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Brooms were traditionally made from broom corn, which is said to have started in the US with Benjamin Franklin. He bought an imported whisk broom that still had a seed attached, so he removed the seed and planted it. Soon he had lots of broom corn plants, and by 1895 it was an important part of the US economy. Broom corn was prevalent in New England, but it also grew in Iowa. In Greene County there were 23 acres in 1885, and it was a regular crop in the state in 1920. Following World War II, there was some interest in establishing broom corn as a staple crop in Iowa, but nothing came of it. It’s grown today in the Thomas Jefferson Gardens.
The Jefferson Broom Manufacturing Company was founded by Herbert Pelton and George McCully in the 1880s. Its first site was 206 S. Oak, and it was located in a building that had originally been a Presbyterian Church and had been moved to that address. They produced about 20 dozen brooms a day. Jesse Bailey bought out McCully, and he and Herbert Pelton moved the business to Madison Street between Oak and Elm.
In 1898 Pelton and Bailey moved to Cedar Rapids where they continued making brooms, but the Jefferson Broom Manufacturing Company remained in Jefferson. The company was purchased by Fred Bossert, A.M. (Earl) Head, and Clyde Eagleson at that time. It employed 8 people and made whisk brooms, broom brushes, and brooms for the home. Earl Head was president of the company. They added a power stitcher to the business, which allowed them “to turn out work with greater ease and expedition.” Their brooms were carried by all the merchants in town.
The biggest danger facing the young company was fire. In April 1899 the business had nine employees. Two of them extinguished a fire that started when a bundle of broom corn ignited from a melting kettle. Nearly 50 pounds of broom corn were lost, but there wasn’t a total loss of property.
Just 8 months later, though, in December 1899, there was a huge fire in the afternoon, shortly after the dinner hour. It was spotted by a workman returning from lunch. He found the inside of the drying room on the east side of the building ablaze. $200 worth of finished brooms waiting for shipment burned, along with two tons of corn. Workers cut a hole through the west side of the main building and removed most of the machinery, some gasoline, and some finished and unfinished brooms. The loss was estimated at $1,250, and the insurance only paid $450, so there was a total loss of $800.
Despite this loss, the company was determined to continue. It moved to the site of a blacksmith shop owned by Mr. A. T. Lohr, which was just west of the Louk Blacksmith shop and across the street from the Washington Street Stables. The Jefferson Broom Manufacturing Company owners were optimistic about this new location which was central and convenient, and they were able to move their power stitcher there. Yet, by 1901, they’d sold their business for $1500 to Mr. H.E. Reever, who’d previously had business interests in New York. Reever hired another man, Ose White, as a traveling salesman, and the two men were constantly on the road selling brooms. Although the business was profitable, in 1902 Reever decided he wanted to spend more time at home, so he sold the company to Mr. D. Talbot. Unfortunately, the company’s life under Talbot was short.
Another broom maker emerged, though. Clyde Shannon had started at the Jefferson Broom Manufacturing Company at the age of 11 as a worker. In 1918 he and his mother moved onto a farm in the Horseshoe Bend area. Clyde had the owner of that farm plant 4 or 5 acres of broom corn for him. In the fall he’d walk through the field and bend the rows of broom corn toward each other, about waist high. This made a bench, and when he’d cut the heads off the corn, he’d lay them across this bench to dry. These heads were gathered and held over a spinning drum to remove the seeds. They were then fashioned into brooms using sticks and wire that Clyde would order. People came from miles around to purchase Clyde’s brooms, and he also peddled them from a horse and buggy.
In 1924 The Bee said, “Clyde Shannon, of Kendrick Township, was in Jefferson yesterday with some fine samples of broom corn which he is raising there for broom making purposes. He tells the Bee he has enough this year to finish 125 dozen brooms, and that the quality this season is the best he has ever produced. Clyde is an old hand at this business, having conducted the broom factory in Jefferson for a number of years, and folks who buy his brooms can count on them being of the highest wearing quality.”
A year or two later Shannon joined with R.W. Bennett to found the Jefferson Broom Factory, which was located near Winkelman Switch on the Bennett farm. They had 12 acres of broom corn, and they made 500 dozen brooms a year in 1927. 50% of their brooms were sold outside of Greene County. However, despite this success, the factory didn’t continue, and its demise marked the end of broom making in the county. Shannon left the broom business, going on to a long career with the Jefferson Telephone Company.
In the 1970s the Lions Club sold brooms in the for $2 apiece as a fundraiser, but broom making itself was a thing of the past in Greene County.