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The Boykin Broom Lady

My grandmother Mimi never learned how to drive. After I proudly earned my driver's license I became her designated driver in the summer time, freeing up my granddaddy for more important tasks. One of my least favorite destinations was a country church cemetery. Who cared who was buried in those plots marked by faded-out gravestones? Row after row of tiny markers were gloomy, all those babies dying right after they were born. Depressing. Mimi carefully pulled weeds and arranged plastic flowers, reminiscing of times long gone and people I never heard of, hoping I guess that maybe some of the facts would stick in my teenage brain.

Then we'd head for a nearby farm where she and her friend would sit around the kitchen table, sip hot coffee and chat. Who wanted to listen to old people talk about the "good old days?" It's amazing how much today I wish I could turn back the clock, listen to Mimi's carefully told tales of her aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings, events and times and places.

Several weeks ago my brother and his family, Tim and I did something we'd never done before. We traveled from Florence over to Boykin, South Carolina and stepped back in time. It's a tiny little place with an interesting history. The last Union soldier killed in the Civil War died at Boykin's Mill on April 18, 1865. A tall monument marks that battle. The old grist mill still operates, and a few hundred yards away so do several country stores and a restaurant (you need reservations for the steak house). There's a historic old church with slave quarters on the second floor.

Then we discovered The Broom Place and Craft Shop operated by Susan Simpson, better known as "The Broom Lady." A well-preserved 1740's settler's house (listed on the National Historic Register) serves as Susan's workshop where she uses antique tools to turn out handmade brooms just as they were a hundred years ago. As she worked and we talked, I discovered Susan's impish sense of humor I guess she's used to dumb questions after all these years.

She started handmaking brooms in Asheville, North Carolina back in 1969 after working in an office for some years and moved to Boykin 24 years ago. She claims she used to be very shy, therefore she started out with wholesale sales only. After a while she got curious about what people actually wanted to buy and attended a craft show or two.

With new inspiration and enthusiasm, she defeated her shyness, switched to retail sales and started entertaining visitors and customers while she worked. Susan's brooms now reside in all 50 states and 29 countries, with Australia and Switzerland added to the list just in the last month.

As several other out-of-town visitors waited on her to complete their purchases, I browsed through the antiques that fill the little building. Mounted over a doorway is a broom well over a hundred years old. Except for looking well-used, it closely resembles the one she's stitching on now. I turned back to watch as she skillfully threaded colorful cord through the straw and bound it off, then gathered up a new batch of straw to start another broom.

I asked if anything particularly memorable had happened in the years she's had her shop open to the public. One day three ladies came in and observed her at work for half an hour or so, asking questions and making small talk while they waited for their brooms to be created. They watched Susan mount the straw in a vise, operate the heavy clamp to keep it tightly in place, then hand-stitch the broom into the finished product.

Suddenly one lady asked, "Do you actually make the brooms here?" One of her companions rushed out onto the porch, doubled over in laughter. "Where have you been the last thirty minutes?" the third woman asked, dumbfounded. I guess when you're used to the idea of manufacturing plants and assembly lines, a single handcrafted broom-in-the-making becomes invisible to the naked eye! Several other stories were funny, poignant, or risque... she'll tell you about those if you ask.

Since Mimi isn't here for me to ask the questions I should have asked when I was little, that trip back in time made for a pleasant afternoon substitute. If you've never had a chance to visit Boykin it's worth the drive over, just an hour or so from Florence. Give me a call if you need directions.


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