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    Traditional Broom Maker

    By Marti Attoun

    The sweet smell of broomcorn fills the workshop as Shawn Hoefer winds and weaves the golden tassels onto a sassafras handle to make a broom that’s as beautiful as it is useful.

    “I’ve always liked working with my hands and doing different crafts,” says Shawn.

    About 10 years ago, he got swept up in the art and craft of making brooms, which combines his skills as a woodworker and weaver. Before long, he’d taught his stepdaughter, Elena, and today they turn out nearly 4,000 brooms a year in his shop at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Ark.

    “I like the whole process — the dying, the weaving, and stitching. I can do wood carving on the handles or even do wrought-iron handles,” Shawn says. “There’s no shortage of creativity with brooms.”

    That creativity is in full display in the 20 different styles of colorful brooms hanging in the shop. One dazzling kitchen broom has a gnarled persimmon and honeysuckle handle and multi-colored bristles.

    He sits at an old wooden tying table with a tub of broomcorn soaking beside him, because damp straw is easier to handle. With a foot pedal, he controls the tension on a spool of nylon twine, which he uses to bind the bundles of broomcorn to the handle. He adds one bundle, tightens the cord around it, then adds another.

    Shawn twangs the cord like a guitar string to demonstrate its tautness.

    “I want to make my brooms sturdy and durable,” he says.

    His round cobweb brooms are long and lightweight for swishing under furniture and along ceilings, but the hefty and bushy kitchen brooms contain six layers of broomcorn or about a pound’s worth. Shawn secures each layer with three turns of twine. Then he weaves and hand sews parts of the brooms.

    Among his traditional designs are 1700s-era turkey wing whisks, which replaced real turkey wings for sweeping tables and hearths. His 1920s-era usher’s brooms sport a long handle for stashing in a hip pocket with the sweep against the small of the back. Ushers could easily grab it and brush off seats in opera houses and movie theaters.

    His smallest brooms are silking whisks used in the garden for removing silk from corn and brushing dirt from root vegetables, and cake tester brooms. Before toothpicks, a cook inserted a piece of broomcorn into the middle of a cake to test for doneness. Recipes in America’s early cookbooks reference the brooms.

    Keeping those crumbs of broom-making history alive appeals to Shawn as much as the work itself.

    “Brooms were designed, developed, and grew along with American history,” he says. “The craft represents a vital piece of Americana.”

    Growing a Broom

    All of the brooms get their start on the farm with a crop of broomcorn.

    “It’s called corn, but it’s actually a variety of sorghum,” notes Elena. The stalks grow 12 to 16 feet tall and resemble sweet corn, but they don’t produce ears. Instead, they shoot tassels out the top and those are the part used for broom bristles.

    On their 5-acre farm outside Mountain View, Shawn and his wife, Jeanette, and Elena grow broomcorn, but nowhere near enough to produce the one ton needed each year for the broom business.

    For the family of artists, the broomcorn represents one more natural and renewable fiber for their creations. They also raise a menagerie of wooly critters — Jacob sheep, alpaca, llamas, and Angora goats — for their fiber and Jeanette’s use in spinning, weaving, and crocheting shawls, rugs, handbags, and more.

    Sorghum became the favored fiber for sweeping in the 1790s after Massachusetts farmer Levi Dickenson began making superior brooms with the stiff tassels. Since ancient times, folks had bundled twigs and cornhusks to make crude brooms, but demand for the top-notch sorghum brooms spread quickly.

    In the 1800s, the Shakers invented broom machines that pressed and sewed the round broom into the flat-shouldered shape that’s still used today. By then, the useful sorghum grain became known as broomcorn.

    The crop is easy to grow, Shawn says, and doesn’t require rich soil. He plants after the last frost, usually early May, and harvests when the plants are at milk stage in late July.

    He dries the stalks and Elena colors some of the straw with non-toxic dyes.

    For the broom handles, Shawn sets out in the dead of winter to scout for saplings when the sap is gathered in the roots and the wood already is half dry. He hunts for wild cherry, dogwood, and other hardwoods in pastures, fields and the Ozark National Forest. Shawn has a permit from the local forestry office to cut saplings up to wrist size.

    He lightly sands the handles and sometimes peels away a portion of bark to reveal different colors in the wood. He preserves the handles with linseed oil and beeswax.

    All of the broom handles have a hole and loop for hanging, which is the proper way to preserve a natural corn broom.

    “Don’t rest a broom on its brush or it’ll bend and distort the sweep,” he says.

    “This is an important piece of American history and a valid art form,” he says. “It’s too important to let it go by the wayside.”