Gaston & Catawba

Newton soap maker followed her dream

She started from scratch – a batch of patchouli-scented soap whipped up in her kitchen about eight years ago.

And that was it. “A passion was born,” as Dorothy Samson wrote in promotional material for her family business, O My Soap!

I found out about this Newton-based operation in a news item on the “O You Dirty Dog” photo contest in July.

Dog owners were invited to send in photos of their pets. Judges were folks who stopped by O My Soap! booths at the Downtown Hickory Farmers Market, a Charlotte farmers market and the Bluegrass Farmer's Market in Lenoir.

The six winning photos are being made into pen-and-ink drawings by Samson's daughter, Jennifer Toney. The pet portraits will go on wrappers for “O You Dirty Dog” soap.

Billed as a celebration of the dog days of summer, the photo contest was a clever way to plug a product. I wanted to meet the person who dreamed it up and recently went to see her in Newton.

As soon as I got out of the car, soap fragrances hit me. Waves of ginger and orange, peppermint and spearmint. All coming from an old garage – headquarters for O My Soap! after it outgrew Samson's kitchen.

Just about every inch of the cozy, 400-square-foot building is being used for something. Racks of handmade soap in 35 fragrances take up a fair amount of space.

Samson has branched out into all sorts of other comfort products – everything from hand lotions and body scrubs to heating pads and sleep masks.

Most of it handmade, by her.

Risky business

In hard times, a lot of folks probably dream about starting a business.

Being their own boss, working when they please, setting their own agenda: It's food for thought in the gloomy swirl of economic downturns and downsizings.

Most people never move beyond the dreaming.

But Samson, 62, actually took the big step.

She and her husband, Jim, are from Dayton, Ohio. They were childhood sweethearts who'd known each other since fourth grade.

Dorothy Sampson was a church secretary. An avid gardener, she found a part-time job one summer at a greenhouse in Vale. There, among the plants and the dirt, it happened: She discovered handmade soap.

A woman at the greenhouse had a relative who made it. Sampson knew nothing about a product she'd always considered too expensive.

Then she tried the fragrant soap and felt her skin afterward. The itching and blemishes were softened and soothed.

That experience led Sampson to try making her own batch of soap. It didn't turn out too bad, so she tried another. And another and another.

Sampson explained to me how to make soap – how you mix lye with oils and fragrances and a chemical reaction does the rest.

‘Lesson in perseverance'

The name O My Soap! comes from an expression Samson often heard from her grandmother, Iona Hull: “Oh my stars!”

From the start, her heart was in soap making. Bad batches didn't discourage her. Like a cook starting from scratch, she learned from the errors and began again.

“It was a lesson in perseverance,” Sampson said.

O My Soap! can't produce a high volume of products in the cramped space of the old garage.

But there are no limits on producing new ideas. Sampson is always coming up with things like Sleepy Eyezzz sleep masks and door dollops made out of cherry seeds.

So remember Sampson the next time you're thinking about a sideline business of your own. It'll be risky – no doubt about that. You may lose your shirt. But you'll never have the satisfaction of knowing unless you try.