Birch Brooms: Folklore Meets Function

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Apr 18, 2018 11:41 AM

If you are doing some shopping this May, you are safe to purchase pretty much anything you want. But don't you dare buy a broom. 

That's the stern warning of many in Newfoundland and Labrador, including Terra Barrett's mother.

“I started looking around for houses in April, and when I started looking, my mother bought me a broom,” Terra says. “She didn’t want me to buy a house in May and have to buy a broom, because then I’d sweep my family away. She didn’t want me to have bad luck. My mom is very superstitious; her mother is very superstitious as well. A lot of the superstitions she has come from her mother.”

Terra’s mother and grandmother are not the only Newfoundland and Labrador moms with broom concerns. In 1968, Memorial University student Virginia Dillon noted that on the Southern Shore, folks held the same belief. “I have heard of no examples to ‘prove’ this, but to this day my own mother will not buy a broom in May, nor will she allow anyone to buy her one,” she wrote.

In an old Fogo Island story, a woman was warned against buying a broom in May. According to the legend, she bought it anyway, and a few days later her child died. With stories like these in circulation, it’s no wonder that mothers were worried.

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Birch brooms had many uses in Newfoundland and Labrador, from sweeping out fishermen's rooms and clearing snow off bridges, to sweeping kitchen floors and even signalling that no one is home.

Brooms are also purported to predict the arrival of visitors, something Grace Shears learned from her grandmother, Annie Gillis, of Highlands in western Newfoundland.

“I remember her telling us as small children, whenever a broom fell and it landed across a doorway that company was coming. Very seldom was it wrong!” Grace says. “I still say it.”

A broom leaning across a closed door might mean something very different, especially if you are from St. Brendan’s, McCallum or Tilting. 

“Almost everyone uses a broom to signify that they are not home. It’s really common in Tilting,” says Paddy Barry. “If the broom is there, everyone knows [they] shouldn’t be entering your house because you’re away. Good as a padlock! If you want to be really secure, use the birch broom.”

“Running” a Birch Broom
For such a simple object, birch brooms have a long history in Newfoundland and Labrador folklore, and the expression “hair like a birch broom in the fits” is still used by many frustrated parents getting their children ready for the day ahead. 

Birch brooms are handmade brooms whittled from a single piece of birch, with one end of the piece of wood stranded and peeled back to form the brush. Once employed by street sweepers in St. John’s to clear a path for pedestrians, or used by fishermen to clean out their punt, birch brooms are no longer a common sight. Many of the old broom makers, like Heber Heffern of Salvage or Nigola “Nickly” Jeddore of Conne River, are no longer with us. 

Joshua Young is one of the remaining birch broom masters. Originally from the southwest coast of Newfoundland, he now lives in Mount Pearl and is still a deft hand at “running” a broom. All he needs is an axe, a sharp knife, strong line, a length of dark red birch with few or no knots from his favourite spot along the Burgeo Highway, and patience. An experienced broom-maker like Joshua can transform a stick of birch into a broom in under 90 minutes. 

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Joshua Young of Mount Pearl learned the art of birch broom making while growing up in Grey River on the southwest coast.

“Most everyone in Grey River could run a broom,” Joshua remembers. “You’d have a couple in your house, year-round. You’d have it for brushing your kitchen floor, brushing the snow off your boots in the wintertime, brushing off your bridge, cleaning off your boats in the spring of the year, clearing off your fishing stage. There were so many purposes you could use it for.

“I learned from my parents. Dad would be sitting by the old kerosene lamp, by the woodstove, in the nighttime, running out a broom, telling stories or singing a song. He was Jacob Young; my mother’s name was Phoebe.”

Joshua’s godmother’s husband was known locally as “The Broom Man” - a prolific maker of brooms. “I’d go to their house, and the old fellow would be sitting there, running a broom, telling stories, and I’d be watching him. I went down to visit him and he said, ‘Josh, I’ve got so many brooms I can’t get rid of them!’” Joshua went upstairs and the old fellow had brooms everywhere, stuck under the bed and piled up in the corners.

“I said, ‘You have got a lot of brooms!’ So I went down to my boss on the wharf, and said, ‘I want some brooms for the Cold Storage.’ The boss said, ‘We can’t get any!’ and I said, ‘Oh, I can get you some brooms!’”

Josh got on the phone and ordered 13 dozen brooms from The Broom Man. “By golly, he had them on the ferry the next morning to Burgeo!”

I met up with Joshua and got him to run me a broom. His skill with the knife and wood is incredible as he carefully peels back the bristles of the broom one at a time. He whittles out the shorter under-brush section first, then reverses the stick, peeling the outer bristles in the opposite direction, folding them back over the ones previously carved, then tying them off with line. The long handle is then chopped and planed down to the right thickness, and the broom is ready for sweeping. 

“Nothing against the younger people today, but most aren’t going to take the time to learn something like that,” Joshua says. “We grew up with it, that was our heritage. It was all about survival; nothing was wasted.”

Each of his brooms is a unique work of art, and a testament to Joshua’s familiarity with his tools and materials. He makes brooms for friends and family, and has sold his work in craft stores across the island. Today, you might be lucky enough to purchase one of Joshua’s brooms in shops on the Northern Peninsula, or at the Colony of Avalon Craft Shop in Ferryland. 

Just don’t buy your broom in May. - Story and photos by Dale Jarvis

Lynne Parks

Where can you purchase one of Joshua’s brooms? Thank you!