Turkey Calls, Serbian Dancing, and Traditional Broommaking: The Folklife of W.Va.

Sep 28, 2017

87-year-old Jim Shaffer has had his hands busy since 1946. He's the last commercial broom-maker left in West Virginia. People from all over the country have come to see and take home some of Schaffer's work. On Saturday September 30th a short film about Jim Shaffer will be screened at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.. The event is free and open to the public. 


The state folklorist Emily Hilliard teamed up with Inside Appalachia earlier this year to produce the story about Jim Shaffer, as part of a collaboration between West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the West Virginia Folklife Program. Roxy Todd down with Emily Hilliard to talk about her work and a new project she's starting to try to connect younger folklorist with traditional artisans across West Virginia.

Roxy Todd: Can you talk about why you think Jim Shaffer's broom-maker story resonated with people across the country.

Emily Hilliard: Sure. So I think on one hand it resonated with people who are from West Virginia and live in West Virginia because they know Jim and they've been buying his brooms for years and years at Pile’s Hardware, or through Lions Clubs, or directly from Jim. 

James Shaffer first learned to make brooms in 1946
Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

Roxy: Yeah. Do you have any idea how many brooms he's made over the years?

Emily: I actually calculated this. He said he’s made about 300 brooms a week, now down to 200. But over 70 years that amounts to almost a million brooms. So I was just thinking, that's a million brooms that have been in a million homes, a million janitor closets, a million witches costume, Harry Potter costumes. And so he's really touched a lot of lives with this object that such a daily tool.

Roxy: Yeah you don't think about a broom. But we all use it, for the most part, unless our house is extremely messy! But also it resonated with people outside of West Virginia who had never heard of Jim Shaffer or, you know, the Charleston Broom and Mop Company. I mean when I talked to him he had heard from people from Florida, from New York who came to visit him. And that's incredible.

Emily: Yeah I think part of that is because Jim is just so compelling of a person. And also his longevity in the trade is a really interesting story. He's basically been making brooms the same way for 70 years. But the whole infrastructure has changed around him. So I think maybe there's some nostalgia. His workshop looks a lot like what I remember my grandfather's garage looking like. So I think it resonated on a few different levels.

Roxy: And Emily you're the West Virginia State folklorist, and you're about to complete your second year. Do you know how many interviews you've recorded so far across West Virginia.

Emily: I think we have about 50 oral history interviews of at least an hour long, generally, with 65 different consultants because sometimes we do interviews with multiple people at once. And that's probably from about half the counties in the state.

Roxy: When I think of folklore sometimes they think about banjo players, I think about weavers. Who else is included in this collection of interviews that you've done so far?

Emily: Sure. So folklore we think of as the art of everyday life, so it's pretty expansive. So far we have worked with people from the Serbian community in Weirton. 

Serbian festival in Weirton
Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

So some of the men who prepare their chicken feasts each week in the summer, and the Reverend at the Serbian church, they're Greek dancers. I’ve also interviewed labor songwriters like Elaine Purkey, turkey call makers in Jackson County. So it's really all over the map. And I think we will expand more and more with interviews. And the definition of what folk life is can include newer emergent traditions. 

Desert at the Serbian festival in Weirton
Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

Roxy: As you've been doing this for the past year and a half or two years. Do you see a lot of hope for these things to continue being passed down or do you think that the younger generation is sort of losing touch with a lot of these traditional crafts?

Emily: I definitely see that the younger generation is invested in these traditions, and that has been so exciting. One example is there's an 18-year-old Morgan Rice in Helvetia, West Virginia. 

Credit Andrew Bain

She was working on the ramp supper, and a few years ago the ramps supper was struggling, because they were competing with other events in the area. And it's a pretty remote place, so they just couldn't draw the audience like they used to. And they had it in mind that they were going to cancel the dinner. And so Morgan took it upon herself to create a petition. And she sent it to everyone in Helvetia that said, ‘what am I going to bring my kids back to if this ramps supper goes away? This is really important to the life of Helvetia and to my life personally.’

And so two women in the Farm Women's Club, that Morgan is a part of, decided to support her. And they all worked together to kind of re-evaluate, and I think they boosted their marketing, and they decided that they would have the ramp supper again. And Morgan says that even though it was a terrible day weather-wise, they had a huge crowd. And so it has continued. They had a big [ramp supper] one this past year. So that's been really exciting to see that young people have a hand in passing on these traditions and they can make a difference.

Roxy: So what's next for the West Virginia Folklife program? 

Handcarved turkey call maker, trapper, and bow-hunter Aaron Parsons, 20, of Ravenswood, W.Va.
Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

Emily: So we are launching an apprenticeship program. Gerry Milnes ran a similar program out of Augusta for many years. It has stipends available for Master traditional artists to work with an apprentice and do a yearlong in-depth apprenticeship, and that will culminate in a final public showcase that we'll have here in Charleston. Those apprentices and master artists will share their performance, if it's a performance form, or demonstrate what they do or prepare food if it's food-ways apprenticeship.

Roxy: Well Emily, good luck in the next year and I'm sure we'll hear more of your adventures on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Emily: Sounds great. Thanks so much.

Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia State folklorist from the West Virginia Humanities Council,