Meet One of the Last Remaining Broom Makers in Appalachia

Apr 12, 2017

Along Davis Creek, in Loudendale, WV, outside of Charleston, there’s a long green building on the side of the road with the words “Charleston Broom and Mop Co.” painted on the side. That building is the workshop of James Shaffer, who at age 87, is the last hand-made commercial broom maker in the state. He first learned the trade in 1946, meaning he’s been making brooms for 70 years.

Schaffer is tall, sporting jeans and suspenders, with a friendly face and big smile. He stands at a machine in his dusty workshop, attaching straw to a broomstick. His hands move adeptly, adding straw by the handful. He’s done this so long, he doesn’t need to measure- he can build a broom by feel.

 

The broom style and the equipment he uses hasn’t really changed since Jim first started making them when he was 17.

“The change has been in the usage of brooms. Instead of sweeping sidewalks and outside garage areas and everything, they use the gasoline blowers now to blow the dirt and dust away,” says Schaffer. “Same thing in the house with these new laminate floors they have, they’re so slick that they’ve developed dust mop type things for those sweeping the house. So the broom industry is fading out. I suspect another 5-7 years you won’t find a straw broom in the store.”

Today, Schaffer’s  main customers are local Lions Clubs who buy them and sell them for their annual fundraisers. “If it wasn’t for Lions Clubs selling brooms as their fundraisers, I wouldn’t have a business today. Walmart, Kmart, and Kroger’s have took all that over now and you don’t have any mom and pop stores to buy from the wholesale distributors, so they all went out of business,” Schaffer says. 

James Schaffer building a broom
Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

Jim also sells at Pile Hardware, a local store that’s been operating on Charleston’s West Side for 84 years. Bill Pile owns the store and says customers even make trips to Charleston just to buy Jim’s brooms. “He does it out of pride! I mean, when he turns out a broom, he wants it to be just right. He’s proud of it!” says Pile.

While James Schaffer may have slowed down in his 70 years on the job, that’s not apparent from the tall stacks of brooms lining his workshop. When he’s gone, though, it isn’t clear how the broom making tradition will continue in West Virginia.

“Well, when I finally give up on it, I guess it’ll just die. A lot of people at the Lions Clubs kind of worry about it, some of them have even considered trying to run it on their own and but nobody’s come up. It’s just not a profitable enough business.."

Schaffer has taught some apprentices over the years, but no one has stuck with it. When it comes to retirement though, he isn’t interested.

“Well, you gotta have something to do! And you know I feel great all day every day, so I have to do something. If I wasn’t here making brooms, I’d maybe be over at McDonalds making hamburgers or something! You need to keep yourself occupied and busy if you’re able to, and thank goodness I’ve been able to pretty much all my life.”

Schaffer says that the only downfall to his job is that he does get lonely. “Sometimes I’ll go a week without somebody walking through the door, but it really doesn’t bother me a whole lot, but I do enjoy company,” he says.

He always appreciates visitors. He’ll even make a special broom for you right on the spot. 

Brooms made by James Schaffer
Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

You can find Jim Shaffer’s brooms at Charleston Broom and Mop Co. in Loudendale, or Pile Hardware on Charleston’s West Side.

Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia State Folklorist with the West Virginia Humanities Council. Learn more about the West Virginia Folklife Program, a project of the West Virginia Humanities Council, at wvfolklife.org.

Hear this story and more on Inside Appalachia in the episode called, Does Holding on to Appalachian Traditions Matter?