Broomcorn Johnny’s Sweeps Up Success
When Brian Newton heard that a Camden, Indiana-based Amish broom maker had passed away and that his tools had been stored in a barn, he got an idea. “I grew up in a home that appreciated old-time crafts,” he says. “My parents were spinners and weavers.”
Newton realized the broom-making tools, some of which were more than a century old, could be his opportunity to work with his hands in a unique market.
After purchasing the equipment in the 1980s, Newton began hand-stitching brooms from broomcorn, ultimately establishing his business, Broomcorn Johnny’s, in the Hoosier State.
What is Broomcorn?
“Broomcorn is one of three families of sorghum,” Newton says. “The first type is syrup for consumption by humans. The second is for animal feed, and the third can be used for brooms.”
The product is called broomcorn because when it is harvested with seeds on its tips, the seeds act as cleaning agents. “The seeds trap dirt like Velcro,” Newton says. “They are soft enough not to damage hardwood floors.”
At first, Newton tried raising broomcorn on a few acres at his home in Brown County. He quickly discovered the process was challenging. “Broomcorn is a labor-intensive crop,” he says. “It has to be monitored daily to determine quality. If it is cut when immature, the fibers have no stamina. If it is cut too late, it becomes crooked.”
As Newton’s quality of craftsmanship became well known, his brooms sold so quickly that he hired a farmer in northern Mexico to grow the broomcorn and ship it to him.
After a career in the Air Force, Newton began making brooms full-time in 2011. He prefers completing much of the brooms’ construction himself, using his ancient machinery. “One piece from the 1700s holds the broom flat while I stitch it,” he says.
Many of his broom handles are made from Indiana hardwoods, mostly sassafras. Newton is so confident of the quality of his hand-stitched brooms that he offers a 15-year warranty.
Sales increased even more when Newton developed a process to create vibrant colors in the broomcorn, including red and blue. One of his largest clients is Anthropologie – a women’s clothing and home décor store – with 175 stores nationwide. Upon receiving an order from Anthropologie, Newton hires help for sanding broom handles and weighing the broomcorn.
Today, Newton and his wife, Lizzy, cultivate Broomcorn Johnny’s while living in an 1830s log cabin near Elizabeth, Indiana, on the Ohio River. The property includes a fully furnished cottage the Newtons have established for guests to lease for access to his studio and gallery. “We invite visitors to come and learn how to construct their own broom using antique equipment,” Newton says. “This is part of my effort to educate people about craftsmanship.”
At the end of a stay guests return home with a broom they have made. “The experience they receive creating something useful is priceless,” Newton says, adding that the cottage is available year round.
Newton attends several art shows and events each year, mostly within a day’s drive, including Louisville. He has been asked to attend shows in New England and Pennsylvania and has even sold brooms as props for filmmakers.
Newton’s busy schedule as a craftsman convinces him his craft has a steady future. “I think broom makers will always be around,” he says. “As long as people like old-time crafts, we’ll have a place.”