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  • Southern VoicesBuilding a Broom by Feel: Jim Shaffer
  • Emily Hilliard (bio)

context (n.): early 15th c., from Latin contextus "a joining together,"
>originally past participle of contexere "to weave together"

She sweeps with many-colored brooms-And leaves the shreds behind-

Emily Dickinson

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Jim Shaffer, West Virginia's last handmade commercial broom maker, Loudendale, West Virginia. All photos by Emily Hilliard, 2017.

[End Page 98]

Jim Shaffer's shop is dusty and smells like a horse stable—a comforting olfactory association that I suddenly realize has less to do with horses than with the rolled and bundled straw I see stacked high along the walls. Though the pole barn that houses Shaffer's Charleston Broom and Mop Company is just a few miles from the capital city of Charleston, West Virginia, the unincorporated area where it sits along Davis Creek in Loudendale is a wooded, quiet, and close-knit community. Everyone who lives here knows Jim, and many people across the state know him too. At 87, Shaffer has been making brooms for seventy years and is the last handmade commercial broom maker in West Virginia.

Jim places a dowel in a drill chuck and grabs a handful of straw. He's done this for so long he doesn't need to measure—he can build a broom by feel. With his weathered hands, he adeptly adds six more handfuls around the dowel as he rotates it via a foot pedal. A wire feeding through the drill chuck binds the straw to the dowel, arranging it circularly, like a cartoon witch's broom.

Broom in hand, Jim walks the four steps over to a large stand-up sewing machine by a row of long windows. Jim's machine was manufactured in Baltimore, Maryland, and is older than him, but broom-making equipment like this is not made in the United States anymore, only in China. A vice in the sewing machine spreads and flattens the straw, and with another foot pedal, Jim laces five bands of red thread through it. Morning light streams through the windows onto Jim's work, illuminating flecks of broom corn floating in the air around him. Loud rhythmic noises emanate as the needle weaves through the straw, drowning out Jim's explanations, but the process is so physical, it doesn't need to be narrated. Jim considers these five bands of sewing a mark of quality, as they serve to fasten the straw to the broom, ensuring durability. He doesn't approve of a broom with fewer than five bands, not to mention a synthetic broom. After he cuts the straw to make it uniform and runs it through a machine to remove any loose pieces, Jim stamps the stick end on the ground, and it's done—mine to take home.

The whole process takes just a few minutes, but Jim estimates he repeats these steps 250 times per week. In the early days, when he was working in a factory with other broom makers, that number was more like 300. But even at 250 per week, over seventy years, that amounts to an astonishing 873,600 brooms. Jim has easily made a million brooms in his lifetime. That's a million brooms that have been held by over a million pairs of hands—housewives, and husbands, and janitors, and kids doing their daily chores. A million brooms that have become everyday objects in a million households, a million broom closets, a million kitchen corners, and featured in at least a few witch ensembles and Harry Potter costumes, and used as ad hoc hockey sticks, limbo bars, and wedding hurdles—all since the year that seventeen-year-old Jim Shaffer heard the daily news report that fellow West Virginian Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier in his Bell X-1, on October 14, 1947. [End Page 99]

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I don't intend to romanticize Jim's labor—he certainly doesn't. But there is something remarkable in his endurance and longevity in his trade. While the industry and infrastructure has changed around him, his process has remained the...


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