Brooms from Seed to Sweep

Foot Powered Broom Machine

While my wife and I and my cousin and her husband were on a vacation trip through Kentucky we toured the Pleasant Hill Shaker village. It was early in my foot-powered tool collecting and my first big contact with Shaker history. The farm was big and well restored. I spent most of the time in the broom making shed where they had a foot-powered broom making machine. I was very impressed. I asked a lot of questions and got a lot of very interesting answers from a very dedicated and knowledgeable staff. The thought of ever owning a foot-powered broom making was very remote in my mind. I did buy some books with pictures, history, way of life, etc. from the gift shop. It was two years later when my wife and I were returning from a visit to our son in Texas when I found a foot-powered broom machine. It was in a booth in an antique Mall in a small town in central Texas. We were traveling in our vintage motor home, fully loaded with flea market items from Texas. When I saw the broom machine, nothing else mattered. It was much larger than anything in my collection. Getting it home looked almost impossible. After several trips to the parking lot with the tape measurer in hand I decided I could rope it to the bike rack on one side and the spare tire rack on the other side if I could sell or trade the large foot-powered commercial Singer sewing machine to anyone in this small Texas town. Dad I may have missed a period in the last sentence. It was late Saturday afternoon and I could not interest anyone in a large sewing machine. My wife, who is not into antiques in the least but is supportive of my hobby, said I could pack the sewing machine inside on the bed making room to tie the broom machine on the back of the motor home. ?????They drive straight through to Cincinnati Ohio where we could sleep at our daughter Claudiaís house and the next day we could make it home to Lansing Michigan without needing the bed. Now you have to know my wife, she always comes up with a sound practical workable idea with a down side that seems to always work in her favor. This plan would keep me out of the antique shops on the side roads and keep me on the expressway. I could see that it was the only way I could get the broom machine home. It was a good plan and it worked well until we got into a big snow storm the next day. The storm was so bad that they closed Interstate 75. We managed to get off at ???Wap Ohio where I was able to get our name on a waiting list for a room at the Holiday Inn. The Inn was full but it was possible that there would be some no-shows at the 6:00 pm deadline for reservations. The lobby was soon packed with people and once again my wife came up with another sound practical workable idea. She said, "There will be so many people without rooms, surely we can somehow make room so we can sleep with the antiques." So we did.

Now when I make brooms I tell the story of how I slept with the broom machine because there was no room at the Inn.

As soon as we arrived home and got unloaded, I called the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill Kentucky and they were again very helpful. They gave me the phone number of the Thomas ?????Manahan of broom corn importer in ____________________, Itís where they got the Mexico grown broom corn. Their long growing season makes the very best broom corn.

I called and got the order desk. I told the lady I had this very old foot-powered broom making machine and I needed some broom corn. She said, "Oh you have a Shaker Kicker." I said, "What?" She repeated, "You have a Shaker Kicker. The Shakers invented it and you kick it to make it go." I was delighted. She asked what grade and what length of broom corn I wanted. I told her it was my first order and I was unfamiliar but send some of each and for the amounts make it more of the most popular and lesser on the least popular with each pack marked so Iíll know one from another. She was very helpful, she included broom wire, nails, sewing string, needles, a kind of a harness you strapped on your hand to push the needle through the broom below the handle and a book titled "The Story of the Broom" which told how to make a broom. It all made the most interesting and unusual UPS deliveries we have ever had. I was careful to record the number on each pack. They were numbered from #49 down to #18. I could tell #49 was the most popular because it was the largest bundle and it made the best brooms. I praised #49 at all demonstrations. The funny part came later when I reordered and asked for more #49 and some #38. She said "I have never heard of those numbers." I told her the shipment came from there and it was marked accordingly. She said "The numbers do not mean anything to me, but let me get your file." It turned out that those number were the weight of the bundles for UPS. I missed the boat again.

Demonstrating the foot-powered broom making machine always draws a crowd of people. Not because it is noisy, in fact it is very quiet when operated. Itís size and construction makes for an unusual site. The bottom shaft near the ground is turned by pushing on what looks like ladder rungs evenly spaced between two wheels on the shaft. Every time you push on one, another one comes to take itís place. As this shaft turns, a large flat belt on a large pulley causes a smaller pulley on a shaft above to turn faster. The top shaft is hollow so you can clamp a broom handle inside the shaft with enough of the handle sticking out so you can drive a tack near the end of the handle to fasten the broom wire. The wire comes off a wooden spool like shaft that has a leather brake around it with a very primitive looking stone weight attached to keep the spool of wire tight at all times. As the broom handle turns, you merely put the ends of dampened broom corn under the wire until you get a nice sized broom. Next step is to drive a longer tack through the broom corn, into the handle at a point near the wire. Now comes the hard part. I got so I could do it pretty good by myself but I always get a boy from the audience to help. The problem is to pick one boy from a large number of volunteers. I usually end up with a very aggressive 10 or 12 year old. I will have him beside me and turned toward the audience, ask his name, where he is from and if he ever made a broom before etc. As soon as you find out what his first name is , use it several times. The audience likes this and it gives the child confidence in front of the group. If it is George, I will say, "Now George, this is a very tricky and important part in making a broom. The trick is to cut the tight wire and wrap one end around the tack with one hand while bolding the other end with the other hand so it does not get away, causing a big problem of re-threading the machine. Do you get the idea George?" He will nod or say "yes" and then I will tell him how good he looks and that I think he will do a good job making a broom. The audience likes this because George is one of them and everyone loves a little praise and understanding. Then, at just the right moment as I hand him the wire cutter I say, "George, do you understand all you know about this business?" No matter what his answer is, the audience loves it. They feel that they are really playing a part in making this broom through George and we have fooled around long enough. Everyone wants to see the broom as it comes out of the machine. I place both of my hands on the wire leaving room between them so George can cut the wire. In a clear loud voice so everyone can hear I say, "George, on the count of three you cut the wire and I will be ready to do the rest of the tricky part. Okay?" "Yes." George is ready, the audience is waiting and I say, "One, two, two and a half." The wire is always cut on the count of two and a half and I stand there for a moment with an end in each hand and a surprised look on my face. The audience loves it. I quickly tie the ends, grab the broom hammer, drive the tack down the rest of the way into the broom, release the clamp at the end of the hollow shaft and pull out the broom with one short glance I announce it is a good broom. I immediately hand it to George and ask him to take a bow. I lead with the applause. Next I tell George he is a good Broomsquire and I ask if he knows what a Broomsquire is. If he does or does not, I confirm that a Broomsquire is a man that makes his living making brooms. People love to learn facts after a few laughs. At this point I get serious holding up the plain round broom and tell them this round broom is known as the European broom since it was made in Europe before the New World. When the Colonies were settled the women sewed the broom corn below the handle. It was then called the colonial broom. At first, the men would not allow the women to sew the brooms because it looked to worldly and their Puritan religion would not allow it. After all, they came to the New World so they could practice their religion. But the women explained to the men that by sewing the broom below the handle made it last longer so they had more time to worship God. The women won and that is how the Colonial broom came into being.

About 150 years later, the Shakers flattened the round Colonial broom before sewing it and thus invented the broom as we know it today. The Shakers were a religious commune that came here from England two years before the Revolutionary War (1774). They invented a lot of things including the clothes pin, the pill, the circular saw and many more items. If a Shaker made brooms, that was all he did. If he made Shaker furniture, that was all he did. Someone else prepared his food, made his bed, etc. Historians say that if Shakers were alive today they would be first and foremost in the field of computers. Then someone will ask why arenít there any around today and I say, "They did not believe in sex and I am not going to explain that." This concludes the broom demonstration.


Additional Broom Information

The three broom making machines I have are quite old. They are basically made entirely of wood. Two are foot-powered. One foot-powered machine was made with wooden pegs called trinail ?????. The trinails hold the mortise and tenor joints together. The mortise and tenor joint is a square peg in a square hole. It makes a very good joint and seems to be most popular before the Civil War. I try not to collect hand-powered machines but sometimes they just seem to jump up and say take me home. The hand powered machine I found in southern Ohio. The two foot-powered machines came from central Tennessee where the growing season is longer and a good grade of broom corn can be produced. Many brooms were made in Tennessee. It was hard work but it was a way of life. A person that made his living making brooms was called a broomsquire. A native Tennessan told me a story about three broomsquire in a little town in Tennessee. Someone asked the three broomsquires what they would do if they won a million dollars. The first broomsquire said he would move to New York City and live in a penthouse and go to those Broadway plays. The second broomsquire said he would move to the French Riviera and live in one of those villas and eat in fancy French restaurants. The third broomsquire said, "Now, I wouldnít go to New York City and I wouldnít go to the French Riviera. Iíd stay right here and keep on making brooms till the money ran out."