Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Best Brooms in the World: The story of the Whitmyer Broom Factory

Broomcorn from Schenectady County's Flag.

The symbols on the Schenectady County flag represent industries that helped build Schenectady. The DeWitt Clinton and the Schenectady boat symbolize the railroad and canals that made Schenectady into a shipping hub. The lightning bolt and atom represent General Electric and American Locomotive, two of Schenectady’s most prominent industries. The last symbol on the flag has been confused with a sheaf of wheat, but is actually broomcorn. Before the rise of GE and ALCO, Schenectady County was known for farming broomcorn and manufacturing brooms. Schenectady County was the largest grower of broomcorn, and one of the largest producers of brooms in New York State in the 1800s. Much of the work on broomcorn farms was done by Germans who would also work in the broom factories during the winter months. This work prompted Germans to immigrate to the area in the 1840s through the 1860s.
The Whitmyer Broom Factory after a fire. The factory was located on Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley.
From the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
The Whitmyer’s family immigrated to Schenectady from Germany in the mid-1800s and proceeded to find work in the broomcorn fields and factories. Brothers Charles, Christian and William all worked in Otis Smith’s broom factory who owned a broom factory on the corner of Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley in Schenectady. Their wives, Louisa, Mary and Mary also worked for Smith as the broom industry brought opportunities for both men and women. According to Isaac Whitmyer, Christian Whitmyer’s son, Otis Smith employed about 120 men and 124 women. He also states that, in the corn fields, men would go through and break the stalks off while women would follow and cut the tops off for use in the manufacture of brooms. In the factories, women trimmed and sorted the corn according to the size of the cuts.
Inside of the Whitmyer Broom Factory. In 1947, Harvey Whitmyer was the sole operator of the factory. From the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection
In the 1860s, the Whitmyers bought Otis Smith’s factory and started C. Whitmyer & Company. The Whitmyer brooms were considered some of the best in the United States and they even won 1st prize at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892 for their exhibit. The city directories also show that a Henry Whitmyer owned a broom making factory on 19 North Street in Schenectady. C. Whitmyer & Company was still listed in the 1900 city directory, well past the decline of many other broom manufacturers in Schenectady. By 1902, C. Whitmyer & Company had gone out of business, but Whitmyer brooms were still being produced by Henry Whitmyer. The business stayed in the Whitmyer family until Henry’s grandson Harvey died in 1947. After Harvey’s death, the Whitemyre Broom Company was bought by George Kranick. Surprisingly, Kranick kept the broom making tradition alive and ran the factory as a one-man operation until the mid-1960s.
Close-up of a broom before it is "wound"  from the Whitmyer Broom Factory DVD. From Grems-Doolittle Library Video Collection

Screenshot of the label George Kranick used on his brooms from the Whitmyer Broom Factory DVD. From Grems-Doolittle Library Video Collection

The Grems-Doolittle Library recently received a video that shows George Kranick making his brooms in his factory on 150 Front Street in Schenectady. In the video, he’s using the same machinery, techniques and even the same labels that the Whitmyer’s would have used to make their brooms. It’s an interesting snapshot of a craft that is rarely practiced anymore.

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