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Thursday, September 15, 2016

The "Appalachian Broom Making By Hand" Story

Display of hand-made brooms that was on
the door of the stable at Landis Valley Museum.
It was an ordinary day.  Walking around Landis Valley Museum's Village and Farm waiting for their lunch period to end so I can visit a few of the houses and buildings on the property along Oregon Pike in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  As I walked past the Landis Brothers' original Victorian house, which was built in the 1870's, I heard a noise around the side of the house.  Shortly I was standing in front of the stable watching Walter Hand making an Appalachian broom.  The Appalachian region of the United States consisted of a 205,000 square-mile region that followed the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. Walter told me that the broom was invented by the Shakers whose religious sect was established around 1750.  
Walter is sitting on his Schnitzelbank
beginning a cobweb broom.
The broom that he was making was much the same as any broom that was made before the Civil War, since wire wasn't available for use in broom making until after the war.  Walter was sitting on his own hand-made Schnitzelbank which is a "scrap bench" or "chip bench" which used foot power to secure a clamp which held the thread he was using in place as he stitched the broom.  The broom he was making was a cobweb broom which is unique for cleaning cobwebs from the ceiling.  It was thin and lightweight and designed for reaching into corners of the ceiling to remove cobwebs.  He was using broomcorn, a type of sorghum, which is a round stalk that looked to be about three feet in length and slightly under one-half inch in diameter.  
Lacing one broomcorn stalk at a time
onto the handle.  He uses an uneven
number of broomcorn stalks so that
his stitching will be more even and not
overlap too many times.
He had soaked the stalks beforehand so they wouldn't break as they were sewn to the handle.  His handles looked like they were long, straight branches from small trees that had the bark removed and had been sanded smooth.  He began by stitching an uneven number of broomcorn stalks, one at a time, to one end of the handle by running his cord, which can be in a variety of colors, through the clamp on his Schnitzelbank and wrapping it around the handle and broomcorn.  When he finished adding the broomcorn he wound the cord, which is a combination of nylon and cotton, around the broom quite a few times and then knotted it.  He then used a knife to trim the broomcorn evenly around the handle.  Finally he stitched the broomcorn, about a foot and a half down the broom, together using a variety of stitches.  
As he finishes the final broomcorn stalk, he wraps the
cord quite a few times around the grouping of stalks
and ties it a few times to keep it in place.
The broom is not trimmed even as it is in other types of brooms that are made with broom straw, since it is meant to be used for cleaning cobwebs and the uneven lengths are better suited for that chore. Walter has been making brooms of all types for about ten years after learning the craft at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. We got to talking and I found his sons were students where I taught high school, but I never had them in class.  He also lives about a quarter mile from my home in Manheim Township.  After about an hour of conversation and learning broom-making from a master craftsman, I departed and found my way back to my car.  I did learn of a few other stops I will have to make at the museum, but that will have to wait for another trip.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.
Next he trims all broomcorn pieces to the same length.
And, a final wrapping of cord about a foot down the stalks of broomcorn will make it keep from spreading apart and breaking.  He does not trim the end of the broom even as most all machine-made brooms are like, since it is meant to be used to remove cobwebs on the ceiling and it can get into corners better with the stalks at different lengths.
He has a variety of cord that is part nylon and part cotton.  Years ago it more than likely wasn't as strong since it didn't contain any nylon. 
This is broom straw that is what can be used for the traditional broom you can buy at the supermarket.  
A few brooms he recently finished waiting for a buyer.  Most of his brooms sell for about $20.  A real bargain considering they are well-made and made in Lancaster County by Hand; Walter Hand to be exact!

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