Cousins turn traditional broom-making into an art form

2009-05-25T20:15:00Z Cousins turn traditional broom-making into an art formMary Louise Speer The Quad-City Times
May 25, 2009 8:15 pm  • 

LONG GROVE, Iowa — Bits of straw blew as Daniel Jepsen of Great River Brooms lowered a steel blade and trimmed the uneven ends of a kitchen broom in the making.

Jepsen, a farmer in Miles, Iowa, and his cousin, Larry Jepsen, of Clinton, Iowa, are experts when it comes to the art of making brooms. They demonstrated their skills Monday during Heritage Days at the Dan Nagle Walnut Grove Pioneer Village at Scott County Park, Long Grove.

Hundreds of visitors, many in period costume, ignored the storm-threatening skies and sampled a taste of days of yore. Fragrant lilac and kettle corn perfumed the air, as knee-high tots thumped a mallet on an American Indian drum. Elsewhere, two tiny lasses in red calico dresses and sunbonnets posed for photos, and gunshots rang out as the Wapsi Wranglers performed shootout skits for the delight of young and old.

The sturdy broom-making equipment the Jepsens use goes back to the Victorian era, but the brooms they make serve a practical purpose for the 21st century — from sweeping tiled surfaces to getting pesky cobwebs off ceilings. The cousins segued into their broom-making activities in 1988 as an attraction at Threshing Days in Miles, Iowa.

“My first one that I made is at home hanging in the garage looking a little sick,” Larry Jepsen said.

The men know just exactly how to shape and clip, bend and wrap through 21 years of making brooms. The straw is soaked before being fastened onto the wooden handle using a foot-powered kicker broom winding machine, also known as a foot-treadle broom machine, that dates back to the 1870s.

Larry Jepsen’s hands move swift and sure as he inserts the wood rod through the kicker and picks up an about 2-pound bundle of wet straw. Wire is secured quickly around the top of the straw and is fastened with a nail.

Ben Franklin brought broom straw to the English Colonies from Europe, and eventually the straw was used for making a new type of flat broom, Larry Jepsen said. The brooms made before that time were usually bundles of twigs or branches and not very reliable when it came to sweeping out mud and ashes.

The cousins also make novelty brooms, from the kind witches ride to brushes shaped like a goose’s wing. Cobweb brooms are mounted on a long handle.

The next step in the process is putting the dried straw broom in the making into a stitching clamp. Daniel Jepsen weaves through the straw using a needle with points on both ends and the eye in the middle. Red nylon thread is sturdier than the waxy cotton thread used in the 1800s, he said.

Their brooms are used at home, Daniel Jepsen’s wife, Phyllis Jepsen said.

“I sure like mine. I use it on the kitchen floor — but I love my dust mop (too). When you live on a farm, the men come in with goodness what on their feet,” she said.

Kids come in two varieties when it comes to watching broom-making, Daniel Jepsen said. Some are fascinated by the machinery, and others wander by, totally unimpressed. “I had a kid watch once, and I told him not to touch the broom corn cutter,” Daniel Jepsen said.

Well, the boy didn’t pay the warning any heed and touched the sharp steel edge. Fortunately, “he didn’t draw blood, but he sure looked at his finger,” he said.

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