Alabama Folkways Articles

September, 1996

Florence Broommaker Continues Great Grandfather's Legacy

by AimeƩ Schmidt

In the heat of an August afternoon, we drove through Lauderdale county past cotton fields and grazing cattle. We were travelling a county highway just outside of Florence. Just over a rise in the road, he pointed out the window and said, "This is where my great grandfather lived. He managed the tenant farms on this land, and that's where they started the co-op."

I was travelling with George Jones, Jr. on our way to his family farm. He was explaining to me his family's broommaking tradition, and how it began as a co-operative venture among tenant farmers.

Jones' great grandfather, George M. Jones, managed a large tenant farm during the 1920s. More than fifty people lived on the land where cotton was the dominant crop. When the Great Depression hit and the bottom fell out of the cotton market, the tenants were in dire straights. The elder Jones conceived the idea of making brooms to supplement the farmers' incomes. In those days people used different brooms for specific tasks. They had kitchen and parlor brooms for indoors, and yard brooms to sweep away grass and weeds. Fire fighters even used wire brooms to put out fires.

After several years the co-op outlived its usefulness, and the owner eventually sold the land. Jones bought land near that tenant farm, which became the family farm. George Jr.'s grandparents still live there where they raise cattle and corn. He himself is in the cattle business, and he also holds a degree in chemistry from the University of Alabama. His passion, however, is making brooms.

We passed through two gates before stopping the car and walking the remainder of the way. In a field growing alongside stalks of yellow corn were two rows of broomcorn. Jones said it won't be enough to meet his needs, but he likes to watch it grow. Most of the broomcorn he uses is a Mexican import purchased from a Birmingham distributor. "I'd rather spend time making brooms than cutting the corn," said Jones. Small wonder. It's dusty and scratchy, not to mention harvesting it in the late summer heat. After cutting a few stalks, we call it quits. The real pleasure will come in making the broom.

"When they formed the co-op they planted both popcorn and broomcorn. In the meantime, they bought a broom sewing press and a ton of broom corn in Nashville, and bought a broom winder that was shipped down the river from St. Louis," Jones explained. Everyone had a role in the business, whether it was planting and cutting the corn or making and selling the brooms. They produced between 75 and 100 a day, and his great grandfather sold them out of the back of his Model A Ford for $.25 each or $3.00 a dozen.

Jones, however, is a one-man operation. On a good day he can make five to six dozen brooms, but he concentrates on quality, not quantity. As he winds a broom, he is totally focused on the task at hand, and yet totally relaxed. "I consider this my golf game," says Jones. "If I ever felt pressured to do this, I'd probably quit."

Spread about his house, outside on the patio, and in his workshop are broomcorn and brooms in various states of production. There is work to be done before he ever makes it to the winder. First he separates the corn according to size, quality, and color. Broomcorn is naturally yellow, but he dyes some (red, green, black, brown), and this process takes several hours. Before using the corn, he soaks it in water to make it more pliable.

He learned the skill from his grandfather by first making hand-tied brooms then mastering the broom winder. Today he owns three broom winders, including one that belonged to his great uncle. Jones uses a "kicker" winder, a foot-powered machine, to make most brooms. The broom handle fits into a clamp, and a wire is wrapped around the handle. As Jones adds stalks to the handle, he powers the winder securing the stalks as the wire wraps around the handle. The round broom he made this afternoon requires three layers of broomcorn. After adding a layer, Jones uses a broom hammer to pound down the wire and cut off the excess stalks. To form the round shape, he sews around and through the body of the broom then cuts the bottom flat. Jones still makes hand-tied brooms, but they are more labor intensive and more expensive. If made properly, though, they will last as long as a wound broom.

Jones sells most of his brooms at art shows and specialty shops to a market that appreciates quality, hand-made items. In a year he'll sell and/or demonstrate at more than twenty festivals and events. This past year he received a Folk Arts Apprenticeship grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts to teach others this traditional craft. The students will also learn marketing skills when they accompany him to some shows this fall. The grant money has also funded a quarterly newsletter, The Broom! , which includes information on supplies, broommaking techniques, and Jones' products.