February 2009
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Brushin’ Up with Old-Fashioned Straw Brooms

Jack Ryals with a corn shuck scrub broom and a straw broom. Photo by J. Larry Smith, Tumbleton, AL

 

 Jack Ryals is not claiming that he’s got a remedy for some of the backbreaking housework. But, then he’s not saying that he doesn’t. All he’s saying is sweeping with a straw broom isn’t as hard on the back as sweeping with a stick broom.

Ryals admits there aren’t as many women swishing around the house with a broom in hand as there used to be.

"No, a lot of the straw brooms I make are just for decorations or sentimental reasons," Ryals said. "Straw brooms are kind of nostalgic. Some folks will say, ‘I can remember my mama or my grandmamma sweeping with a broom like that.’ And, then a lot of folks just want to stand them around. I say use them for the purpose intended and you won’t hurt your back near as much as sweeping with a stick broom."

Ryals said two hands are necessary to "work" a stick broom. You only need one hand to execute the sweeping motion of a straw broom.

"So you don’t have to do all that twisting you do with a stick broom," he stated. "And, too, you can lay a straw broom almost parallel to the floor, so you can get up under the beds real good. Get all those dust balls gone."

Ryals doesn’t claim to be an authority on straw brooms but he probably knows more about them than most folks. He’s been making them since around 1970.

 

James Ryals makes a scrubbing broom out of corn shucks. Photo by J. Larry Smith, Tumbleton, AL

"I was working at this little ol’ grocery store and met this woman from New York. She didn’t know the first thing about a straw broom," he said.

"So, I made her one and showed her the sweeping motion with it. Then, the manager’s wife wanted one because she had back trouble and sweeping was bad on her. I made her one and then another lady wanted one and another one and that set me off to making straw brooms," he added.

So, for nearly 40 years, Ryals has been making straw brooms at his house in Edwin in northwestern Henry County. Last year, he didn’t make as many as in the past but the year before he made the "ususal," between 140 and 150.

"Making straw brooms is not that hard," Ryals said. "The straw grows wild in untended open fields. Now, there’s two kinds of broom sage. One is too coarse and heavy to make brooms. The other is just right."

Wranging broom straw takes strong hands and a sturdy back.

"You get a bundle in your hand, down close to the ground, and ‘wrang’ it — twist it— till it breaks off. Then you take the straw home and get all the excess leaves or fodder off, up about half way. Then you take a dull knife —- a sharp one will cut the straw —- and clean it good, shake out all the excess and then get a handful of straw big enough to make a broom," Ryals explained.

In the good ol’ days, Ryals said cotton cords, strips of cloth or even narrow strips from an old inner tube were used to "tie" the broom.

Jack Ryals demonstrates how to make straw brooms during a Farm Day at Landmark Park. Photo by J. Larry Smith, Tumbleton, AL

 

"Mama always used cotton rags but they’d break easy," he said. "Now, I use nylon cord because it stretches and you can pull it real tight to wind the cord around the neck of the broom so it won’t come loose under normal use," he said.

The finishing touch on a straw broom is to trim or "wrang" the sweeping end of the broom to "uniform" lengths.

"Then you’re ready to sweep," Ryals remarked.

And, when the sweeping is done, it’s time to "scour" the floor and Ryals knows all about that because his brother, James Rufus Ryals, makes scrub brooms.

"Back in the good ol’ days, scouring brooms where necessary and they were made out of corn shucks," Ryals continued to explain. "First you need a block of wood with holes about an inch across bored in it. Then you take corn shucks — not the outside shucks — they’re too brittle but the inside shucks, good quality inside shucks. You get all the silks and debris out and soak the shucks till they’re good and wet so you can twist them and run them up through the holes, all in the same direction with the fine end on the top side."

Although a corn shuck scrub broom doesn’t appear to have a lot of shucks in it, Ryals said looks can be deceiving.

"It takes a whole lot of shucks to make a scrub broom," he said. "The handle is made out of a long, sapling pole – hickory’s good or chinaberry. You attach it and go to scrubbing."

Ryals said it took a strong back and strong hands to maneuver a scrub broom but women "back then" were strong gals.

"They’d use lye soap and white sand to clean those ol’ plank floors. The sand acted as an abrasive and the lye soap as a cleaner," Ryals said and added laughing. "That was the forerunner of Comet cleanser. They’d rinse the floor with clear water and sweep the water out through the cracks in the floor. If they didn’t have cracks, they’d bore a hole in the corner of the room to get the rinse water gone."

Ryals is not recommending either the straw broom or the scrub broom for regular household use but not discounting either. And, those who want to try the old-fashioned brooms can look him up in Edwin and he’ll be glad to demonstrate the workings of either or both.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.