BROOMS AND BRUSHES - Household Crafts and Tips: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students

Household Crafts and Tips: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)



Through Maco Crafts in Franklin, North Carolina, we were introduced to Monroe Ledford, a delightful person who has raised broomcorn and made brooms for several years as a hobby. He uses the same technique as his parents and grandparents used. He will be retiring soon from road construction and plans to make brooms to supplement his retirement income.

As we drove up in the Ledfords’ yard, we noticed bunches of sticks in neat piles, lumber near a workshop, and a shock of corn nearby. Off to the side of the house were woods, where Mr. Ledford showed us sourwood saplings that he prefers to use for broom handles.

Beyond the house, down the hill a short way, was his broomcorn field—about two acres. As we were visiting him in February, the field was bare, but we’re hoping to go back in August and see the broomcorn in full growth.

Mr. Ledford makes his brooms in the garage adjoining his house. There on the rafters, he has all kinds of sticks to choose from for broom handles and walking sticks. He has his broom straw spread out on timbers in one corner to keep it dry and flat, and convenient to choose from as he makes each broom.

Interview and photographs by Ken Kistner, Phil Hamilton, and Lanier Watt.

ILLUSTRATION 44 Monroe Ledford and his brooms.


ILLUSTRATION 46 The harvested straw drying.

ILLUSTRATION 47 First the seeds are combed out of the tassel or head. Seeds that are not saved for planting the next year are simply plowed under in a nearby pasture.

ILLUSTRATION 48 Set two small nails in the handle to prevent the stalks from slipping off after they have been tied in place.

ILLUSTRATION 49 Surround the end of the handle completely with one layer of stalks.

ILLUSTRATION 50 The them down in two places with strips of cloth or string. With a knife, shave off or taper the ends of this first layer of stalks to reduce bulk.

ILLUSTRATION 51 Then add a second layer of stalks and tie them in place temporarily.

I started to make brooms just for a hobby, that’s all. Just thought I’d make a few brooms, and if somebody wanted them, I would have them to give. And that’s what I did, till I gave away two or three hundred dollars’ worth. The most expensive part of the broom is your time. This little ball of twine that I’m weaving with costs 75¢. It’ll make five or six brooms, maybe more.

They make a nylon cord that won’t break, but it’s not good to use for weaving brooms because it won’t hold—it’s too slippery. You can’t keep nylon cord tight. The cord I use is made of cotton; it doesn’t stretch.

I use a type of carpet needle—bowed a bit so that it goes in and out of the stalks easy enough when you’re weaving the string through. It probably costs about 35¢ at the dime store in Franklin.

About the first of June, I prepare my soil and plant the broomcorn; it’s just like planting corn or sorghum. Only I plant it a lot thicker. Broomcorn [can be planted] about every five inches apart. I guess if your ground is good enough, you probably wouldn’t have to use much fertilizer. It’s not too hard to grow. An acre of broomcorn will make lots of brooms.

I save most of my seed for the next year. I don’t imagine any stores around here would handle the kind of seed I use. Now that’s something I’ve never done—gone to a store for seed. I guess you could order them from a seed book somewhere.

ILLUSTRATION 52 Lay the broom on a cement floor or in a long trough of some type. Cover it with a burlap sack and pour scalding water over the broom to soften the stalks so that they will be pliable enough to stitch through them. Leave them under the wet sack about ten to fifteen minutes. String will now be tied tightly around the broom to hold the stalks in place permanently. To do this, Mr. Ledford uses an apparatus of the same type used by his parents’ generation. Hang a rope from a rafter; it must be long enough to allow a loop at the bottom for the broom maker’s foot, four to six inches above the floor. Wrap the rope once around the broom near the point where it will be tied. Push down on the rope with your foot to tighten the loop around the broom. Twisting the broom upward will tighten the loop more.

ILLUSTRATION 53 When it seems quite tight, take a five- or six-foot piece of heavy-duty cotton string threaded through a carpet needle. Run this through the center of the brush right below the point at which the stalks stop and the brush begins (top). The needle will have to be pulled through with pliers. Then bring the needle out and twist string all the way around the broom and tie very tightly. As the broom straw dries, it will expand around the string, tightening it further. Twist the loose end of the string so that it goes into the center of the broom and will not be seen (bottom left). If you want to weave the stalks instead of simply ringing them in four places, start weaving the string from the brush and weave toward the bare handle in a standard over one, under one pattern. If you end up needing to weave two stalks at one time to keep the pattern, go ahead (bottom right). Mr. Ledford says he has tried to put an odd number of stalks around, but it rarely works out that way, so he doesn’t worry about it any more. He just catches up two stalks if he needs to.

ILLUSTRATION 54 To finish up, put the broom back in the loop of the rope apparatus near the top of the stalks and tighten. Tie the string very tightly at the top to finish off the weaving. The excess string may be used to make a loop there to hang the broom by the fireplace. Trim off the excess stalk at the top of the string. Leave a string or rag wrapped around the lower part of the broom to keep the brush from spreading until the broom is hung by the fireplace or wherever it will be kept.

ILLUSTRATION 55 Several handle designs are common. The style chosen depended on personal preference.

About eight years ago, a neighbor gave me a handful of broomcorn seed. I never thought to ask them where they got the seed. I planted them and that’s how I got started in the broom business. About ten or fifteen years ago, my stepmother gave me some seed—I don’t know where she got them, South Carolina, maybe—and I grew the corn to make that broom there [standing in the corner of the garage]. I had enough corn for several brooms, but I was busy, and just made that one and left the rest to lie around and ruin.

September is when I start cutting it—before frost—when the head begins to be pretty well filled out, while the seeds are still green. This happens before you know it. Then I go and break the stalk about three feet below the top, and let that hang down. This helps the brush to stay straight. If the stalk is not broken over like this, the straw becomes too heavy with seeds and begins to fall down and turn the wrong way.

So that’s the first thing I do. After a few days I cut it. Broomcorn should be cut while still green. It makes tougher brooms this way.

You want to leave it out to cure, but you must be careful not to let it get rained on too much; it mildews and deteriorates pretty quickly while it’s green. I don’t like to leave it out in the field after it’s cut; I’d rather not have it rained on. I like to keep it dry and just put it out in the sun each day—it’s got to have sunshine to cure.

Some people like a red-colored broom. If the broomcorn is not harvested, or cut, until after it is completely ripe, the straw will be red. The straw is more brittle, and the broom not quite so durable, as one made with broomcorn cut before it is fully ripe, but for some people this is suitable because the broom will be used for ornamentation more than utility.

After I cure it, I cut the stalks in the shape I want them. I cut them at an angle or split off part of the stalk to reduce bulk around the handle of the broom.

I comb the seeds of the straw with a child’s saw that one of my grandsons had left around here. Any kind of sharp-toothed tool could be used, just to rake out the seeds and fluff up the straw.

My brooms are generally three and a half to four feet long from the top of the stick down to the end of the brush. I have to pick out stalks that match, that are pretty much the same length. Sometimes I put the best corn inside just to get the right length to match around the outside. Sometimes I put the big, long brushes inside; the bigger and longer the brush, the tougher and better broom you’ve got, you know.

Then they’re ready to place on the broomstick. Now what they call a hearth broom, if I understand it right, is just stalks—no broomstick. Although some people do put a small stick in them, long stalks of broomcorn can be used and just bunched together and the stalks woven as for a regular broom. Just use long stalks, and use the stalk handle to hold it. It’s the same length as those longer stalks that aren’t split. Well, to make a hearth broom, I do split part of them that won’t show, and then leave the ones on the outside unsplit.


“How does it feel to be one hundred years old?” was one of the first questions we asked Aunt Celia Wood. “Well, not much different from ninety-nine,” was all the answer we got.

Aunt Celia is our oldest contact, and even at one hundred she still keeps her house spotless. She also makes her own brooms out of broom sage and twine. As she showed us how, she talked of various things. She has definite opinions on many current subjects, and we were fascinated by her spirited comments on such things as politics and religion.


On Going to the Moon: I don’t believe there is no such business. When God made this world, he gave man authority t’subdue [animals]. Gave control over fowls, beasts, fish. Well, God left space for himself. He’s got th’sun, moon, stars. Man ain’t got no business a’foolin’ with’em.

On Politics: They’s a lot of things goin’ on that oughtn’t. Hit’s th’leaders of th’country. Congress, and th’President said America was sick. Doctor it! Congress is treatin’ America like a doctor who don’t know what he’s a’doin’.

[When women got the right to vote] I registered. I voted several years. I didn’t care whether I did or not, but my husband wanted me t’register and vote. Said th’other women was all a’doin’ that, and most of’em did. I wish they hadn’t, ’cause they gave’em that privilege and now they’re a’tryin’ t’take over. I don’t like that—even if I am a woman. I think that’s men’s work. ’Course they’re makin’ a right smart mess out of it. Maybe if th’women had it all they might do better.

On Religion: Well, I couldn’t live without it. When I’uz thirteen years old, I joined th’Baptist church. I’ve been a Baptist ever since. I don’t fall out with th’other denominations because hit’s not th’church that saves’y’. Don’t do you any good t’join th’church if you ain’t saved.

I’m a’lookin’ forward to a better time than I’ve got. I’ve enjoyed life. I’ve had a lot a’sorrow. I’d a’never went through it all if it hadn’t a’been for th’Lord.

My parents treated us strict. There were parties. We never went to ’em. My daddy said dances would lead you wrong. They trained me that they was a Lord over us all. And they’d read th’Bible to us every night. Had a big fireplace. I can see m’old daddy. After supper he’d throw in a piece a’pine wood, lean his chair back, and read th’Bible to us. I wuz th’oldest. Then he’d get his songbook and they’d set there and sing. We enjoyed it. We knowed t’behave. I think that has a lot t’do with our young people. Young people get into mischief, but you’ll think about what daddy and mommy said.

I was married eighty-six years. I didn’t have no children, but I’ve always had children around me. I always tried t’give th’boys good advice. I got after a boy one day. I’uz a’settin’ here, and he cussed. I says, “I’m not a’gonna’ have anybody around me that cusses.” I told all of’em that. They never did cuss any more around me. And I had that boy tell me after he married that if it hadn’t’a’been for my advice, he didn’t know what he’d’a’made.

I’uz inst a’studvin’ about that—advice to a person inst startin’ out. t’her. I advised her. I asked her what church she belonged to just t’start it off, y’know. I said t’her, “Ain’t y’never been saved?”

She said, “No.”

I told her, “You’re married now, and most ever’body is apt t’have some children,” and I says, “Y’can’t raise up your children right without th’Lord. When y’go in yer new house, y’ought t’take th’Lord with you.” I told her that.

All my boys was church members. But one day I found a deck a’cards in a drawer. But I never said a word. So one night after supper, he said, “Let’s have a game.”

I said, “Lamar, I don’t know how.”

He said, “Oh! I’ll show y’.”

I said, “No, I won’t play cards.”

He said, “Why? Hit won’t be a bit a’harm fer you and me t’sit here and play a game a’cards.”

I said, “I don’t believe it’ll stop there. Playin’ cards is like drinkin’ liquor. Hit will grow on y’.”

He said, “Oh!” He wouldn’t let it.

I says, “Y’can’t help it if y’play awhile with me’r’anybody.” I says, “You’ll get t’where you can play pretty good, and you’ll want t’bet some.”

“Oh,” he said, “I wouldn’t.”

I said, “If I was t’play cards with y’, and later you was t’ get into a rarr [argument], then you’d think back and say, ’Well, Aunt Celia learnt me.’ I’d be t’blame. I’d be th’cause of it.”

He still thought he’d get me t’play, so he kept on. He said, “Well, if y’don’t play with me here, I’ll go t’somebody’s that will. And I’ll bet my farm!”

I said, “See there? Already you’re a’thinkin’ about bettin’.” He never did ask me, ner I never did see that deck of cards n’more. They got missin’. He got t’thinkin’ about what I’d said t’him.

If I could go back, I would want t’live closer and do more for th’Lord. Go t’church and all. I’ve tried t’live a pretty good life.

I’ve never harmed anybody.

Done my part.

The brooms Aunt Celia makes are of bundles of broom sage trimmed to about twenty-four inches long and bound at the base by twine or a narrow strip of cloth wrapped around the straw eight to ten times (ILLUSTRATION 56). “This used to be all th’kind of broom we had. They last me about three months. ‘Course I don’t do much sweepin’. I have t’hold to a chair. I sweep out th’corners twice a week. I don’t do no moppin’ though. I got a woman t’get me a bundle of straw and I made six of’em. You can have this’n now. You sweep with it!”

It was my hope that we would be able to interview Aunt Celia often, but she grew ill, and died in October.

This was a personal loss for me. She was a friend, but more than that I was attached to her like close kinfolk.

Aunt Celia will not be forgotten, and what she told us will be preserved, and cherished by our staff for years to come.

She has set an example and hopefully, many will follow it. I won’t think of Aunt Celia as dead—just gone home.



A durable brush or mop was needed to clean the rough-hewn wooden floors of log houses. Here’s a description of one type we’ve found used in earlier mountain homes.

This scrub brush was made from a small white oak sapling trunk about two inches in diameter and four feet long. From the bottom, the trunk is shaved into thin, narrow splits (as for white oak splits) about twelve inches long. Be sure not to cut the splits away from the main part of the trunk (see ILLUSTRATION 57).


Then split the wood down about twelve to fourteen inches and bend these splits over to form the outer “bristles” of the brush. Use a narrow leather strap or another split to hold the bristles together (ILLUSTRATION 58).

To scrub, throw sand and water on the floor and scrub with the brush. Sweep the sand off and the floor will be white.