Some folks were talking presidential politics last Tuesday, that ugly subject that’s the new pornography. The economy and jobless rate came up, of course, and one fellow commented on the sorry state of affairs we have these days. “Americans themselves, as individuals,” he added emphatically, “don’t make useful stuff anymore. We got folks sitting around doing nothing.”
He went on to say that the Chinese and big companies manufacture way too many things people used to make themselves. He challenged his fellow debaters, saying, “Name one person you know who makes an ordinary, useful thing. Something you’d pay money for. Just name me one person and one thing they make.”
That challenge set me to thinking. Right off I thought of my brother-in-law, Joe Willis, who makes beautiful, useful things from wood. I thought of a potter too but they are the only people I know personally who make things “as individuals.” Then I hit a wall. I had to step back in time to recall people who made useful things by hand.
As I faces appeared in my mind, I saw artists, photographers, and sculptors. The political debater’s words came to me. “Name one person you know who can make an ordinary, useful thing. Something you’d pay money for. Just name me one.” I kept searching.
Then I remembered the brooms my Grandmother Poland made. I’d go to her home in Double Branches and over in a corner would be a handmade broom about a yard long. She generally kept several around. They were simple. They were effective. They were attractive in a rustic way, amber-colored shocks of broomstraw bunched tightly in place by strips of inner tube.
I bet it’s been a while (never for some), since you saw one of those handmade brooms in this era of mass-manufactured nylon brooms. Broomstraw and inner tube. That’s all it took, along with passed-down know-how. She’d grab a broom and a few whisks would send unwanted material out the door. I don’t know that anyone would have paid for such a broom, but it met a real need and it didn’t come from China.
By Wednesday I’d forgotten about handmade brooms. I was preparing for a two-day trip to Pawleys Island for book-signing events. Thursday, my friend, Noel, and I left for the coast. I detoured through the hamlet of Boykin (Rembert, South Carolina) so she could see the gristmill there. That’s when an amazing coincidence took place.
We pulled into a sandy parking lot and a sign on an obviously old building said, “HANDMADE BROOMS.” “The Broom Place” was open. The owner and broom maker, Susan Simpson, sat just beyond an open window, sipping a Pepsi and eating a mid-afternoon lunch, an inviting sandwich.
We walked into the 1740 house in this community on the National Register of Historic Places. Broomstraw littered the floor bringing to mind a barn where some animal dines daily on a meal of hay. The place smelled a bit like a field of straw.
Surrounded by the sweet smell of straw Susan uses vintage 1800’s equipment to make brooms the old-fashioned way and what brooms they are. Sturdy straw comes from Laredo, Texas. The round bales are pretty in and of themselves. Handsome dark broom handles stand in two black metal garbage cans, paint flecked and dented from use.
Susan’s work area is a place where things happen. It’s a place of industry. Her steady hands unite straw from Texas, wire from who knows where, and wooden handles, along with colorful thread and yarn and handsome brooms result. She dyes the wheat-colored straw in rainbow colors. Bound bunches of colored straw lay across a table waiting its turn. Eye-catching brooms result, and so does a nickname.
Folks in these parts refer to Susan as “the Broom Lady.” I introduced myself to the Broom Lady as I walked up to where three finished brooms were propped against a complicated piece of machinery, a 144-year old broom winder that binds straw to the handle with steel wire. Stout, colored threads then wrap around the wire concealing it.
Putting her lunch aside, Susan told us her story. She first made brooms by hand in Asheville, North Carolina. That was forty-three years ago. She had long worked in an office, an experience that makes you yearn to do something different. Well her longing found an outlet in brooms that earn billing as functional art. She literally built her business up from the floor, you could say.
She flattens the brooms and binds them and a superior cleaning tool results. A flat broom offers more control and a wider cleaning surface, something the Shakers recognized long ago.
I wanted to buy a couple of her brooms on the spot but she had none to spare. All were bought and soon to be shipped.
“Call me come September,” she said, “and I’ll put you on my list. All of my work is guaranteed,” she added. “If you have any problems with a broom, call me before you come back so I can get out of town.”
She has a hard time keeping inventory on hand because orders keep her brooms flying out the door. (Don’t go imagining witches on brightly colored brooms although Halloween isn’t that far off.”) Susan’s brooms grace homes and businesses in all 50 states and 29 countries. That’s astounding for she works in a remote part of the country. She’s living proof that if you build a superior mousetrap people will buy it.
Susan makes brooms the old timey way and boy are they sturdy. That Texas straw is tough as hog bristles. Buy one of her brooms and you’ll have a friend for a long, long time. She makes various styles. She artfully builds house brooms, warehouse brooms, hearth, whisk, and “play brooms” for kids.
The brooms you’ll find over in Rembert, South Carolina, aren’t just useful. They’re decorative, and they are far superior to the mass-produced brooms you’ll find in supermarkets. You won’t have to worry about these brooms coming apart. They ought to last as long as the delightful building she works in has.
The ceiling sports large, axe-hewn beams of heart pine, impaled by ancient nails. Against the wall an old Fatso, pot-bellied wood stove stands with dignity. Many a soul has it warmed and it knows it. An ancient broom more than 100 years old is displayed high on a wall, too high to touch. “If you touch it, it will disintegrate,” warns Susan.
They say a new broom sweeps clean. I say a brightly colored broom sweeps boredom from the eye. And I say something else. It’s good to see an individual making something useful and artful. The Broom Lady’s brooms dispatch autumn leaves on a porch, clean up cake crumbs in a kitchen, and banish ashes from a hearth. Her brooms bring beauty to the humdrum task of sweeping. A sturdy broom fashioned from vibrant straw sure looks better than a frazzled nylon broom.
So, I’ll tell the political debater that Americans as individuals are out there making ordinary things people are willing to spend money on. Of course the Broom Lady’s brooms are far from ordinary, as were my grandmother’s simple brooms of the 1950s. They’re extraordinary creations made in the USA by ordinary folk.
Now and then I’ll drive through autumn countryside and I’ll pass a field of broomstraw. Invariably my mind goes back to simple brooms wound tight with inner tube. When the wind ghosts through, the straw ripples and billows. All that broomstraw seems to sweep the air. Lots of brooms there I think. All they need is someone with the initiative to get out there, cut the straw, and make ’em. Well, let’s not hold our breath.
One more thing about the Broom Lady. When you pull up to her old building, park, and get out, you step into history. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. News of the surrender took a while to get out. Nine days later on April 18, 1865, the last battle of the Civil War was fought all around Susan’s broom shop. The folks in Boykin say 15-year-old Burwell Boykin shot First Lt. E.L. Stevens, 54th Massachusetts Infantry. He was the last Union officer killed in the Civil War.
I don’t know that his fellow soldiers laid Lt. Stevens down on the floor of what would be the Broom Place, but it’s tempting to think they did. Maybe it was here where Texas straw would someday litter the floor that the last Yankee officer to die in the War of Northern Aggression took his last breath. And then time, the most colorful broom of all, swept him into the history books.