Rural Missouri Magazine

At 86, Gene Francis keeps to the . . .
Broom Basics

by Jason Jenkins
Gene Francis has hand-crafted brooms at his Marble Hill home for more than 25 years.

Whether hanging in a closet, tucked away behind a door or simply thrown in a corner, few household items are as ubiquitous as the broom.

A simple tool for a simple task, the broom is functional and efficient at sweeping floors free of dirt and debris. Over the years, little has been done to change its design. Yes, it finds competition from trendy 21st-century solutions, but for every Swiffer that comes and goes, the broom remains.

As one of 10 children growing up on his family’s farm in the hills of Bollinger County, Gene Francis can still remember his mother sweeping the front porch with a corn straw broom, one made from broomcorn he helped his parents grow.

“We’d harvest that broomcorn off the farm and take it to an old man, and he’d make it into brooms for us,” recalls the 86-year-old who lives near Marble Hill with his wife, Eunice.

Today, Gene is keeping alive the skills necessary to create handmade corn brooms like the one his mother once used. While most modern brooms are mass-produced using automated machinery and synthetic materials for the bristles, Gene is preserving the traditional way, even growing his own broomcorn.

Whereas most folks have a broom closet, Gene has an entire broom shed out behind his home where for more than 25 years now, he’s built brooms.

“I used to make as many as 100 brooms a year,” recalls the member of Black River Electric Cooperative. “This year, I’ll probably make just a few dozen.”

Broom making isn’t a skill Gene learned growing up on the farm. In fact, he didn’t make his first broom until after he reached retirement.

After serving in a communications unit with the U.S. Army during World War II, the veteran returned to southeast Missouri in 1946 and embarked on a career as an educator.

Rows of completed brooms hang near the door of Gene’s shed. In addition to house brooms, he also makes a hand-held whisk broom, a child’s broom and a larger warehouse broom.

“I taught school for 40 years,” he says. “I’m an old-timer. I went to school in a one-room country school, and I taught in a one-room schoolhouse for 10 of those 40 years.”

The first broom maker in the family was actually Gene’s son-in-law, Richard, who became interested in the craft after learning about it from a neighbor. Richard and Gene built the shed at Gene’s home to house Richard’s broom-making equipment.

“Those were all electric machines,” says Gene. “We had an electric sewing machine, an electric winder, everything.”

Over time, Richard’s interest in broom-making waned, and the equipment was sold. Years later when Gene eventually retired, he decided to turn the old shed into a woodworking craft shop. But on his trip to Poplar Bluff to buy the necessary tools, he remembered an old-timer along the way who used to make brooms. Curious to see if the man still had the old machines, he stopped.

“I asked what he wanted for them, and he just about gave ’em to me,” Gene says. “I bet they’re as old as I am, probably older.”

After fixing the machines, Gene was ready to start making brooms. There was only one problem: He didn’t know how.

“When Richard made brooms, I just watched. I never tried to make them,” says the octogenarian. “So, I just came down here to the shed and I tore up an old broom. I saw how it was made and from that, I went to making brooms.”

Despite its name, broomcorn is not corn at all. It’s really a type of sorghum, a tall grass-like crop. The head of the plant grows long and bristly, making it ideal for broom bristles.
At about 12 feet tall, the broomcorn Gene planted this year is reminiscent of the kind his family raised when he was a child. Though primarily golden yellow, his crop was painted with shades of red and orange.

“Broomcorn is real easy to grow, if you can get it up,” he explains. “Dry weather don’t affect it much, and you don’t have to fertilize a bit.”

Gene hand stitches each of his brooms using nylon twine. Rather than a traditional needle, he uses a modified screwdriver to pull each stitch.

When making a broom, Gene begins by soaking the straw in water overnight. This makes the material more pliable and prevents it from breaking in the binding process. “I put just a splash of bleach in my water when I soak my straw,” he says. “That keeps it from getting mildew or mold.”

Using a pedal-powered wire-binding machine, Gene layers straw around the handle. He begins with a layer of high-quality straw called “pearl,” then follows it with a more coarse straw he calls “filler straw.” He finishes with several more layers of pearl straw.

After completing the wire binding, he runs the broom across a threshing machine he also uses to remove the grain from the straw. This aligns the bristles and removes any loose ones. The broom is then clamped in a special vise, and Gene hand-stitches four strands of nylon twine through the bristles. A quick trim of the ends, and the broom is complete.

In addition to his standard broom, which contains roughly 2 pounds of straw, Gene makes a larger warehouse broom, a smaller child-sized broom and a whisk broom. These days, he lets his daughter, Donna Roberts, do most of his marketing.

“I’ve never had much problem getting rid of them,” says Gene of his brooms, adding that he used to sell them to two nearby general stores.

Although he grew his own broomcorn, Gene has almost exhausted this year’s supply already. He’s saved seed, however, and next spring he intends to plant another crop, including a shorter, dwarf broomcorn, if he can find seed. As long as people have floors to sweep and he’s able, Gene intends to keep making brooms.

“I’m not looking to slow down any time soon,” he says.

Gene has a limited supply of homemade brooms for sale. To inquire, contact Donna Roberts at 573-238-3680.


Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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