For over 20 years, these Oregon soap makers have maintained success by doing what they love: helping people.
Venture southwest of Rockford along scenic Illinois Route 2 and you’ll arrive in Oregon, a picturesque, charming city. Just outside of town is a unique, homegrown retailer: Oregon Soap Shoppe, 91C S. Daysville Road.
Even before you enter, aromas tantalize from the sidewalk. Inside, a rainbow of soap bars overcrowds cabinets and shelves. In the back, a sign that reads “Apothecary” hangs over a table full of oil bottles and concoctions.
“That’s my mess, the disaster where the soap is made,” laughs Lynnel Camling, owner of Oregon Soap Shoppe.
A Rockford native, Camling once worked as a nurse, caring for burn patients and the elderly. After years of working with wound care patients, she left nursing to become a full-time mother. Then, when her former husband’s family farm needed help in Oregon, she left Rockford and turned to a life of milking cows, doing chores and gardening. When her former mother-in-law gave her a book entitled “Everything A Good Farm Wife Should Know,” she came across a chapter called “Every Good Farm Wife Makes Her Own Soap.”
“I thought I’d try it because I wanted to finish the chapter,” Camling says with a chuckle. “That first batch did not turn out very well at all. It was ridiculous.”
She wasn’t deterred. In fact, she found she enjoyed it, so she kept at it and discovered a new calling that worked hand-in-hand with her background in nursing.
Camling spent years as one of the original eleven soap makers in the Handcrafted Soap Makers Guild, perfecting her skills while reading encyclopedias, speaking to other soap makers, and writing to oil companies for hard-to-find coconut, castor and other oils that were essential in soapmaking. She’d ask questions in her letters like, “How big are the molecules, how deep do they penetrate, how much sodium hydroxide to saponify an ounce of oil?” At that time, she would sell a whole bag of soap to friends and family for $10.
When her older brother, Randy, came to the farmhouse and saw shoeboxes full of soaps, he knew she was onto something special. One day he told Camling he had signed her up for a craft show that was taking place the following morning. Despite the short notice, she went through with it.
“We made $300 that day,” Camling says. “I thought I was rich. Randy said, ‘I don’t want any money for this; you invest that back in your oils.’ That’s what got me out of the basement. I probably never would have, except my brother shoved me out.”
She sold her soaps at craft shows for several years until she moved to a small storefront in Oregon in 2000. There she met her current partner, Michael Olson. In 2004, Camling and Olson relocated to their current Daysville Road location.
Camling’s methods today aren’t that much different from those days in the farmhouse basement. A certified Aromatherapist in England and Australia, Camling makes every bar of soap by hand. She prefers the old-fashioned method, stirring by hand, measuring out ingredients and pouring the soap into wooden molds lined with freezer paper. This helps to retain heat longer, allowing the soap to keep warm while it saponifies and produces more glycerin – a key ingredient in soap and the byproduct of mixing oils with an alkaline.
Camling stacks the molds as high as she can, covering them with three to four woolen blankets. The soap sits for seven days before it’s ready to be sold.
Her compassion for others and background in nursing make her more than just an insightful business owner and soap maker, she says. Camling believes she’s also a healer, eager to help everyone who walks into her shop.
When she first got into soap making, Camling’s knowledge of burns and wounds helped her to understand how the oils in her soap affected people’s skin. Nowadays, when someone with a skin condition pays her a visit, she can offer a soap that could help – or else she’ll try developing something new. Many people visit her based on recommendations from local doctors and dermatologists, she says.
“They tell me what they have, and we show them what may help,” she says. “I’m not trying to be nosey about their medical condition. I’m trying to be responsible and helpful.”
Camling’s attention to detail when it comes to ingredients is just one of the secrets to Oregon Soap Shoppe’s success, according to Olson.
“Any time you have repeatability in your manufacturing processes, that guarantees success,” he says. “If she makes a soap, it’s just going to be every bit as good as the first time she made it.”
Even so, there’s still a trial-and-error process when it comes to creating new varieties. Those first failures are integral to the learning process, Camling says. In her experience, this has involved taking ingredients that worked in a previous soap formula and adding new or additional ingredients. Sometimes, she says, the result isn’t as good as she had hoped, so she goes back to the drawing board.
Over the years, Camling and Olson have maintained an environmentally friendly shop, where repurposed shelves and racks have become the norm. One rack, which displays handcrafted Polish pottery like soap dishes and teacups, was rescued by Olson from a nearby gas station. The shop’s front desk, called “the big rig,” was purchased for $10 and fixed on a platform with 18 wheels.
In addition to sticking to beliefs and starting cheap, Camling recommends business owners do their homework and ensure they love what they plan to do.
“Whatever you are going to do, make sure your whole heart is in it,” Camling says. “We’ll never get rich doing this, I guarantee. But you know what is rich? Why do I do it? Because it helps people.”