In the old days, people made their own basics: butter, soap, even brooms. Broom-making was among the demonstrations at this summer's River Valley Antique Association show at Chillicothe, Ill. Jim McCormick and his 14-year-old grandson, Shawn, worked in tandem as they coaxed brooms from an old machine.
A common misconception is that brooms are made of straw. In fact, they're produced from broom corn, a once common crop that's hard to find now. For a time, Jim got broom corn from a farmer in Arcola, Ill. Then he tried growing his own.
"Now I contract it from Mexico," he said, paying about $2 per bushel. Shipments are bigger than what he's accustomed to. "I used to buy small bunches, but now I have to buy big bundles. Last time I had to buy a 134-lb. bundle."
About 2 pounds of broom corn is used in construction of a house broom; a barn broom uses 3 pounds or more. Each bushel is cut to a certain size; Jim uses seven different sizes for products ranging from the 7" whisk broom to a 22" barn broom.
Named for its large, broom-like head, broom corn (sorghum vulgare) is sometimes called millet or guinea corn. The crop is grown much like oats or barley. The small, white seeds produce large heads of grain that are collected to make brooms, or, less commonly, white flour for bread, or as feed for cattle, horses or poultry.
Broom corn is a labor-intensive crop: it must be harvested by hand. Then a seeder is used to remove the seeds. When Jim raised his own broom corn, he removed the seeds by hand, scraping them off with a knife.
"It was slow, but it worked," he said.
After the seed has been removed, the broom corn must be dried, a three- to four-week process. After the corn is dried, it is cut, sorted and bundled.
Making the brooms is no easier than raising the broom corn. Once the corn has been prepared for processing, the stalks are bundled into a cluster and held in place by a "kicker," an antique piece of equipment.
"This one was built in 1870," Jim said. "It was built here in Galesburg. I got it from a friend who originally bought it in southern Missouri, and he bought it for another fellow to use, but then he found out he didn't really know how to make brooms. He took it home and put it in his shed, and then sold it to us. I paid $600 for it."
Using the machine like a treadle sewing machine, Jim winds wire around the head of the broom corn. A simple process? Looks can be deceiving. Using that 130-year-old machine, Jim makes 35 different types of brooms.
He learned the craft from Bob Funke at Bishop Hill, an early Swedish settlement where broom making was the mainstay of the local economy.
"In 1860, they sent 1,260 dozen round brooms down the river to St. Louis," Jim said. "That was their sole income; they got a check for $2,106 (for that order)."
Until 1860, Bishop Hill broom generated only round brooms. After that, they also made flat brooms. The Shakers, Jim said, are credited with creation of the flat broom.
Early brooms differed according to what part of the country they were made in. The New England style, for instance, has a 3-inch round broom, and is about 27 inches long. The broom top is woven.
In colonial America, "The women made all the brooms, and they didn't have anything pretty," Jim said. "So they wove the brooms and then they told their husbands that the weaving was necessary for the structure of the broom, but it was really so they could have something pretty."
Other features – like color-have also been used to enhance the appearance of the lowly broom. Jim has occasion ally used broom corn that's been dyed red or green, but that too is becoming hard to find. "The only place you can get it is Berea College at Cumberland, Ky.," he said.
Even the wood handles in Jim's brooms are a bit exotic. Originally, broom handles were made from sassafrass. When demand exceeded supply, however, an alternative was needed.
"Now, the handle is made of a wood that comes from Indonesia," he said.
Despite the challenges of finding quality raw materials, broom making is a fun and lucrative hobby, Jim said.
"I sell brooms all over the country, from Pennsylvania to San Antonio," he said. "My brooms are in every state and several foreign countries. If I was 20 years younger, I could make quite a deal out of it. I used to sell 1,500 to 2,000 brooms a year. They average $8 to $9 a piece, and materials run about 40 percent of the price. I used to make about 10 a day, but now I make about three or four."
And they're all meant to be used. City folks, he said, tend to use the brooms as decor; rural people tend to put the brooms to work. Either way is fine by Jim. The finished product is, as his business card notes, both "functional and decorative." FC
Cindy Ladage is a freelance writer based in Virden, Ill.