Claudie Parson never liked that the equipment and materials were just sitting there.
Every time she would lead a tour group through a historic log cabin in New Harmony, Indiana, where she worked, she had a sort of empty feeling pointing to the unused machines. Even 30 years later, she can remember her frustration.
“I was working as a tour guide and I’d take visitors into a room filled with broom-making equipment that nobody knew what to do with and I’d say, ‘This is broom-making equipment,’ and that was it,” Parson recalled, sharing that she was fascinated by the antique, manually-operated machinery.
She shared her frustration and fascination with her employer who eventually satisfied both feelings.
“The found a gentleman who was a broom maker and he came over to New Harmony one day and taught me how to make brooms,” Parson said.
For the next year, she was the settlement’s own broom maker. A change in career and a growing family swept Parson away from broom making, but the desire was always there. Nearly two decades later, she met a Kentucky craftsman who rekindled her interest in broom making, gave her further instruction and, most importantly, helped Parson find broom making equipment of her own.
“I’ve been doing it now on my own for about 12 years,” she explained.
The old-fashioned craft of broom making requires old equipment. Parson, who calls her company Sunflower Broom Shop, uses several pieces of century-old machinery.
“I have one piece from 1878 and I have something called a kickwinder that I believe is from 1908. It’s all hand and foot-powered – no electricity – even for the sewing of the brooms.”
Parson said originally she used commercially-produced handles, but she prefers using sticks and limbs that she and her husband find during winter walks in the woods. She said they are a perfect complement to the bristles made from broom corn, which she often dyes to make more colorful brooms.
“These are what people call corn brooms and they are actually made from broom corn – a member of the sorghum family. When it grows, it looks like corn, but at the very top are the seeds and the long brushy part that’s left behind is the broom,” she explained.
She said gets most of her broom “straw” from a factory in Newton, Illinois. She said most broom corn is grown in Mexico.
Parson said she demonstrates broom making and sells her products at a variety of festivals throughout Central and Southern Illinois as well as neighboring states. She said she often takes vacation from her job with First Mid Bank to participate in craft shows and historic events.
Parson’s sweeping brooms run about $30 and she ships them all over the nation. The actual manufacturing of the broom – using the antique machines – takes about 10 minutes, but the process is much longer.
“Broom corn is a natural fiber so you have to soak it first so it is pliable. Once the broom is made, it has to dry for about 12 hours. If you sew the broom while it is still damp inside, it will mold, and you don’t want a moldy broom. So with that, it takes all day to make a broom,” she said.
Even though many customers purchase from the Sunflower Broom Shop simply for decoration, Parson stressed that old-fashioned brooms are perfect for sweeping.
“These are the best sweeping brooms around. If you go to a store and buy a commercially-produced broom, most of them are all cut off flat on the bottom,” she said. “They do that so that they all look the same and have a standard length. Those brooms just don’t sweep as well as the ones that we make.”
In addition to regular brooms, Parson also makes decorative brooms, whisk brooms, heavy sweeping brooms for garages and brooms specifically for special uses – think of accessories for witches and Harry Potter costumes.
Parson said she will continue to make brooms as long as she finds it fun. She relishes the opportunities to share and demonstrate the craft at historical villages and festivals.
“People are always amazed at how many steps there are to actually making a broom and they love watching the process on an old-time piece of equipment. It’s fascinating,” she said.