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Showcasing: Family traditions

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By Jonna Spelbring Priester

General Manager

For Donna Williams, making brooms isn’t a hobby or a craft, it’s a way of carrying on a family tradition.

A sixth-generation broom maker, Williams has taken the family craft to new heights, while maintaining a generations old focus on quality.

Williams’ participation in the craft began 20 years ago.

“In 1988, I began apprenticing with my grandfather (Brother Winford Smith),” she said. “He had just found out that he had macular degeneration. I said, okay, we’re not letting this die in the family.”

Williams was just 29 at the time, though she wasn’t all that late in becoming a broom maker. “Papaw didn’t start making them again until he was 65,” she said.

At the time, Williams said, the family thought there were just four generations of broommakers, starting with Williams’ great-grandmother. But in 2004, a family research project revealed that a great-great-great-grandfather, Billy Hawkins, was a broom maker too. Another relative began making brooms, Williams said, and she went from being the fourth generation of broom makers, to the sixth.

“In one year, I dropped two generations,” she said. “That was pretty cool.”

Whether or not family ancestors made brooms before Hawkins, Williams isn’t sure.

“Our family came to Kentucky in the 1750s, and like most of the pioneers that came in, they brought all their knowledge,” she said. “They didn’t drag everything with them, they just brought their knowledge and made everything on site.

“We can’t really go any further back on the family history (of broom making), because it was primarily a chore, and nobody wrote about their chores.”

Williams’ son has learned the craft, and she hopes that her granddaughter will become the eighth.

With seven active generations, Williams is carrying on a craft that now has 140-years of family tradition behind it, and includes broom making tools that are family heirlooms. She said that the most unique tool in the family’s history is a binder made by one of the first generations. “It was made by great grandmother Mary Jane Morris Hawkins’ brother,” she said. “He was blind, and he (made) it hand and peg. He hand carved it, and hand pegged it.”

Williams makes seventeen kinds of brooms, including the family ‘trademark’ brooms, which bear three blue stars and three red dots on the handle.

There are big differences, Williams said, between her brooms and brooms made by Shakers. Though the quality is the same, the heads of the brooms are different, as is the sewing.

The sewing — which helps to flatten the broomcorn with which the broom is made — is a basket weave, while Shakers go from knot to knot, Williams said.

Compared with many styles of brooms, Williams said she uses extra wire when binding the broomcorn to the broom handle.

“Everyone has their own style and uniqueness, and the way they were taught, and this is the way I was taught,” she said.

Many of the tools Williams uses in the craft are old. The broom binder she uses for the family trademark brooms was made by her grandfather and a family friend more than 50 years ago, and is a closely guarded family secret. Williams said she doesn’t take the binder to shows anymore, after a spectator took detailed photographs of the machine.

She also uses an antique cutter to trim the broomcorn that makes up her brooms. Finally, an old hand tier is a regular piece of equipment, and could be on display at Harvest Showcase.

Williams and her husband find the distinctive handles for her broom just about everywhere. Every so often, the duo treks into the woods to find the twisted branches of trees. Williams’ husband does the finishing work on the handles, cleaning them, shellacking them and cutting them to various lengths.

Then, the three day process of making a broom starts for Williams.

It begins by soaking the broomcorn in water — hot water is preferable — to make it pliable. Broomcorn is a form of sorghum that is used in making brooms, though not all brooms are made with it.

“Once you get it pliable, you’re able to put the wire to the handle and begin feeding layers of broomcorn to the handle,” she said. The size of the broom handle and whether the broom will be a light-, medium- or heavy-weight broom, determines whether Williams will add two to five layers of the broomcorn. Then, the broom is hung up to dry.

Once dry, Williams will add a braiding (made from the stalk of the broomcorn) around the broom head (where the handle and broomcorn are bound together), and then let that dry. Depending on her customer’s preference, Williams then will press and sew the broom, which flattens the broomcorn. Some customers, however, prefer the broom without flattening.

“The hardest part is getting your prep work, making sure you have the right amount of corn, the length of corn,” she said. “There’s a lot of prep work involved. I could sit and make brooms all day long, but one to two hours is prep work. There’s a lot that goes into it that’s unseen by a lot of people.”

Though she’s carrying on a family tradition, Williams has taken that tradition to new levels by selling her brooms online, something she started doing in January 2007. “I knew I wanted to stay home,” she said. “I wanted to increase my sales to where I could stay home.” A friend encouraged her to get a Web presence, and a year later, Williams said things are right where she wants them too be.

“It’s not too much, it’s not too little,” she said. “It’s just right.”

Though she’s been approached by home shopping networks to sell her brooms, Williams said her craft is not about money. “The broom is for the love, it’s not just the money,” she said.

In addition to brooms, Williams makes and sells rag dolls and rag doll horses.

For more information about Williams, please visit her Web site at www.kybroomlady.com.