That simple object, the broom, carries much weight in Southern folklore. And no one in the South imbues the broom with greater meaning than Jack Martin. Let’s visit his broom shed.
Story by Shawn Pitts | Photographs by Bryan Huff
A broom is a mystical object.
Southern folklore is replete with references to omens — both formidable and fortuitous — attributable to the handling or mishandling of this humble household necessity. Whisking dust out the front door confounds the sweeper’s financial ambitions. A broom left on a bed may render the next human occupant infertile. Sweeping under someone’s feet irrevocably curses that unfortunate soul. By contrast, sweeping new floors with a virgin broom invites prosperity and initiates hopeful new beginnings. And, of course, enslaved Africans, deprived of legal marriage, jumped the broom to signify spiritual union.
But as I stand among the ranks of synthetic-bristled imposters at the neighborhood big-box store, it’s hard to imagine brooms commanding such reverence. These modern brooms are impotent demigods, without mystery, subordinate to the new pantheon of in-wall vacuum systems and those robotic carpet sweepers over on aisle 12.
In technology we trust.
Yet the broom still has its devotees. In the hands of Jack Martin, a fourth-generation broom maker in West Tennessee, a broom is an objet d’art, born of the earth and handcrafted with elegant simplicity into a talisman worthy of veneration. Whether displayed for its exceptional beauty and quality — or used to sweep out the garage — an encounter with one of Martin’s brooms often sparks something like enchantment. It’s hard to reckon with such feelings — primal echoes from the past, perhaps.
The object itself proclaims its agricultural heritage. The bristles are made of natural broomcorn, cultivated in sight of the shop where Martin crafts his brooms, while handles are often cut from young timber nearby — living sacrifices to a down-home Demeter, the good goddess of Southern field and forest. And then, there is the mystery of the thing itself, how its intended function — to clean — seems to breathe symbolic life into each broom.
It’s easy to see how our forebears concluded there was something more than sweeping afoot.
Hockaday Handmade Brooms sits on a low rise at the edge of the expansive Oxford Creek bottom, just outside Selmer, Tennessee. The drive out from town is a surreal experience, taking the motorist past the largest solar installation east of the Mississippi River, right into the heart of Southwest Tennessee’s Amish country. The juxtaposition of rolling hillsides crowded with gleaming solar panels and acre upon acre of farmland worked by man and mule is jarring.
This farm and broom business Martin inherited from his maternal ancestors seems to mark the boundary line between past and future.
More than 100 years before the Amish and solar technology arrived in Tennessee, the Hockaday family began making brooms to supplement the meager income derived from subsistence farming. The sturdy and reliable suite of broom machines Martin employs was ingeniously cobbled together by his great-grandfather, Wick Hockaday, with spare parts and discarded farm implements. It might have been McNairy County’s jerry-rigged version of the industrial revolution, but those machines still get the job done. Every broom that comes out of the shop — or “the broom shed,” as Martin calls it — is guaranteed to last. You will wear it to a nub before a bristle falls out, or Martin will replace it. Since 1916, Hockaday Handmade Brooms has had to make good on that promise less than 10 times, and Martin swears that several of those brooms were damaged by hogs.
“We make a good broom at a fair price,” he says with a wry grin, “but they’re not hog-proof.”
Martin’s brooms have been purchased by private collectors and prestigious cultural institutions. He has seen them used as props in network television programs and Broadway musicals. In 2015, Martin was honored with the Tennessee Governor’s Folklife Heritage Award, the state’s highest honor in the arts. It’s a step or two up from the hog pen.
He’s flattered, of course, but a broom is still made for sweeping. Every step of the process, from selecting and planting the seeds, to harvesting and combing the broomcorn, to wiring it onto the handle and sewing it into the familiar fan shape, is lovingly done by hand, with function in mind. After all that, it seems a shame to hang it on the wall.
A broom is sanctified in the sweeping.
“I will sweep it with the broom of destruction,” says the Lord of hosts.
— Isaiah 14:23, RSV
To Isaiah, the broom was an ominous thing in the hands of an angry God, a token of divine wrath and retribution. Perhaps that explains, in part, the more portentous bits of folk belief attached to it.
Jesus himself also spoke of the broom, only once, indirectly in a short but richly affecting parable. To him it was a kinder symbol, elucidating, as one might expect, the mysteries of redemption.
Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
— Luke 15:8-10 RSV
In the teaching, the rabbi is the fretful woman, the one who anxiously sweeps by lamplight. The broom, in her hand, brings forth not only clouds of dust from neglected corners, but also that which is precious. She is the one who throws a party to celebrate and memorialize an eminently forgettable occasion.
And the silver coin? Well, that is humanity. Those who were lost, but not forgotten. Those who steadfastly sought and plucked, with care, from common household dirt. The broom is our instrument of reclamation.
I asked Martin about it once. Why all the spirituality and superstition surrounding brooms? Why do we project such power on them?
His answer was profound and painfully obvious. The mythology emerges from human intimacy with this ubiquitous object. Like the holy places on the earth, where divine life invades human space, objects are imbued with meaning from our experience of them. The details may be lost to antiquity, but the broom earned its place in our imagination, and we do well to pay it the honor it is due. That’s more common sense than superstition.
Jack Martin puts one in mind of an Old Testament prophet, or perhaps, John the Immerser, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. It’s not just the long, graying chin-curtain beard that spills down his chest. It’s the deft urgency of his hands as he plunges the wicked sewing needle through the straw into a cup-shaped thimble affixed to the opposite wrist. It’s the evangelistic zeal in his message of family, tradition, and preservation. It’s the joy and sacrifice in heeding the call. Underneath it all is the prophet’s lament. Will the message fall on deaf ears? Have all turned away to dead idols?
Martin’s finished products line the walls of the shop. Some hang by leather thongs, others stand upside-down on their handles. None stands on its bristles — it’s bad luck, not to mention bad for the broom. The business ends are wrapped in heavy brown or white packaging paper, just as his grandfather did it. Martin banters amiably as he works.
“It only takes five months and 45 minutes to make a good broom,” he says. That’s five months to grow, harvest, and prep the broomcorn, and 45 minutes for Martin to fashion the raw materials into the final form. It’s a joke, masking a sad reality: Most people wouldn’t know a quality broom if it hit them in the face, let alone that it’s a bad omen for both victim and assailant. They are satisfied with the vulgar, plastic whisk-and-dustpan sets, cheaper than the dirt they’re meant to dispatch. Hit somebody with one of those lifeless utensils and see what happens. Nothing, I’d wager, unless it provokes a brawl.
Nobody gets rich making brooms. So, it’s hard to say why Martin does it. Certainly it’s something in his blood, a deep familial longing. But it’s much more than that. There is something satisfying about walking in the old paths, something solemn and sacred in the work of the hands.
The brooms speak for themselves, of course, just as they always have. They pronounce harsh condemnation on modernity. They boast of value and artisanship with a voice more authoritative than the trite marketing copy that drains those words of meaning. They sing praises to the elegant asymmetry of nature and summon humanity to join the chorus.
Mostly, though, the brooms whisper their ancient secrets. And Jack Martin hears them.