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MARTHA SEZ: The quintessential Halloween accessory

October 27, 2017
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

A new broom sweeps clean. We all know this. Why, then, are old, worn-out brooms never thrown away?

It's true. We didn't see people throwing out their old brooms at Bulky Days, the local event held biannually at the Keene Town Transfer Center-world's most scenic dump-during which people rid themselves of all manner of material possessions they don't want anymore.

The observance of Bulky Days entails re-evaluating our lives, winnowing the wheat from the chaff, stripping away the dreck, comprised of objects once perhaps highly valued, but now mere dead weight, and leaving it at the dump. We come away feeling lighter and freer. I like to think that Bulky Days has its spiritual side as well.

Yes, a new broom sweeps clean, and an old broom does not, but nevertheless people hoard their brooms as if they might perhaps become valuable someday, slowly aging like fine wine. They may be imagining that someone from "Antiques Roadshow" will come to town and ask "Does anybody have an old broom?" That will be their cue to run and get the ancient relict from the porch, the broom that will make their fortune. By the way, this will never happen.

Natural brooms are made of broom corn, not straw. The term corn is British usage for any grain-producing grass. Broom corn is a type of sorghum, a sturdy annual used as a decorative garden plant and a source of bird seed. Seeds can be popped like popcorn. Broom corn has been used for making brooms in Mediterranean countries for at least 500 years.

Benjamin Franklin is usually credited for introducing broom corn sorghum to America, but this is disputed by some scholars. In popular lore, he wrote in a diary in 1725 about bringing home broom corn-he called it "whisk seed"-from England. The abovementioned scholars, however, say that nobody can find the diary. In two letters written in 1757, Franklin mentions bringing whisk seed from Virginia, and explains how to grow it.

To Sally Mecome, Franklin wrote: "Dear Sister I enclose you some whisk seed; it is a kind of corn, good for creatures; it must be planted in hills, like Indian corn. The tops make the best thatch in the world; and of the same are made the whisks you use for velvet. Pray try if it will grow with you. I brought it from Virginia."

If you want to see what Benjamin Franklin was talking about and grow your own broom corn, you might Google Lorenz's OK Seeds, or Botanical Interests seed packets.

The use of sorghum for broom making became popular in New England and then spread westward. The Midwest is a great center for sorghum farms, and Arcola, Illinois, is known as the broom corn capital of the world. Broomfield, Colorado, was named for the broom corn grown there.

The witch is still the most popular Halloween disguise. Should you decide to accessorize your costume with an authentic and beautiful broom-not the one from your porch-you may want to check out Haydenville Broomworks. This company, in Haydenville, Massachusetts, produces handcrafted natural brooms using broom corn with sassafras broomsticks, employing oldtime methods and techniques. No doubt Massachusetts witches traveled on similar brooms in colonial days.

I mentioned the porch because that is typically the final home of the broom. It begins its career in the kitchen, followed sometimes by a stint in the garage, after which it is relegated to the porch and replaced by a new broom-a broom that has all of its straws intact and straight, not all broken and uneven and smashed sideways like those of its predecessor. Even after it has been retired and replaced, however, it doesn't leave its home. It never leaves.

Why does the old broom wind up on the porch and not in the trash? I don't believe that your average broom owner feels any sentimental attachment to it, nor does he find it particularly useful for sweeping leaves, sand, seed pods, gum wrappers and other debris. A new broom would work so much better.

This practice of refusing to retire broken-down brooms is not limited to the domestic sphere. Even the most upscale place of business may have this decrepit and unsightly artifact, the outdoor broom, hanging on a peg by the front door, as if the proprietor considers it to be invisible to his clientele. No self-respecting witch would touch it.

If you have an answer, let me know.

Have a good week.



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