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Soap makes for good, clean fun at the fair

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Gwen Lee-Tyson stands in front of her soap exhibit at the Pitt County Fair on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019.

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Karen Eckert
Staff Writer

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The theme of the Pitt County Fair this year is "100 Years of Fun," and at one exhibit in the main hall you might add that it's about good, clean fun.

Nestled among the homemade pies, cakes, jellies, jams, clothing and quilts is a display of soaps created by soap maker and retired school teacher Gwen Lee-Tyson.

These handmade items, located in the homemaker section of the hall, pay tribute to the celebration of agriculture.

"I try to celebrate with the soap," said Lee-Tyson, who has been bringing her sweet-scented creations to the fair for six years.

Some of the soaps have names that sound good enough to eat.

"This is white ginger and lemon," Lee-Tyson said, holding up a bar.

Other scents included orange-cinnamon and kiwi vanilla.

Pine tar soap, with its less flavorful-sounding name, is another one featured in Lee-Tyson's display.

According to Lee-Tyson, the use of pine tar in America has agricultural roots and can be traced back to pioneer days when people traveled by foot or wagon train across the country.

"During pioneer days, there was really no way to stop and bathe every night," she said.

People had to wear the same clothing over and over and they would get red, itchy rashes, Lee-Tyson said.

"Everybody seemed to get rashes (except for) the guy who took care of the animals," she said.

Pioneers always traveled with someone who would make sure the animals made the trip safely across the country. The animals were intended to become the new stock at the place where they were headed, where the pioneers would start their farms.

One of the duties of the man caring for the livestock was to rub pine tar into the animals' hooves to make sure that they were nice and strong. If animals developed splits in their hooves, they had to be put down.

The wife of one man caring for the animals figured out it was the pine tar — a black, messy substance — that was helping her husband not to itch.

At first, pioneers mixed the pine tar with grease and tried to rub it on their skin like a salve, but that was too dirty.

"One brilliant lady said, 'put it in the soap,'" Lee-Tyson said.

That way the pine tar helped their skin and people could get clean at the same time.

Once the healing properties of pine tar became known to the pioneers, the substance's popularity spread, Lee-Tyson said.

Back east, the men who helped pioneers prepare for their trips west by supplying them with horses, wagons, water and other items gave all women the recipe for pine tar soap.

Lee-Tyson is a member of a group called Soapmakers and said she teaches people the craft of soap making through the Lifelong Learning Program at ECU.

Her booth at the fair won honorable mention for its design of autumn-color leaves, flowers, lights and gold letters that celebrated "100 Years of Fun."

The fair gates and exhibit hall open at 1 p.m. today. The midway opens at 2 p.m. The fair runs through Sunday. For a more detailed schedule visit http://www.pittfair.org.

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