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Soap and hope Crafting couple won't let early hurdles bar

Published: Sunday, October 01, 2000
Page: P1B
Byline: Greg Stone TIOGA - Some industrial sites, such as Weirton's steel mill, loom as gray monoliths. They dominate landscapes and define communities.

The Tioga Soap Factory is housed in the Bragg family's garage.

"It's not much of a factory," admits Delores Bragg.

Ah, but the action that takes place in these Nicholas County cubbyholes. Lye colliding with fat to produce chemical violence.

Essential oils and fragrances performing an olfactory dance. Delores' jungle machete chopping up the finished product.

It's all a dream right now, hatched by Delores and husband Duane Bragg, a retired Navy man. Like most dreams, Delores is willing to start small.

"I'd like to make enough to sleep nights, maybe," says Delores, 49.

Anxiety about the business venture isn't keeping her up. Go-Mart is.

Delores works the midnight shift at the Craigsville convenience store, toiling in the deli.

Once she has made breakfast for early-to-work miners and wood plant workers, Delores returns home for a few hours' sleep. She gets up about 1 p.m. Time to make the soap.

Her "factory" consists of a kitchenette and adjacent room just off the garage of the Braggs' brick rancher.

In the kitchenette, she mixes very specific amounts of lye and water, then an equally exact combination of lye and fat.

The lye and fat together produce a chemical reaction essential to cleaning and lathering. "If you don't have that reaction, you don't have soap," Bragg explains.

Lye, known chemically as sodium hydroxide, is leached from wood ashes.

It is used most often these days to unclog drains, producing a hot, bubbling reaction with water.

The Granny Clampett School of Soap Making called for the fat to come from lard. Bragg, in order not to offend animal-rights-minded customers, uses coconut, palm and olive oils in her recipes. "All Vegetable Soap," reads the homey label on her bars.

Once the ingredients have produced the desired reaction, Bragg adds either a fragrance or essential oil, to give her products their distinctive smells.

She pours the steaming liquid concoction into rectangular, wooden trays and adds dye. Once the soap sets up, she cuts the tray's contents into 40 2-by-3-inch bars. After making marks with an ordinary knife, she uses a machete to make cross cuts.

Still, the deed isn't done.

The soap must cure from four to six weeks, in order for the strongly alkaline lye to neutralize. Because of all the different steps involved, Bragg works each afternoon in the kitchenette, churning out blocks.

Duane, 50, helps when he gets off work helping handicapped clients find jobs. Around 7 p.m., Delores goes back to bed, to prepare for another night in the deli.

It's a grueling schedule, one she hopes to trade some day. She also hopes the soap business is enough to put her youngest son through college.

Why soap?

"It was always a dream of mine to own a little craft store," she said.

"And my husband was always pushing me to do something with my crafts, to make money." One day, while watching TV, the light bulb came on. She saw a man on the tube making soap. I can do that, she thought.

To the Internet she went. Two months later, she clutched recipes and a basic knowledge of soap making.

She turned out her first batch in January and began selling the bars for $3 each in April. The Braggs are still looking to break even on their investment, though they have cut and wrapped about 1,500 bars.

A peek inside a kitchenette cabinet reveals why. The Braggs have about $1,000 worth of oils and fragrances on one shelf, including sandalwood, peppermint, lavender and rose. One 16-ounce bottle of peppermint is $28. They pay $50 a bucket for palm oil.

Despite the price of the peppermint, Delores can't get the stuff to congeal with the lye and coconut oil. It crumbles. "I'm not going to be able to sell a single bar of it." Other varieties have been easier to make. Their "Hunter" soap is made from an actual white oak and birch bark tea that is mixed with the lye.

Oak moss, fern and spruce essential oils are added.

"I guess you end up smelling like a tree," she said.

The Braggs are getting a crash course in small business. So far, they've marketed their product to an antiques store in Flatwoods, a Richwood flower shop and a Summersville gift shop. Their soap can also be found at Country Road Cabins in Hico. The cabins house out-of-town rafters. A Lewisburg crafts show later this month is another target.

"In three years, I think we should be pretty well started, with a lot more repeat buyers," she said.

Tamarack, the state's arts and crafts outlet in Beckley, remains an elusive market. Delores presented her creamy, rich lathering creation to a jury earlier this year. They didn't smell or wash with the soap, she said. Jurors were more concerned that her label - featuring a picture of her oldest son as a small boy - wasn't polished enough. She was also asked to shrink wrap the bars.

The couple is willing to roll with the punches, in hopes of realizing their dreams. When Duane retired from the Navy, the Braggs moved from Norfolk, Va., back to Nicholas County, where they both grew up.

They chose the slower pace of West Virginia. They wanted their children to attend smaller, safer schools.

Still, the move has come at a price. Duane's Navy pension allows the family a fairly comfortable existence, but substantial employment is hard to find.

"When I grew up, Richwood was just a booming town, stores all over the place. I'd like to see those jobs come back." Sounds like a few more factories are in order.

To contact Delores Bragg, call 742-5345.

To contact staff writer Greg Stone, use e-mail or call 348-5195.

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