Daily photos by Jonathan Palmer|
Cheryl Patton’s idea of simplifying her life led to a return to a self-sustaining lifestyle on her family’s Simple Life Farm in Arley. When she started to make homemade soaps, she was surprised to find they worked as well as or better than commercial products. She now sells her goat’s milk soaps and other natural products across North Alabama.
The Simple Life
Road Trip: Arley
Soap maker rinses her life of stress while savoring natural products
By Danielle Komis Palmer
The sweet aroma of goat’s milk soap drifts from a cheerful blue barn in Arley, about 45 minutes from Decatur. It dances down Winston County 41 past other farms. By the time the county road becomes Danville Road in Decatur, the smell is replaced by exhaust fumes.
That sharp contrast is what makes the calm and leisurely pace of Simple Life Farm in Arley so unusual. Cheryl Patton hopes her 117-year-old family farm and the natural products that it produces can be a piece of serenity in today’s society disconnected from nature.
She opens the 40-acre farm of goats, chickens, donkeys and bees to curious out-of-towners passing by and for area school and church groups. She also sells her goat’s milk soaps and bodycare products across North Alabama.
With soft, natural colors and blue gingham wrapping, there is no mistaking her soap for commercially manufactured soap.
Patton, who grew up on Simple Life Farm with her family, left the farm for 10 years and then returned in 1988. She left to go to school at The University of Alabama and then worked a stressful job as a supervisor for a freight company. After that, she wanted nothing more than to get back to a slower-paced lifestyle.
‘Not the life I wanted’
“I enjoyed my work and made a lot of money, but it wasn’t the life I wanted,” she said in her slow, gentle manner. “I wanted a simple life.”
The idea of simplifying her life led to Patton’s return to a self-sustaining lifestyle, and eventually to her desire to make her own soap.
Living on the farm, she could no longer afford the name-brand skin and hair products she had become accustomed to using. When she started to make homemade soaps, she was pleasantly surprised to find they worked as well as or better than her former products.
“That’s what really turned it around for me,” she said.
Soap made “the old-time way” is gentler on the skin than today’s mass-manufactured soaps, Patton said. After World War II, soap started to be made using a different formula. While the formula works well in hard and soft water and is cheap to make, it’s also harder on the skin, Patton said.
Patton began to market her soaps at craft fairs and then to North Alabama stores, as well as at Civil War re-enactments. She has sold at Decatur’s September re-enactment for several years, and is a popular merchant, said its organizer Clay Turner.
“People always look forward to buying soap from her and everything,” he said. “That’s just about the only place to get homemade soap, is through her or someone like her.”
Soap made “the old-time way” is gentler on the skin than today’s mass-manufactured soaps, said Cheryl Patton, who makes shampoos, lotions, beeswax lip balms and soy candles, as well as goat’s milk soap.
The bulk of Patton’s sales, however, are to specialty North Alabama stores. Red Rain in Homewood has carried her products for seven years. Many customers come to the store weekly to get Patton’s products, including many from the Decatur area, said owner Amy Zickers.
“Some people come in and ask about her,” Zickers said. “They feel like they know her and her products. She puts herself into the products she’s made.”
Patton could put preservatives and other less environmentally friendly ingredients in her products to make them last longer, but she refuses to do it, Zickers said.
“She definitely has her standards that she stands by. For her, it’s not about the money,” she said.
Most of Patton’s Internet sales are to people living out West or in the Northeast, where the concept of a natural lifestyle is more popular.
Her soaps are also sought as corporate gifts and as presents for out-of-towners who want Alabama products, Patton said. Soon there will be even more demand because Christmas is coming.
Along with making goat’s milk soap and other natural soaps, Patton and her husband, John Burton, also sell honey from the bees they raise, as well as eggs from the farm’s chickens.
In the farm’s cozy barn, visitors can view her stacks of goat’s milk soap and natural soaps along with her other homemade creations — shampoos, lotions, beeswax lip balms and soy candles. The soap bars are mostly priced under $5, with shampoos and many other products in the $10 range. The small barn serves not only as a marketplace, but also as Patton’s soap-making factory.
The best part about her dedication to a natural lifestyle is hearing how her products have helped other people, Patton said. One woman came to her for help after her young son’s skin allergies could not be treated. The natural soap cleared them up and he enjoyed his first peaceful night’s sleep in a long time.
“Usually people come to me after they’ve been everywhere else, like medical doctors,” she said. “They find that getting back to basics and natural things like our ancestors used is the answer.
“That’s what keeps me doing it. We’re solving some problems in our little world, and that always feels good.”
Visit Simple Life Farm online at www.simplelifefarm.com or call Cheryl Patton at (205) 384-6079 to schedule a visit to the Arley farm and store.
The soap-making process
Inside soap maker Cheryl Patton’s modest barn, a rusted white cabinet displays dark glass bottles filled with various essential oils. Large bags of salt and boxes of oil are stacked under the table where her soap cures.
To make her goat’s milk and herbal soaps, Patton uses a cold kettle process. She heats oil on a hot plate and stirs in lye mixed with goat’s milk or water, and continues stirring until it is thick. She pours the mixture into soapboxes to dry, and cures it for four to six weeks.
She creates the different varieties of soap by adding natural botanicals like kudzu leaves and blossoms or essential oils like lavender. She also makes other varieties, including myrrh, patchouli, oatmeal, sandalwood, tangerine and honey soaps.
When visitors watch her make soap, they are usually astonished, she said.
“If they’re older, they remember an ancestor making soap, and if they’re younger, they’re amazed that you can make soap,” she said.
Patton is in her barn making soap twice a week and produces about 200 bars per week. For the goat’s milk soap, she uses milk from her own herd of 11 Nubian goats. Right now, she is using their milk she froze from last year.
“When my freezer starts getting empty, we’ll have more babies,” she said.
The periods on the farm when the goats have kids around are usually a lot of work, Patton said, and require help from her family. Two years ago, eight goats were born in one day. During those times, the goats must be milked by hand every 12 hours. But Patton doesn’t mind.
“It’s therapeutic and educational,” she said, laughing. “We listen to public radio while milking.”
Danielle Komis Palmer
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