I call it broomstraw. Others broomsedge. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t kill my memories of my grandmother’s homemade brooms. About a yardstick long, they stood in corners throughout the house. That made them handy. They were simple. They were effective. They were attractive in a rustic way, golden shocks of broomstraw bunched tightly in place by black inner tube. And did I tell you they cost not a dime?
My grandmother lived a farm life and farm life taught her you didn’t have to buy essential items. You made them. Brooms? All she needed was a field of straw and a few lengths of inner tube. She didn’t use twine. That would loosen and you’d have a mess on your hands. She preferred inner tube. There was a time that when an old tire blew out, wore out, or just slap dab failed, its inner tube was worth salvaging. Those hardy people who survived the Great Depression found creative uses for many things. “Keep something seven years and you’ll find a new use for it” went the old saying.
Three books back and a good many years ago, photographer Robert Clark and I visited the Broom Lady in Boykin Mill, South Carolina. She made stick brooms from straw out of Laredo, Texas. Blond and stiff as hog bristles, her brooms could sweep the sea back. She dyed the straw to create a stick broom that rivaled a rainbow. She had a waiting list a mile long for her artsy brooms. I wonder, though. Did she ever make a broomstraw broom?
Nowadays folks buy stick brooms, high-dollar vacuums, and those push-button Swiffer things. In 2023 people spent $990 million on floor vacuums. Broomstraw is free.
I photographed a field of broomstraw up in North Carolina. It had enough straw to make hundreds of brooms. My grandmother would have turned that field into a broomstraw factory. Tell me readers; do folks still make brooms from broomstraw? I say no, though I hope someone does. It’s uplifting to think that ordinary people still make simple brooms from broomsedge.
My grandmother was tall. I see her now walking through a field of broomstraw, leaning over to gather straw. Back home she cut the ends clean and patted them into place, much as a smoker will tap his cigarette a few times. She’d firm up a good hand’s worth of straw, wrap a length of inner tube around the truncated ends, squeezing them tight as nails. Several other lengths spaced just so solidified the broom. It had no stick. The tightly squeezed straw was the handle. With the business end ready for service, she swept up life’s detritus as quietly as falling ash.
My grandmother lived simply, as people once did. Those days are gone. And handmade brooms are gone except perhaps in some history village where one stands by an old oak bucket, but fields of broomsedge still grow and when I see one, I harvest memories.
Times change and what used to be a field of brooms in waiting is now just a nuisance to the farmer. Still, it makes for a beautiful setting, something that artist, Andrew Wyeth, might have painted.
Here’s to my grandmother for making good use of natural things. When we fished the farm ponds and gave out of worms, she’d turn over a few cow piles (sun-baked cakes, as Mom referred to them), and we had a new supply of bait. She churned her own butter too, golden mounds of glistening butter, but that’s a story for another day.
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