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.