From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 41, No. 4, November 2005
A leaching stone was recently installed on the front lawn of the museum. Originally it stood on the grounds of the Rosebrooks farm on Route 195 near the intersection with Moulton Road. This house was built in the mid-1700s and, in more recent history, served as home to the University’s Police Department and later Parking Services. The use of the leaching stone may well extend back to the 18th century. In the 1950s the stone was moved to the University’s School of Pharmacy and installed in an herb garden designed by Harold O. Perkins for Dr. Arthur Schwarting. With the construction of a new Pharmacy Building, the stone has been again relocated to the Historical Society where it will be preserved as an important part of our town’s history.
So what is a leaching stone, you may ask. A leaching stone was used for the production of lye – a key ingredient in the making of soap. The excerpt below, from Eric Sloane’s Seasons of America’s Past (1958), describes the process.
“Early spring and late fall on the farm were generally soap-making seasons, but as soap was made mostly from grease and fat, November’s butchering-time made the fall season the more popular one. On small farms where no butchering was done, table scraps and old lard were saved all winter and used for soap-making in the spring. As repulsive as these ingredients sound, they produced the clear jelly that make soft soap more desirable than one might think.
Soft soap was made from lye and grease, and every family had its own “ash-hopper” or “leach barrel” for manufacturing lye. This was a stick-and-straw-bottomed container for wood ashes. Only certain hard woods made proper ashes: pine ashes, for example, were considered worthless. With four quarts of wet lime tamped into each barrel of ashes, water (greasy dish-water was fine) “leached” through the ashes and came out the bottom as lye. If you are a back-country pioneer who has suddenly run out of store soap and are now carefully following this recipe, be sure to get your lye strong by pouring it, if necessary, over fresh ashes at frequent intervals. If an egg or potato floats in it, the lye is just right. Now you must boil your lye and grease together in a big pot and presto! Soap! But, “before the soap becomes a mass,” you might remember, “scent it well with sassafras.” And give it a ten-week seasoning period before using it. Running out of soap used to mean a long time between baths.”
The illustration above, drawn by Rudy Favretti, shows how the leaching stone was used. He and Carl Schaefer were instrumental in arranging for the relocation of the stone from the University to the museum. We thank them for their efforts and also the Town’s Public Works Department who moved the enormous stone. Next time you visit the museum, take notice of the leaching stone on the front lawn and then give thanks that we can easily buy our soap at the local grocery store!