SCHENECTADY – Before Schenectady was the Electric City or the “City that Lights and Hauls the World,” it was known nationally as Broom City. Although the broom factories in Old Dorp have been silent since the 1960s, many properties in the city that were involved in the industry remain.
Broomcorn cultivation in the United States began in New England in the 18th century. Broomcorn is not actually corn, but a species of sorghum (Sorghum vulgare). While this form of sorghum produces edible berries, the real value in the crop is its sturdy straw-like fronds, which could be bound together to make brooms.
The Shaker community in Watervliet was the first to grow broomcorn in New York State. They began to manufacture brooms in 1798 and sold them commercially on a very small scale in 1805.
The Schenectady County broomcorn industry started in the 1830s because of the fertile soil along the Mohawk River, broom-making machinery manufactured by George Canfield (detailed below) and a rising tide of farmers and factories. By 1845, Schenectady County was the leading broomcorn producer in New York State, growing nearly 50% of the state’s crop. By 1868, Schenectady was the broom-manufacturing center of the U.S.
From the early Dutch days of Schenectady, brooms were made inhouse. These brooms were not fancy, just a simple bunch of coarse weeds or grasses bound together. If a sturdier broom was needed, these rushes would be affixed to a branch. When such brooms broke, more rushes were gathered, and a new broom made.
As the broom industry took hold in Schenectady, native homemade brooms were supplanted for several reasons:
- The brooms were sturdier than the simple homemade affairs.
- As Schenectady became more populous and moved from a farming community to one of business, many city dwellers lost access to their patch of rushes or sorghum.
- As aesthetics became more important, having a stylish, manufactured broom became a symbol of prosperity. For prominent families, professionally made brooms, among other implements, showed that they had escaped from the soil and were better than the rural farmer.
- Rural landowners and prosperous farmers emulated the city burghers for the same reason.
The making of a broom
Broom-making required an extensive array of tools to transform sorghum stalks into brooms. Sorghum reeds were first placed on a sizing bench and sorted for brooms of different sizes and styles.
The sorted reeds were then placed in a broom holder, which clamped the reeds to a broom handle.
A broom vice was then used to squeeze the reeds tightly together.
The compacted reeds were then placed in a broom winder, which spun twine around the sorghum and handle to affix them together.
Finally, the unfinished broom was placed in a broom trimmer, which cut the reeds at the end of the broom into a uniform line.
The first factories in Schenectady appeared in the 1830s and became major manufacturers by the 1850s. Later, Schenectady would become the center of the manufacture of broom making machinery, supplies for broom making, as well as the broom themselves.
The factories varied in size from basements or sheds with a few hands to massive three-story stone edifices employing a few hundred. Farm workers, often from Germany, toiled in the broomcorn fields during the summer and would sign on with the larger broom factories during the winter.
Making brooms was dirty business. Factories were filled with particulates from manufacturing, and dried sorghum reeds and brooms were very flammable. The Great Schenectady Fire of 1861 started in a broom factory in the Stockade.
A respectable business
Broom factory owners maintained high status in the city. Two Schenectady mayors cut their teeth in the broom trade:
- Henry DeForest (mayor 1885-1887) was in the business of making and selling brooms from the mid-1870s to 1883.
- Andrew McMullen (mayor 1865-69) provided supplies for broom making from the 1860s-1886.
Other major broom industrialists included:
- John Dakin, a brass founder and machinist. He made broom machinery in his factories at 512-18 Liberty Street and 108-110 Clinton Avenue from 1885-1899. Eventually, his holdings grew to seven buildings, manufacturing everything needed to make brooms.
- F. T. Van Patten was another manufacturer of Broom machinery. His shop was at the corner of Barrett and State Streets in the 1860s where he remained until he sold the business in 1883.
A September 10, 1880 article in the Daily Union newspaper notes two sales by Van Patten, one to the “the German Colonies in Haifa at the foot of Mount Carmel.”
Another article a year later notes a shipment to Wellington, New Zealand. If broom machinery could be sent to Haifa and Wellington from Schenectady, it could be sent anywhere. It also speaks to fame of Schenectady machinery as it was desired literally halfway around the world.
1 million brooms a year
One of my predecessors — William B. Efner, city historian from 1946-1962 — estimated that Schenectady produced one million brooms a year at the height of the trade.
This would have required an awful lot of sorghum, more than the region could produce. Sorghum was first imported to Schenectady in 1852, when Nicholas H. Swart who had been making brooms as early as 1835 received a shipment from Illinois. Swart produced brooms in his factory at the corner of Church and State Streets until 1858.
Newspaper articles from the period note Schenectady brooms going to New York City, Boston, as far sous Baltimore, and as far west as Chicago and St. Louis. An anecdotal yarn tells of a Schenectady broom making its way to Tinseltown, being used by the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie the Wizard of Oz.
In the late 1880s, almost all the remaining broom factories in the city moved to River Street. These included:
- John G. Daly, 25 River (1889-98); Daly & Barnhard, 25 River (1887, 1899); Charles C. Horstman & Co., 6 River (1884-85), 9-17 River (1885-1887), 15-23 River (1888-1891); Christopher Newhouse, 3 River (1886-87); F. W. Rankin, 26 River (1886-87); John Ulrich, 7 River (1886); Henry Whitmyre Jr, 4 River (1886-1910)
While I can find no city ordinance forcing this, it could have been for quick access to the Mohawk River at one end of the street, and the Erie Canal and the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, some 400 feet away.
This period in the mid-to-late 1880s was something of a golden era in the city, with more businesses involved with the trade than ever before. Interestingly, though, news articles at the time were stating Schenectady “Once Known as Broom City…”
By 1890, the end of the broom business was in sight. From a high of 17 broom and broom machinery factories, only 9 associated businesses entered the 1890s. By the turn of the century just 5 remained. Many of the broom farmers and makers took up with GE or ALCO where the pay was much higher.
The last broom factory
In the 1860s, the Whitmyer family purchased its first factory and started the C. Whitmyer & Company. Whitmyer brooms were among the best in the United States, winning 1st prize at the 1892 World’s Fair in Chicago. Henry Whitmyer started the family’s second broom factory at 19 North Street in the 1880s before moving to River Street. By 1902, the C. Whitmyer & Company had gone out of business, but Henry Whitmyer continued. The business stayed in the Whitmyer family until Henry’s grandson Harvey died in 1947, at which point the company was sold to George Kranick, who kept the Schenectady broom making tradition alive running the factory as a one-man operation until the mid-1960s.
Thank you to the many good folks who contacted me after the first posting in New Tales of Old Dorp. My apologies if I have not yet responded to your question or comment. As city historian, I am a one-man volunteer band, and am busy with many projects both professional and personal, as well as my ongoing medical recovery. I have just finished the editorial work on the revised second edition of Dr. Susan Staffa’s groundbreaking work “Schenectady Genesis, Volume I.” With this done, I have more time to devote to correspondence, and will reach out to you soon.
Chris Leonard is the City Historian of Schenectady.
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