PAOLA — As a 10th generation Kentuckian, the opportunity for Justin Dean Burton to share his love of making brooms with Kansans in a state that once was home to the broom corn capital of the world was too appealing to pass up.
“Kansas used to have a major broom industry and broom corn,” Burton said as he tied a string around a group of broom corn strands.
“At one point there were 70,000 acres of broom corn in Kansas alone,” Burton said. “The first broom corn grown west of Mississippi (River) was in McPherson County, outside Lindsborg, by Swedish immigrants.”
On Friday, July 19, Burton was plying his craft as guest artisan in the studio at Fire Lake Soapery, located at 20 S. Silver St. on Park Square in Paola. He was the first artist to be featured in the shop’s “Maker’s Spotlight.” Fire Lake Soapery plans to spotlight other artisans in the future.
Burton developed a knack for making brooms while he was a student at Brea College, a small liberal arts college in what he described as the arts and crafts capital of Kentucky. He markets his brooms through his business, The Broom House.
A December 2015 graduate of Brea, the 27-year-old broom-maker recently moved to Lindsborg, a small town in central Kansas steeped in Swedish heritage. Bethany College students in Lindsborg are honing the art of broom-making under Burton’s guidance in a work-study program called Swedish Crafts.
“Students earn a little money while in college and sell the brooms (to raise funds) for special projects and scholarships,” Burton said.
“There were five broom factories in McPherson County that had a Swedish connection,” he said. “It was a major industry in the area.”
Broom-making has declined in the U.S., especially in places like Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, where the industry thrived up until about World War II, Burton said.
“Wichita used to be the largest single point of distribution for broom corn in the world,” Burton said. “The world’s largest broom factory was in Wichita, which used to claim it was the broom corn capital of the world.”
Burton said that honor now goes to Arcola, Ill., which has an annual broom corn festival.
“The big issue with broom corn is it’s a labor-intensive plant to harvest, and there has not been a successful mainstream way to mechanize harvesting broom corn,” he said. “Most of the broom corn comes from Mexico, and only about 20,000 acres is grown in the entire country of Mexico.”
“Part of the reason I’m in Kansas is to reintroduce broom-making,” Burton said. “I hate to use the term lost art, but it is not well known as an art form.
“What I do personally is a lot different than what I do for the college, though,” he said. “The college is more traditional, and my personal stuff is a little more funky. I’m focused on finding other forms to incorporate into my work.”
Burton said he can spend anywhere from a few minutes to 15 hours making one broom, depending on the intricacy of the work.
“My more funky stuff, a lot of broom handles are made from sassafras or ash, and wild grape vine,” he said.
Burton estimated he has made about 12,000 brooms to date.
“I have a little bit everywhere. I have brooms in 26 countries on six continents, every state of the United States, and every province in Canada, except maybe the territories,” he said. “I have a few brooms in museums, a few brooms at historical sites as re-creations (of the period). Most of my brooms are in private homes.”
Burton estimates there are about 400 broom-makers in the U.S., and maybe 50 of those do it as more than a hobby.
“There are enough people making brooms to keep it going for 50 to 100 years, at the very least,” he said. “It’s about finding new and creative ways to take the art form. Lots of people still make brooms the way their grandparents made them. I’m about trying to find innovation and new outlets for my abstract brooms — keeping it original and creative.”
Burton said the hardest part of teaching someone how to make a broom is explaining how to develop a feel for the broom corn.
“You need to hold it just right,” he said. “Broom corn needs only so much pressure applied to it before you can damage the broom corn. A lot of broom-making is understanding the feel and the strength of the material.”
He pulled the string tight on the broom he was making and plucked it.
“It’s a one-string banjo,” he said while demonstrating how to make a broom. “The key to making a good broom is keeping the tension, that’s why you watch a lot of horror movies and dramas.”
Burton said it’s important broom-making remains a part of the American culture.
“A lot can be done with broom corn, a stick and a string,” he said.