Soap Company of Nova Scotia burns to ground

Community rallies to help founder Leigh McFarlane rebuild

December 1 2021 | By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

CHERRY HILL – For a moment last Monday (Nov. 22), it felt like the end of the world. Standing in sock feet on her front lawn in a driving rainstorm, Leigh McFarlane watched as a fire reduced her home and business to a pile of char and rubble.

Now, thanks to an extraordinary outpouring of support from friends and neighbours, it feels like something else to the founder and CEO of The Soap Company of Nova Scotia, who can trace her roots in this community back 100 years.

“It feels like we’re in a great, big hug,” she says from a borrowed cell phone. “It’s just unbelievable. I’ve had clothing given to me, and offers of services like plumbing and electrical. Neighbors have given money for gas and gift cards. The Lions Club provided me with a really generous cheque to get me the basics.”

What’s more, she says, the generosity has given her business – which employs her, her daughter Anna, and a handful of other St. Mary’s residents making and selling soap, laundry powder and skin care products for retailers and individuals across Nova Scotia – a fighting chance to surge back.

“We’ve had offers of equipment and computers,” she says. “A used Mac is coming our way. A colleague of mine is going to be loaning us a thermal printer for our skincare labels. We are rebuilding from this and we’ll come back better.”

Only days earlier, nothing seemed less likely. Although McFarlane was lucky that nobody else was home, the blaze – which she says started in her washing machine – spread so quickly she only had time to escape with the clothes on her back and the cordless phone with a dying battery she used to call 911.

“We had 31 orders that all went up in smoke,” she says. “They were all ready to go to retailers for the weekend. We were in the midst of the whole Christmas, Black Friday season.”

Police and fire departments from Sherbrooke and Port Bickerton arrived promptly at 9:30 p.m. and quickly determined that the fire was not suspicious. Still, according to Sherbrooke and Area Volunteer Fire Department Chief Wayne Auton, it was “pretty big” and complicated by conditions.

“The property is on top of the hill, so it was exposed and the breeze was fanning the flames,” he says. “We had about 30 responders there with a tanker, two pumpers and a rescue vehicle until about three o’clock in the morning.”

The fire occurred just as St. Mary’s battened down the hatches to an advancing storm that meteorologists were calling an “atmospheric river,” the likes of which even this coastal region has rarely seen.

More ironic, perhaps, is this wasn’t the first time a Cherry Hill property in McFarlane’s family had burned.

“At the tun of the last century, a fire swept through here,” she says. “It was an inferno, and I used to think about it every day. I used to think about those people’s resilience. They rebuilt. it feels like their spirit is with me now.”

Heather Laybolt, St. Mary’s District Lions Club treasurer, says the organization gives $1,000 to fire victims, as a matter of course, but she adds that McFarlane’s circumstances are particularly poignant.

“She’s a stable employer, but more than that she’s the first one to step up and volunteer without you having to ask. She’s definitely community-minded,” Laybolt adds.

Even with the support, rebuilding won’t be easy. McFarlane will need new digs, materials, machinery – everything. “There are a lot of pieces that have to be figured out,” she says. “The first thing is to start making soap and laundry powder. And then we go from there.”

She also credits her family and other “members of my team” for springing into action. “Kristin and Mike Mackenzie along with Bree and Abby have started a started a GoFundMe page,” she says. “So many people have been so generous.”

So generous, that words sometimes fail her.

“I said to somebody, ‘How do I accept all of this?’ It’s humbling. And that person said to me, ‘Just simply say thank you.’ It really is that simple. I’ve lost everything, but I don’t have nothing. I have a whole lot of love. And for that, I’m feeling … grateful.”

Link to original post: Soap Company of Nova Scotia burns to ground (