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Artisans of Michigan: Sweeping up as a broom-squire

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
While his father and grandfather made a handful of standard brooms over and over again, Henry Tschetter makes a wide variety of brooms from the practical to ornate.

We travel the state to find the people who make useful things with their hands as part of our ongoing series: Artisans of Michigan. This time our stop is in a rural area near Rockford.

“I make brooms, all kinds, different sizes, styles, colors. I like to use recycled materials: branches, golf clubs, old harnesses, lots of different things I put my brooms on,” Henry Tschetter of Brooms by Henry said.

He learned his trade when he was very young.

“When I was eight years old, my dad told me, ‘Henry, one second after school I want you in the broom shop.’ Well, he did that for a reason because I was a mischief maker, all the time getting into mischief,” he said, laughing. “And he kept his eye on me. I couldn’t get into mischief. And to this day it still keeps me out of mischief,” Tschetter said.

Not only did his father make brooms, but his grandfather also made them. He is a third generation maker of brooms.

You may know that a person who makes shoes is a cobbler and a person who makes wood barrels is a cooper. What’s a broom maker called? A broom-squire.

Tschetter has a few newer machines, but mostly he uses antiques. A de-seeder, stitching press or vise, and a broom-winder.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Some of the machines Henry Tschetter uses are a century old or older.

“I use my foot-powered machine,” he said.

LG: “How old are these machines?”

HT: “My vise, stitching vise, is from the late 1800s. My machine over there would be from the early 1900s.”

LG: “You’re still making brooms on that today?”

HT: “Oh, yeah. Not a thing wrong with that machine. Matter of fact, that machine I got from a blind man. The blind man made his living making brooms with that machine. So, I figured if a blind man can make brooms, I should be able to make brooms.”

Tschetter says he does have an electric broom-winder, but he doesn’t use it that much. The foot-powered broom-winder gives him a lot more control. That’s where he started making a broom while we talked.

He does everything right on his property. He even raises the broom corn used to make the brooms.

HT: “It’s kind of like magic. I start with a seed and I wind up with a broom. I plant the broom corn by hand. I start picking around August and I will pick until the snow flies on two-and-a-half acres. It does not all ripen at the same time.”

LG: “What does that plant look like?”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Broom corn before it is de-seeded.

“It looks like sweet corn, like corn except there are no ears. And where the tassel on a corn would be, that’s where the broom corn grows. And after I pick it, I take the seeds off and then I let it cure for three months. Then in early January, February, I start making brooms with last year’s crop.”

LG: “Looks like there’s a different process for a lot of different kinds of brooms. Give us the general idea about what you do.”

“First I sort the broom corn by what length of broom I can get out of it. And then the first thing I do before I make a broom is get it wet. Otherwise, when I twist it around, the wire would cut it and would break. If it’s moist, it’s very durable, but if it’s dry, it’ll break easily. That’s how come every broom that I make, every broom that I sell, I tell the people to keep it moist. Moisten it three or four times a year. Just run the garden hose over it. That’s all you have to do. Once it’s moist, it’s very durable.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Keeping the broom corn moist during the process is necessary to avoid the wire cutting into the material. Brooms last longer if they're moistened occasionally.

He says if you treat a natural broom well, it will last a long time. All his brooms are made to be used, but some of them are so ornate it’s clear they’re going to end up hanging on someone’s wall.

“If people use them for decorations, that’s fine. Just so they don’t abuse them and come back and tell me they fell apart or something. I’ve only had two brooms came back,” he said.

“One lady, she asked me, ‘How long shall this broom last?’ And I told her five or six years at the very least. She brought it back to me six years later and she told me, ‘Henry, your broom that you made for me, told me it was going to last six, seven, eight years, is all wore out.’ So, I told her, ‘Lady, I’d like to see the broom.’ And she brought it back. It was worn down all the way to the stitching strings. I asked, ‘Lady, what did you do with that broom?’ It looked like she took a knife and just cut it off. She told me she sweeps the sidewalk at the street, both sides of the street in the morning and in the evening every day. On the concrete. Concrete is very hard on a broom. And I told her, ‘Lady, I sold this as a house broom,’ which is fine. I gave her another broom. You can’t argue with a customer,” he explained.  

“And then, another guy brought a broom back. ‘Henry,’ he said, ‘your handle broke.’ I said, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘I was just sweeping and the handle broke.’ Well, a little girl about eight years old spoke up and said, ‘Dad, you hit a cat with it,’” he said with a laugh. 

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Trimming the excess as the wire holds the several layers of the broom corn to make the broom.

As Tschetter worked, he kept winding a wire tight around the broom handle, strategically placing the broom corn.  He noted that his father made the same standard brooms over and over again. He does not. He’s used just about everything you can think of as a broom handle: clarinets and trombones, gun stocks and deer hooves, rolling pins and then some of the broom handles are simply the broom corn braided or braided up the shaft of a handle… like the one he wanted to show me.

“This one is a broom I sent in to be judged, to Arcola, Illinois. Every year a bunch of broom makers send a broom in to see who can make the fanciest, sort of latest style broom. And 2015 I sent this broom in and I won first prize, $500, with this broom,” he said matter-of-factly.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Henry Tschetter's nationally award winning broom design.

So, Henry Tschetter is a nationally recognized broom-squire.

He owns Brooms by Henry. And he’s our latest Artisan of Michigan.

You can look at some of the many broom designs in the slide show above.

We found this artisan via the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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