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'Witchy' friend leads Higdon to a broom 'craft'

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Posted on May 10, 2018 |
By Megan James



brooms DSC_8352.jpg
Janelle Higdon makes brooms the old fashioned way — by hand. The artisan uses a 19th century Shaker broom vice and other hand tools at her Middlebury studio. Independent photo/John S. McCright

Janelle Higdon had a good, adult job. She was working in mental health services in Western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. She had a retirement plan. She had health insurance. But, she recalls, “I was really bored.”

This was four or five years ago. She had just turned 30, and she didn’t want to spend the rest of her working life in a career she wasn’t passionate about. She and her partner, Anne Hopkinson, wanted to start a family, and they wanted careers that would allow them some flexibility so that they wouldn’t have to send their future kids to daycare. 

Higdon looked into going back to school, but she didn’t want to take out a bunch of student loans.

Then the universe gave her a sign.

“We have this witchy friend,” she says. “And by witchy, I mean she’s a witch.” Just a few days after Higdon and Hopkinson began talking about career changes, that witchy friend, Dori Midnight, emailed them about a broommaker in the Berkshires — JP Welch of Justameer Tree Farm — who was selling his business and looking for someone to apprentice. Midnight thought they’d be perfect.

Higdon and Hopkinson leapt at the opportunity.   To make this whisk broom, Higdon uses the same types of tools and techniques that broommakers have used for centuries.

Independent photo/John S. McCright

They apprenticed for several months, learning how to sort broom corn, prepare sassafras handles and weave the corn onto the handles. They also traveled to craft fairs, learned how to “talk brooms” — and how to look a little more like broommakers.

Higdon laughs as she describes the “broommaker image.” “You know, I wouldn’t go to a craft show in a Nike T-shirt and a baseball cap. I’d maybe wear a flat cap and overalls. That’s what people want to see when they buy a broom.”

This homespun, country style wasn’t a stretch for Higdon, who describes herself as having a very Vermont-y, Carhartt-y style — though she ups the cool factor with a delicate nose ring and forearm tattoos.

Higdon, Hopkinson (a Middlebury native) and third business partner Ed Harris took over the broom business and renamed it Haydenville Broomworks, after the village in Massachusetts where they lived at the time.

Less than a year ago, they moved with their two young children to Middlebury — and took the business with them — to be closer to Hopkinson’s parents. Hopkinson works as a clinical social worker in a South Pleasant Street office; Higdon’s broom shop is out back in the garage.

On a recent morning, the shop is filled to the brim with brooms. Higdon sells her traditional broom for $65. Her whisks — which are like mini brooms that you might use for brushing up crumbs — go for $35 a pop.

“There are for people who are just willing to spend a little more on something that’s going to last,” says Higdon. “Some people take joy in sweeping, and they want a really nice tool.” Some of her brooms have unfinished handles. If you use one of those every day, she notes, your hands will make grooves in it over time, “so it becomes your tool, which is really lovely.”

According to Higdon, the broom as we know it was created in the 1700s by a farmer named Levi Dickinson in Hadley, Mass. Before that, brooms were just bunches of twigs or brush wrapped together. When it began to fall apart, you’d throw it out and make a new one.

Dickinson wrapped up his broom corn (which is a type of sorghum that is particularly well-suited to making brooms) and tied it to a handle, Higdon explains. “He gave it to his wife, and she loved it. And then all of her friends wanted one.”

Higdon wraps her broom corn together with wire on the custom bench that Welch built, and stitches every broom with an 1870s Shaker broom vice. She weaves the handles at a wooden table, using her feet to adjust the tension of the jute, a type of twine, as she pulls it taught around each strand of broom corn.

She’s proud to be using the same tools, materials and techniques that people have been using for centuries.

“No one’s improved upon the broom,” she says. “There’s just no way to.”

To see Higdon’s work, visit haydenvillebroomworks.com. Click on the photo below to watch Janelle in action.

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