboard and tin tub. Both were probably trashed. It is good that her Singer sewing machine is in my possession. It needs a great deal of work before it can hum again. The machine’s hum and Mother’s soap remain pleasant memories.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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