Step into Steve Melton’s workshop, in the far reaches of Northeast Pasco County, and you’ll see a man who equally enjoys working with his hands, and spinning stories about the heritage arts.
In this case, he’s busy making a broom.
He starts with the material that will make the broom’s head.
“This is the millet seed and they would pull the seed off,” he said, touching the seeds with his fingers. What it does, after the seed is off, it turns into broom corn; or broom straw,” he said.
There are all types of millets. There’s one for syrup-making. Another for cow feed. Some millet is specially bred for broom straw, he said.
Millet, historically was grown in Illinois.
There are various accounts to the history of broom-making by hand, but Melton said the industry had its heyday during the ‘30s and ‘40s, when towns were founded on making brooms and workers assembled them by hand, in factories.
“It was a huge industry at one time,” he said.
“Illinois was kind of the epicenter.
“In Rantoul, Illinois — that’s where I learned about this — there are broom festivals,” Melton said.
Not many brooms are made by hand, these days
Melton said he became enamored with the idea of making brooms after he saw some being made at an antique tractor show in the Midwest.
“I was enthralled,” he said.
At another show, he saw brooms being made on a commercial scale. Then, he learned about a man in Alabama who sold machines used to make brooms by hand, and he decided to buy some of that equipment and bring it home.
The Northeast Pasco man doesn’t make mass quantities of brooms, but he gets immense pleasure from the process.
He uses broom straw of varied colors.
Though the dyed broom straw is more expensive, Melton likes to mix some in.
“It just looks so pretty,” he explained.
When making brooms, he uses a kick winder, which wraps wire around the broom straw to attach it to the handle. His particular piece of equipment was patented in 1878 and likely has been used to make thousands of brooms in the past, he said.
Melton uses short, medium and long broom corn to create the broom head.
The process involves selecting the broom corn, evening it out and then attaching the batch of straw to the handle with wire, using the kick winder.
He uses a broom vise to flatten the straw for the broom head and once it is flattened, he keeps it that way, by using a needle he made in his blacksmith shop, to stitch the straw together by hand.
While making brooms, Melton said his mind drifts.
He thinks of the others who came before him, using the same piece of machinery to make brooms by hand.
He imagines the lives of the people using the same kind of brooms, decades ago.
“This is broom-making as it would have been, 100 years ago,” Melton said.
He derives great satisfaction from the art of making brooms by hand, and he loves the practical nature of the finished product.
“Every time you pick this up to sweep your kitchen, that gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Melton said.
Revised July 27, 2022