Blind owner operates last broom factory in Md. THE SWEEP OF HISTORY

Jacques Kelly

September 21, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Howard Overman's new brooms always sweep clean.

The owner of Maryland's last broom factory turns out 900 dirt expellers a week from a tiny, back-street East Baltimore workroom. It's hard to believe that every broom sold by the sprawling Rite Aid drug store chain has its origin in this three-man work bench of industry.

"The competition from Mexico has killed off just about all the Baltimore broom makers. I don't want to retire. I don't take much out of this business. It's the only job I've ever had," Overman said the other day as he stood at his stitching machine.

The little factory on Bradford Street, a few blocks from the Northeast Market, is a hard-working museum that survives on long hours, few coffee breaks, metal lunch boxes and calloused hands.

The clanking machinery is belt driven. There are a few electric lights overhead and not many more concessions to modern ways. The heating plant is a Warm Morning coal stove. The cooling system is an electric fan. The floor is uneven. And judging by the willingness of the people who labor here, it's a great little place to work.

The broom factory has long beat the odds stacked against it: the larger competitors, the overseas trade and faltering economies.

"My father made brooms but lost his job in the Depression. I was a junior at City College taking the commercial course in 1933. He asked me one day if I'd like to leave school and join up with him in starting a broom business. I always wanted to work with my hands.

"My father had $150 he'd withdrawn from the old Baltimore Trust Co. before it folded. He'd heard a rumor the banks were closing and got some of his money out. He used it to buy the broom equipment -- all hand-operated -- of a little place on Exeter Street.

"Even in the Depression, broom-making was a pretty good job. My father made as much as a policeman or fireman. Within six months, we began buying some new equipment. We worked and we worked, six days a week, from 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night. I also sold the brooms to neighborhood grocery stores. My mother painted the broom handles," Overman said.

He served in the Mediterranean during World War II. He landed in Italy and France, where he was wounded in the eye. Over the years, his eyesight has deteriorated. Today, he's legally blind. His hands seem to know instinctively how to run the fingers over the flying parts of the stitching machine.

"My wife, Niala, does all the book work from our home. Without her, we couldn't survive," he said.

Overman has two employees, Tony Cucina, who's been with him for 30 years, and Bob Adkins, a 19-year veteran.

Adkins' hands move faster than any machine. He flips handfuls of corn (sorghum) and sotol fiber around wood dowels as though he's spinning cotton candy. With a few more rapid movements, he has wrapped a wire band around the broomstraw and made what appears to be a primitive broom, the type a witch might ride on Halloween. This partially finished product goes on to Overman for stitching and to Cucina for trimming. The whole operation moves amazingly fast. The three men make about 180 brooms a day.

Adkins' palms and fingers display the evidence of his many hours at the factory handling the dry, twiggy corn fiber, the raw material in a broom's head.

"There's nothing wrong with a calloused hand. More people should have them," he said.

The firm makes several sizes and grades of brooms. "People think the greater the number of strings on a broom the better it is. I don't think so. Five or six strings, it doesn't make any difference," Overman said.

The broomstraw in his Black Beauty model is dyed black and is laced with five strings. Its paper wrapping contains a picture of a prancing horse.

Most of his broomsticks get a bright-color lithographed label pasted on them. The labels, much like the band on a cigar, appear little changed in design from the turn of the century. Goods made for retailers get their own packaging.

"We once had eight fellows working here. Now we're three. But I've educated all my children and I don't intend to stop working. This business just keeps me going," he said.

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