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Élan Young photo
David Ogle can been seen working hard most of the time, but he also welcomes visitors who want to chat.
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The carved handles aren’t just beautiful, though they certainly are that. They are also high-quality carvings because each is made from a single piece of wood. “A lot of your carvings, you’ll find it’s in two pieces,” Ogle explains. “The top part’s been done and then glued on. None of ours are glued.” Furthermore, all of his carvings are done by hand with chisels—no machines needed.
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Élan Young photo
Tools of the trade
Tammie stitches the broomcorn with the same needle that David's Pop made from a flattened bridge nail.
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David’s father made the broomcorn cutter out of a crosscut saw.
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A matter of time
In this fast-paced world, not everyone understands or appreciates the time it takes to carve something by hand. “People might come in and want a horse head carving, and they think I can carve it in 30 minutes,” Ogle says. “They don’t realize the process that goes into it. A horse head will take about 3 1/2 hours to carve and to finish it up for a staff or a broom handle. People look at the price, they don’t look at the quality no more.”
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David warns that once people start collecting brooms, it can be hard to stop. “We’ve got people with as many as forty or fifty of these brooms hanging in their house,” he says.
Walking into Ogles’ Broom Shop, one is struck by its small quarters, tucked in the back of Jim Gray’s Gallery on the Arts and Craft loop in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Golden brooms with all manner of carved wooden handles line the walls where the sweet smell of broomcorn, the plant that makes up the straw bristles of the broom, is being cut and fashioned to fit each handmade treasure. Vacationers and craft buyers poke their heads into the shop and are instantly welcomed by the David and Tammie Ogle, a couple whose lives are entirely devoted to this one dying craft.
David’s great uncle, Lee Ogle, and his wife, Lillie, started making brooms in the 1920s. David’s father, Wayne, took over the business in the 1960s. “Daddy helped make brooms a little, but he made custom furniture for years,” David said. “Then Pop—that’s what we always called my great uncle, he wanted to be called Pop—then Pop wanted Daddy to take the business because he wanted it left in the family, and Daddy took over in the 1960s. I started helping out when I was 13, and I did it full time at 16. I’ve been doing it now for 47 years.”
Ogle never imagined he’d be making brooms this long, but now he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“When I was little, Pop offered to train me to do brooms, and he would pay me $2 per dozen,” he recalls. “Back then my allowance was a dollar a week, so I thought I’d make some more money. The first broom I ever put together took me eight hours. I thought, ‘This isn’t gonna work out too good.’ But I enjoyed it.”
It’s clear Ogle thoroughly enjoys his craft, otherwise he might have quit long ago out of sheer exhaustion. He typically works in the shop eight hours a day, then goes home to work another six to eight hours. “I sand, finish and do all my handle carvings at home,” he says. “The brooms I worked on this morning are made with the handles I finished last night.” A standard straight-handled broom takes about an hour and half to complete. “The fancy ones we’ve got took anywhere from two and half to eight hours work,” he says. Even with the repetition of the labor, he doesn’t get bored, partly because there are twenty-two different styles of brooms. “It ain’t like working in a factory job,” he says.
If his wife, Tammie, didn’t work with him helping to stitch the broomcorn, she might not see him at all. “That’d be good,” she teases with a smile.
“She says I work too much,” says David.
“What do you do when you get out of here on Sunday?” she pretends to scold him.
“Work in the shed and plant flowers. I carve a while, plant flowers a while,” he replies.
Tammie protests by exposing his true work habits. “Nope. He stays in the shed. Leave him out there, I guess. I don’t have to look at him,” she jokes. “He says he’s only going to do six broom handles, and he come in and he’s done a dozen. He lie like a dog.”
David finally admits, “I’m a workaholic, but it’s more of a playaholic.”
To that, Tammie only has a one-word response: “Shew.”
Ogle says he has a piece of every kind of wood that grows in the mountains. From November to late March he will scour the woods and the countryside looking for wood to make good handles. “It ain’t all locked up in here all the time,” he says with a smile. “We store about 3,500 to 4,000 handles a year, ‘cause you have to figure a lot of them will crack and bust, so you have to get actually more than what you need because of the curing process,” he says. “We heat dry most of the handles, but some of them we let natural dry.”
The different styles of carvings are something that David started doing in the 1960s, which differs from the solid straight handles from his father’s and Pop’s days. He also started making the highly sought-after hiking sticks, some even embedded with tiny compasses. One of the more popular carvings adorning both the brooms and many of his hiking sticks is an old man’s face. “We call him mountain man because it represents our ancestors,” David said. He also offers choices of handles with animal head carvings that can be custom ordered. Even some of the bottoms of the brooms have a decorative touch with what he calls “shaggy bottoms,” where the broomcorn has not been cut.
Other than the straight-handled brooms, David’s Pop made his own style called the Bo Peep, which has a loop on the top of the handle and is made from the whole stalk of broomcorn rather than wood. To this day, it’s one of his best-selling styles.
David calls himself a third-generation broom maker, but in reality the roots of his craft go back four generations. His Pop’s father (David’s great-grandfather) made brooms and took them into town and traded them for other goods like flowers or coffee. “Business-wise we say three generations because he didn’t sell them directly, he traded. His neighbors would raise broomcorn, and he’d get enough to do six and then give them three back and take the three to town to trade. They made baskets too, and chair bottoms, but everyone basically traded all the time.”
Brooms are made out of broomcorn, which is grown similar to corn, but without the ears. The top is full of little seed berries that look like wheat seeds. Each broom will have three rounds of broomcorn on each handle but only the outer one will be visible.
The only product that’s changed since the beginning of the Ogle family broom-making is the waxed nylon thread they’ve stitched with since the 1970s. Prior to this, they stripped away the outer bark of poplar trees and used the soft inner bark to stitch the broomcorn, a practice that killed the tree. David explains that a lot of people would then cut the tree down and use it for firewood. “But when lumber got to selling so high, people didn’t want it done,” he added. “So, I mean you can’t blame them. And the nylon thread makes the brooms last longer.”
“We’re still doing it the original way,” Ogle says about his broom’s construction. “We’re still using the needle that Pop used, which is an old flattened bridge nail. The more you use it, it will stay polished, but if you leave it out it will start rusting.” Ogle then points to what looks like a rustic version of a paper cutter. “See the cutter we use to cut the broomstraw with? That’s made of dad’s crosscut saw,” he says proudly. “He broke the teeth off of it to make a cutter, and I still use it today.” Ogle demonstrates how this is done, and the broomcorn flies off the end with a satisfying crunch.
All the newfangled products on the market don’t bother him much. “They ain’t cut down on our sales,” he says. But like everyone, he has been hit by the tough economy. The last three years have been rougher for him than any other period of his 47-years in business. He remembers a time when people bought brooms for the whole family. “Years ago people would come in and the wife would buy a broom, then they’d buy their mother and mother-in-law a broom,” he says. “Now they usually only buy one. People’s just not making the money, and gas is so high. So many people’s lost their jobs.”
Ogle proudly touts the utilitarian value of his brooms. “They’re guaranteed to never shed,” he says. “They’ll outlast what you buy in a grocery store by six to eight years, and when you do wear ‘em out, we’ll redo ‘em for you.” He seems to have his spiel down pat when he pauses to add, “So, the harder you clean house, the quicker you’ll get to come on vacation again.”
But even his utilitarian argument seems to beg the question: Why in the heck should anybody buy a handmade broom? The answer, of course, is for art.
There’s no doubt that a big part of his clientele are those with disposable income for home décor—people who hang his brooms on walls rather than stow them in utility closets. Recalling a more affluent time, he says, “The highest broom I’ve ever sold was $395. That handle on that particular broom had 9 1/2 hrs of work just on the handle.”
The carved handles aren’t just beautiful, though they certainly are that. They are also high-quality carvings because each is made from a single piece of wood. “A lot of your carvings, you’ll find it’s in two pieces,” he explains. “The top part’s been done and then glued on. None of ours are glued.” Furthermore, all of his carvings are done by hand with chisels—no machines needed.
In this fast-paced world, not everyone understands or appreciates the time it takes to carve something by hand. “People might come in and want a horse head carving, and they think I can carve it in 30 minutes,” he says. “They don’t realize the process that goes into it. A horse head will take about 3 1/2 hours to carve and to finish it up for a staff or a broom handle. People look at the price, they don’t look at the quality no more.”
The Ogles take one day off per week, and the last vacation they took was to a craft show in Florida in 1998. But with no kids of their own, and no interest from his niece and nephew in taking over the shop, it seems like retirement will not happen anytime soon. “I’ll retire when I lay down and grass is over me,” David said.
The Ogles haven’t traveled much, but the world has come to them. Whether to seek out his shop or because they happen to stumble upon it, travelers from all over the world meet David and want to buy a piece of handmade history, and he loves to chat them up. “We met a lady this week from the United Kingdom. She had seen my brooms, and she came over here; we had to custom fit one for her to fit in her suitcase,” he says. “She was telling me about her home town and spent about an hour and half in here until we got her broom custom fit for her. You get somebody from Germany or Israel or someplace like that, and I know I’ll never get to go, but people that live there can tell you about as much as you would learn on a vacation,” he adds. “You can learn about all these places all over the world by all the people coming through the door.”
Their website (www.oglesbroomshop.com) and the wholesale part of the business also help ensure that the brooms travel far and wide into the hands of admirers around the globe. “We were working on an order for a lady the other day, and all of them had to have faces carved in it for her shop. She said where she’s at in Montana, people don’t have stuff like that there. We got two boys in Canada that buy about fifteen or twenty dozen a year,” he says. “And we make a lot of walking and hiking sticks for some of the national parks. The oldest customer we’ve still got left, she’s buying from us for forty years out in California.”
David warns that once people start collecting brooms, it can be hard to stop. “We’ve got people with as many as forty or fifty of these brooms hanging in their house,” he says. An avid collector might stop by to hunt out that special something: “They are always wanting the most unusual piece I got,” he says. Whether for serious collectors or someone looking for a special gift, an Ogle broom feels good in the hands and looks great on the wall.