Berea College Broomcraft is a current program of Berea College Crafts. Student crafts people make brooms for the College's retails sales outlets, mail order, and online. Founded in 1920, Broomcraft has a long history and was one of the original Student Industries at Berea College.
This article originally written by Justin "Dean" Burton '15 During Summer 2015.
The Berea College Broommaking Department began operation July 6, 1920, but the idea began around 1911. College President William G. Frost initiated the establishment of the broom enterprise because there was not enough campus work for male students during the winter months at the time, and broom making promised work for men year-round. During the later half of his presidency, Frost believed that Berea should provide every student with the opportunity to work to pay for her or his education. Broommaking was one of several enterprises created to address this goal. Frost retired during June 1920, so the program actually opened under his successor, William J. Hutchins. Reports indicate that, as hoped, broom making did became a stabilizing industry of the college labor program by providing work for men outside of the agricultural season.
The first broom making supervisor was Joel R. Arnold. Work was originally located in the Trades Building (now the north side of Stephenson Hall) on the second and third floors. By 1924 the broom industry was producing 8,700 brooms a year. A campus railroad siding came up behind the building and railroad access allowed the broom enterprise to reach a national market. At its peak, Broomcraft produced over 150,000 brooms each year and employed two-hundred workers. Most were Berea students but some were men from the community. These brooms were primarily practical floor/sweeping brooms without braiding, decorative elements, or artistic touches. They were primarily sold in bulk to distributors.
During 1930s, the broom making department shifted from making primarily basic floor brooms to increasingly making hearth and decorative brooms. In July of 1939, the Broom Making Department was renamed Broomcraft and in August of that year, a new, dedicated Broomcraft building was completed on the north edge of campus. Originally, a money-losing operation, in the 1940s, under the direction of Stephan Luther Brown, Broomcraft became profitable and remained so for the majority of its history. In 1942, the number of students working fell from 80 to 50 due to World War II. Even with fewer students, they were able to keep up with demand. However, in October of 1943, due to supply and men shortages, Broomcraft closed for the remainder of the war.
Broomcraft reopened in August of 1946 under the leadership of Robert E. Lee Bottom. Bottom grew up near Kentucky's Pleasant Hill Shaker community and claimed to have learned broom making from Shakers.
In 1958, after working at Broomcraft since 1939, Johnny A. Reed became the supervisor of Broomcraft. Johnny was known to push his workers to produce faster while at the same time maintain the high standard in quality he expected. Reeds have worked for Broomcraft throughout its history. Johnny’s sons, Robert and Lonnie Reed, both also worked in Broomcraft, in the 1970s under their father. When Johnny retired in 1979, his wife Emma K. Reed became the supervisor.
For many years Broomcraft was unusual in the Berea's Student Labor system, operating on a piecework pay system that paid students per broom made. This was ended in the 1980s.
In 1997, the Broomcraft Building, now the Berea College Farm Store, closed and the Broomcraft operation moved into the Bruce Building while a section of the Mueller Woodcraft Building was remodeled. In 1999 it moved into that space. Emma Reed was Supervisor of Broomcraft until 1999 when her son Lonnie Reed succeeded her.
In 2010 Chris Robbins became the supervisor of Broomcraft. Robbins is from Rockcastle County, Kentucky and learned broom making at the age of 14. In 2015, Robbins supervises nine students who produce over 7,000 brooms a year.
The styles and methods for creating the brooms today have changed little since the beginning. Like Bob Dylan, Broomcraft has gone electric, but has not forgotten its roots. Each broom is still handmade, individually, using hand-dyed broomcorn. Berea's handmade colorful brooms are shipped all over the world.
Brooms are made of broomcorn, an annual grass (S. vulgare var. technicum) which is a variety of Sorghum. Berea College operates a working farm and records indicate there have been some attempts to grow broomcorn locally, but it has not worked out to grow it in the quantity and quality needed. Originally, Broomcraft bought broomcorn from Oklahoma, Illinois, and Iowa. In 2015 broomcorn is being acquired from Mexico through a company in North Carolina.
Berea College Archives, RG 5.28 - Student Industries