Skagit Broomworks creates old-fashioned corn broomsMay 2nd, 2012 | By Editor | Category: Crafty
by Samantha Schuller
The mood in the Skagit Broomworks’ home shop is decidedly jovial as Kevin Miller ties stalks of broom corn to a broomstick and begins weaving the ends into a striking checkerboard pattern, talking about the tradition of broom-making as he goes. “It used to be passed down through the generations as an occupation, but now the only place that’s still true is in some parts of Appalachia. Here in the northwest there are just a handful of us.”
American lore contends that Benjamin Franklin himself plucked a seed from a French corn broom, planted it in his Philadelphia garden, and thus grew the corn broom industry. America led the world in corn brooms for hundreds of years, in no small part thanks to the Shakers. The Shakers originated the tradition of flat-sewn brooms, as opposed to traditional European round brooms, in the early 1800s, widening them into the familiar bell shape we know today.
The Millers love learning American heritage as a part of their profession, and their shop looks the part of the historical enthusiast. All their equipment is either made by Kevin or from restored vintage implements, including the foot treadle table where Kevin wraps and weaves the stalks, a broom press that clamps the fibers so Sarah can sew them flat, and a late 1800s hand-operated corn chopper for precisely trimming the broom’s end when finished. Kevin is proud to say that “the only thing that’s not run by hand-power is a cordless electric drill,” which he uses for just a moment, drilling a hole in the top of the broomstick before knotting a leather hanging strap through it.
Broom corn, which is actually a variety of sorghum, thrives in areas with hot, humid summers, and was once cultivated all over the Midwest. The U.S. corn broom industry has all but disappeared since the rise of foreign manufacturing.
“We were part of the building bust,” Kevin said of the couple’s venture into old-fashioned broom-making, noting former work in landscaping and construction. Once the demand for their labors ran dry, they searched for work they could do on their own terms, eventually becoming fascinated in broom-making. Kevin’s construction background enabled him to build much of their equipment by hand, following the designs of equipment in old books and making some things up as he went along. “We’re still working out some of the details,” he said, as Sarah adjusts an S-hook that isn’t holding tension on his cording quite right. “It’s a work in progress.”
In earning their own living wage, Kevin says they’ve found success in meeting their customers face-to-face, both because they love seeing the people who will be bringing their work home, and also because the customers find it important to see who has done the work and how.
“We’ve started bringing our equipment and tools to market with us so people can see us working on brooms,” said Kevin, noting that before they did, some customers assumed they were an imported product. “Once people see what goes into it, they really connect more with you as an artisan.”
And they get a chance to learn the value of something that might otherwise be seen as a novelty. A good corn broom well-cared for will last decades, the Millers said, and beyond that, they offer free repairs. In this economy, people are buying things that are useful, practical, and aesthetically pleasing, Sarah added.
“We had one customer who told us that he now enjoys sweeping his floor. I love being able to do that for people—just bring a little joy,” Kevin smiled.
“There’s no comparison between a corn broom and a plastic one,” Sarah said, proudly. “Corn brooms work better, last longer, and they’re beautiful. The broom closet wasn’t invented until ugly plastic brooms came along.”
The Millers both believe strongly in spending dollars locally, being sure to shop from other vendors at the farmers’ markets they attend. “I’m OK with spending a few more dollars for honey or eggs,” says Kevin. “It feels good knowing that it’s supporting a living wage.”
The Millers’ brooms are available at the Skagit Valley Co-op in Mount Vernon, online at skagitbroomworks.com, and at regional farmers’ markets and bazaars.
Published in the May 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine.