Finding the Old-Fashioned Way

One writer’s quest to make soap along Iowa’s Historic Hills Scenic Byway.

Teaching artist Betty Printy takes a spin on a potter’s wheel at the Villages Folk School studio in Bentonsport.

Writer: Brianne Sanchez
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

There’s joy in taking the slow road. Soaking in the scenery. Letting small-town attractions and oddities put a smile on your face.

Creating things by hand has a similar allure. The process is more important than the final product. It’s about feeling the textures of raw materials and adding details that future generations will hold dear.

A trip to one of Iowa’s folk schools combines both pleasures, offering a scenic route to making something worth keeping. Most of the classes focus on handicrafts that have lasted centuries: basket weaving, blacksmithing, jewelry making, leatherwork, letterpress and pottery. Taught

by skilled artisans, some workshops play out over a single day in a particular season, while others span the course of a week or multiple sessions throughout the year. Either way, the experience enables participants to carve out the space and time to focus on craftsmanship and culture.

Taking the Slow Road to Soap

A stack of handmade soap from the Villages Folk School.

My trip to the Villages Folk School in Van Buren County took me through Eldon, where I pulled off for a stop at the famous American Gothic House. Here, it’s easy to appreciate the serenity of simplicity. Many folk schools are outside of cities, so participants can revel in the relaxed pace of rural life while learning their craft.

Part of my trip followed Iowa’s Historic Hills Scenic Byway to a Saturday morning soap-making class at the Bentonsport Stone House, which was built in 1850 and recently renovated. My classmates were nine women ranging in age from 16 to their 60s, including a few mother-daughter pairs. One duo was hoping to start selling their own soaps as a business, so first they wanted some hands-on experience.

Our instructor, Heather Nelson, said she stumbled into soapmaking in 2006 while trying to find a solution for a skin condition, but makes and sells around 3,500 bars a year.

She taught us a bit of the science behind her Sweet Home Soap recipe. She brought in frozen goat milk from her family’s ranch as the base for our soap, and we took notes on how quantities and qualities of various fats impact the characteristics of the final product — how it looks and feels and produces lather. We learned how to calculate the right ratios of ingredients, depending on how much soap we wanted to make.

We also learned how to customize our bars with various scents and stir-ins. I chose Red Clover Tea, a delicately sweet fragrance that’s Nelson’s bestseller. Dried calendula petals, known for their medicinal properties, seemed like a compatible mix-in. Other participants chose different combinations, like vanilla with coffee grounds to stimulate exfoliation, or the warm spice of tobacco leaves and amber.

Using the microwave and electricity meant we wouldn’t be laboring to melt materials over the hearth. We measured lye in recycled yogurt containers on electronic scales. The refrigerator sped up cooling, and a plug-in immersion blender saved on stirring time. My slight disappointment at a less authentic and old-timey experience evaporated after I considered the benefits of modern conveniences and materials. (Surely, Iowa’s pragmatic early settlers would have reached the same conclusion.)

All in a day’s work: Printmaker Melinda Stockwell, right, cranks a fresh design out of an old-fashioned machine at the Calico Press near Birmingham.

Within a couple of hours, I’d learned the basics of cold process soapmaking. I poured my own small batch into a takeaway container, with instructions to cut and flip my bars weekly. They’d fully cure after a month of care.

Art & Culture Across the Country

Before we wrapped up, the Villages Folk School program director Melinda Stockwell popped in to chat and take a few photos.

“Our motto is: The county is our campus,” she said. Creative venues and studio spaces are scattered across Van Buren County. Stockwell herself teaches printmaking at the Calico Press, in nearby Birmingham. She’d spent the morning visiting classes and invited me to check out the blacksmith shop across the street.

Inside, five small forges glowed as workshop participants pounded iron on anvils, forming small hooks. Watching them work, with beads of sweat forming on their brows, it was clear I’d chosen a less strenuous option.

Stockwell suggested lunch at the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant in a reclaimed mill a few miles down the highway. But first, I found some fudge in the Greef General Store, an overflowing antique shop near the pedestrian Bentonsport Historic Bridge that spans the Des Moines River.

On my way out of town, I swung by Bloom and Bark Glass Blowing Studio and Natural Farm in Keosauqua, where retired physician Tim Blair hosts classes and showcases the work of local artisans, just steps from his home. Amid the glimmer of glass sculpture, I marveled at the magic of Iowa’s creative places and started plotting a return trip.

John Preston shows off a watercolor he painted during a plein air session in Keosauqua.

Glassblowing, leather tooling and blacksmithing are just a few of the skills students learn at the historic Villages Folk School studios in Bentonsport and the surrounding Villages of Van Buren County.

Victoria Fosmo captures a scene in watercolor during a plein air painting workshop in Keosauqua.

Blacksmith Bill Printy teaches the tricks of the old trade at the Villages Folk School’s Blacksmith Academy in Bentonsport.

With rag rugs and table runners, artists and students at the Villages Folk School weave the past into the present.

Iowa Folk Schools & Classes

Folk school classes pass along traditional skills and knowledge that were often essential for earlier generations. Try your hand at a variety of handicrafts at workshops across Iowa.

Land Alliance Folk School & Retreat Center, Oxford
Gather a group and choose from “on demand” classes in food, fiber arts, woodworking and more. Guest rooms, glamping and camping options offer on-site lodging.

Villages Folk School, Van Buren County
Beloved teaching artists lead interactive folk art classes in rural settings that showcase the unique charm of the 11 historic Villages of Van Buren County.

Vesterheim Folk Art School, Decorah
As part of the Norwegian-American museum, the Vesterheim school specializes in Scandinavian arts and crafts like woodworking, weaving and the traditional folk painting called rosemaling.

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