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BROOM TALES

October 16, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I are doing what we can to help those in need. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of the local nonprofit agencies that offers critical care in our community. This week, please volunteer for, or donate, as you are able, to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union, an organization that provides services for children and families who have been affected by sexual or physical abuse. To make a gift to the Children’s Advocacy Center, or to learn more about this important work, visit cacsp.org.

            A few years ago, Clare and I enjoyed a meal at a local eatery in early October.  As we finished our meal, I noticed two ladies standing at the checkout. While waiting to pay their tab, they examined a display of brooms placed near the door by the local Lion’s Club. The available selections featured brooms of various sizes and prices.

            “You need a broom for Halloween,” one said to the other.

            “Are you saying I’m a witch?” her companion asked.

            “I’m just saying, you need a broom.”

            “I haven’t been called a witch lately, but I have been called something close to that.”

            “I’ve been called that too. Maybe we both need a broom.”

            I thought about witches I have known. When I was growing up there was an old woman who lived way down beyond my house where the pavement ended and the road turned to red dirt. She had a big, black cast-iron pot in her yard and several mean dogs. One day I walked down there by myself. I heard a shotgun blast. I was pretty sure she shot at me. I thought she might have been a witch.

When I was in high school English class, I encountered three witches as characters in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. I can still remember their chant. 

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

At Halloween, the image of witches riding across the sky on magical broomsticks is common. Where did the notion that witches ride brooms originate? It developed during the early 16th Century in Europe. Witchcraft hysteria erupted in the region and spread like wildfire, punctuated by brutal mass executions of women accused of being witches. Between 1580 and 1630, an estimated 50,000 people were burned at the stake, of whom 80% were women, most over the age of 40.

It was during this time that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth—originally published in 1606. At that time, throughout England, rye was the bread of the common folk. It was a staple in every home.  Rye bread that aged became host to a mold called ergot. In high doses, ergot could be lethal. In smaller doses, it became quite popular among herbalists as a cure. It’s mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare and in writings from the witchcraft age.

Medicinal preparations made from ergot helped to relieve migraine headaches by constricting the swollen blood vessels that caused the pain. One ergot derivative was also useful in preventing hemorrhaging following childbirth by causing uterine muscles to contract. It was also used to ease menstrual difficulties.

Some ancient herbalists applied ergot ointment to the female body using a smooth stick, as, for example, a broomstick. However, ergot is also a source of LSD and the hallucinogenic effects are powerful. Women given this treatment often experienced altered states of consciousness including fanciful flights. Some who observed women under the influence of the drug were convinced that the women were possessed by demons and therefore they were thought to be witches. So brooms, magical flights, and witches became connected in the public mind.

Novelist J. K. Rowling gave us the high-tech broomstick in her popular fantasies about Harry Potter. The first broomstick Harry owned was the Nimbus Two Thousand. The amazing transport allowed Harry to fly through the air, especially in Quidditch matches. But in a competition at Hogwarts in Harry’s third year, he was attacked by Dementors. Rendered unconscious, Harry fell off his broom. The errant Nimbus flew into the Whomping Willow. The tree objected to being hit and smashed Harry’s broom to bits. Later in the epic tale, Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, replaced the Nimbus with a Firebolt, a considerable upgrade in the broomstick world.

In our own house just this week, a young red-haired Ginny Weasley flew through our family room in a Hogwarts robe as she excitedly prepared her costume for Halloween. Our little witch—my nine-year-old granddaughter—rode a very old, very reliable fireplace broom.

Aside from Ginny Weasley, my most recent encounter with a witch was in a television commercial for GEICO insurance. A witch with a sinister laugh flies around a broom manufacturing plant. She stops to snag a fresh broom from one of the intimidated employees and continues her giddy flight. Two guys, one playing the mandolin, the second, a guitar, croon that those who choose GEICO insurance are happier than a witch in a broom factory.  

            Brooms have been used for centuries to sweep caves, campsites, cabins, and castles. In America, making brooms is considered a heritage craft. All American brooms were handmade prior to the eighteenth century.  They were unrefined round brooms made from fibrous materials such as grass, straw, hay, fine twigs, or corn husks.  The broom sweep was tied onto a handle made from a tree branch. Cordage used to tie the broom was woven from hemp and flax. Homemade brooms swept clean the floor and the hearth, but they fell apart easily.

In 1797 a Massachusetts farmer, Levi Dickenson, made a broom for his wife. He used the tassels left over from his harvested sorghum.  His version swept better than others. Dickson started making brooms for his neighbors.

After the invention of the foot-treadle broom machine in 1810, broom shops appeared in many communities. Like the Lion’s Club display at the restaurant, customers were offered a choice of buying a small handled broom for use in tight areas around the fireplace or a long-handled one to sweep the open wood or dirt floors in their homes.

The less ornate craftsmanship of the Shakers changed the design of the round broom in the mid-1820′s.  They eliminated the woven stems up the handle and introduced wire to bind their brooms to the handle.  Using a vise to press the broom flat, it was stitched with linen cord.

By1830, the United States was producing enough brooms to export to other countries in South America and in Europe. The American broom industry thrived until 1994 when foreign brooms were permitted to be imported into the United States, duty-free.

            Brooms play an important role in southern legend and lore. Jumping over the broom is a euphemism for marriage. The exact origin of the custom is uncertain. A commonly held belief is that the practice has roots in Africa. While the origins of this tradition are rooted in a tragic, forced act by enslavers—African slaves in the United States were not permitted legal marriage—centuries later, in some African-American communities, the act of jumping the broom is now a treasured tradition.

Some anthropologists believe that jumping over the broom at weddings was first known in Wales, originating either among the Welsh people themselves or among gypsies living in Wales. If so, the custom must have come to the colonies through Welsh settlers and then transferred to the slaves of the South. When a couple jumps over the broom together, their marriage is confirmed, and they will enjoy a good life together.

The Irish have a saying worth remembering. “A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners”

My grandmother used to say, “Never take an old broom to a new house.” This may explain the southern custom of giving a new broom as a housewarming gift.

Not too long ago, one of our grandsons was helping me sweep the back porch. I used a grandfather-size broom; he used a child’s broom. I was reminded of a couple of old broom superstitions. 

  • Always sweep dirt out the back door, or you will sweep away your best friend.
  • When a child takes a broom and begins to sweep, company is coming.

About that time my grandson’s parents showed up to take him home.

There must be at least a grain of truth in the old legends.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Mama’s Candy Apples

October 9, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I are doing what we can to help those in need. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of the local nonprofit agencies that offers critical care in our community. This week, please volunteer for, or donate, as you are able, to Angels Charge Ministry, an organization that helps women successfully re-enter society after periods of incarceration. Angels Charge provides transitional housing and other essential resources and training for women, young and old. To make a gift to Angels Charge Ministry, or to learn more about this important work, visit angelschargeministry.org

I went into a local store the other day to pick up a few groceries. I was amazed at the vast display of Halloween candy. Judging by the sheer volume and variety of the seasonal confections, many of the folks in our neck of the woods must certainly have a sweet tooth.  Seeing all that candy brought back memories of boyhood days when trick or treating was eagerly anticipated.

One of my favorite Halloween memories is the candy apples that Mama made for the many trick-or-treaters that came to our house. I shared the story in this column several years ago. Since then I have received a request for a repeat. Some want Mama’s recipe for the sugary fruit on a stick; others just enjoy the story.

  On Halloween night, our grandchildren, along with great-nieces and great-nephews, visit their great-aunt Beth’s house to trick-or-treat. My sister Beth follows the tradition started by our mother. She makes candy apples for the costumed little ones who come to her door seeking treats.

The bright red candy apple was an entirely new experience for our grandchildren. After a time of intense licking, they were a sugar-coated sight. Cheeks and lips were crimson, chins and hands were sticky. In their first encounter with a candy apple, they never did get down to the fruit beneath the candy coating. 

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. All Hallow’s Eve was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting “Trick or treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried plastic jack-o-lanterns or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase to stash his booty. He stuffed the second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar—Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers—merited a star.

I learned a lot from Rusty. His advice was to avoid large groups. Two beggars at a time were enough for any home. Five or six together usually got smaller gifts.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole. He never told about the houses with the whipped cream star. On the other hand, he gathered as much information as he could.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum for a Hershey’s Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball Cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside.

One dark night, at a roadside conference, an unlikely clown revealed that there was a “a guy on the other side of Duncan Park Lake giving away silver dollars.”

After the meeting broke up, Rusty said, “Let’s go!”

I knew he meant we were going to the other side of the lake, but the trip was beyond my range and would have taken me long past my curfew. We headed back toward my house.

Rusty stopped at a driveway with a whipped cream star. He took off his pirate’s eye patch, removed the bandana from his head, walked to the door, and collected a second Three Musketeers candy bar from the same house. He added a second whipped cream star to mark the driveway.   

“I’ll see you later,” he said as he left for the other side of Duncan Park Lake, and I continued toward my home.

Anyone who knew my mother, Louise—Memaw to most folks—knows she could really throw a party. She believed every holiday deserved to be celebrated to the fullest. St. Valentine and St. Patrick got almost as much attention as St. Nicholas.

Halloween was one of her favorite occasions. Orange pumpkins adorned the front porch. Inside our home, glowing jack-o-lanterns and gossamer ghosts were everywhere.

Mama’s contribution to trick-or-treaters was a candy apple, the treat everybody wanted most of all. Mama dipped apples, each fitted with a short, sharpened stick, into a hot candy coating. If you have ever burned your hands with a hot glue gun, you know how dipping a candy apple feels.

Every Halloween, Mama made hundreds. Children came trick-or-treating at our house from all over town.

Mama bought apples by the case from the old Community Cash grocery store at the end of our street. The family took turns at a hand-cranked pencil sharpener putting points on the dowel rods Dad had cut at the lumberyard. The apples were washed and the sticks inserted before Mama cooked the candy. She made many batches, hundreds of candy apples, every Halloween.

My sister Beth, now crowned Queen of the Candy Apples in our family, was willing to share Mama’s recipe, which makes 12-24 candy apples. She said the technique for making the treat can be tricky.

Ingredients:

2 cups sugar

1 package Red Hots (Mama stockpiled these.)

1 tablespoon red food coloring

1 cup water

1 teaspoon vinegar

Directions:

Cook all ingredients to 265 degrees – somewhere between soft and hard crack stage – on a candy thermometer.

Dip apples.

Place on a marble slab greased with real butter.

Wrap in plastic bags when cool.  

Several years ago, I conducted a funeral service for a man who grew up in our neighborhood. Following the funeral, the brother of the deceased fondly told me of coming to our house on Halloween. He said that Mama always invited the children into her kitchen so that she could see their costumes.

“We would get a candy apple, go home, change disguises, and come back for another one.” Then he made a confession. “One year, my brother and I came trick-or-treating at your house four times. We got four candy apples!” Then he added, “Your mother knew. She called us by name and said, ‘You boys have been here four times. I think that’s enough this year.’”

“What made you think you could get away with that?” I asked.

He grinned, “There were four whipped cream stars by your driveway.”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Guitars and Gratitude

October 2, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network, 899 S Pine St, Spartanburg, SC 29302 – (864) 597-0699.

When I was in the ninth grade, my left knee became my Achilles heel. I tore the cartilage playing junior varsity basketball.  My aspirations to play college basketball were shattered, adding insult to injury.

In those days, arthroscopic surgery was not an option. I spent weeks walking on crutches and having my knee drained. Now, instead of staying after school for basketball practice, I had to go home to sit around doing schoolwork. I was miserable.

About a week into my convalescence, my dad did a remarkable thing. He brought home a secondhand Stella guitar. Handing it to me, he said, “As long as you are so unhappy, you might as well learn to play the blues.”

The guitar was an unexpected but welcome gift.

With my knee propped up on a pillow, ice bag strapped on with an Ace bandage. I started trying to learn to play a few chords.

The steel strings on the guitar cut deep into my fingertips.  I developed blisters, and they eventually became calluses. 

A few days later, Dad brought another gift. It was a record album featuring Chet Atkins. I had heard of him from the Grand Ole Opry. Dad gave me a proper introduction.

“This is fellow from East Tennessee who traded a handgun for his first guitar. He taught himself to play in the restroom at school. He said the acoustics were better there.”

I became a fan of Chet Atkins and began collecting his albums. His style of picking was unique, and the sound was smooth and clear. Since that time, I have expanded my enjoyment of good guitar music. Tommy Emmanuel, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy are all on my playlist. So, too, are several very talented women like Bonnie Raitt, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Elizabeth Cotton, and Joni Mitchell.

I spent hours strumming that old Stella, long since gone. I moved on to a Fender and a Martin and beyond. I am not an accomplished guitar player. I have arthritis and can no longer play as I once did. But I enjoy playing and singing with our children and our grandchildren.  We sing fun songs like “The Marvelous Toy” and “The Barn Dance.” We enjoy classic country tunes like “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” and “Sixteen Tons.” We join in railroad songs like “The City of New Orleans” and “John Henry.” I enjoy teaching them hymns and spirituals like “Precious Lord, Take my Hand” and “Peace in the Valley.”

I will be forever grateful to my dad for that first guitar.

The guitar is one of a long line of stringed instruments dating back over 4000 years. The plucked stringed musical instrument probably originated in Spain early in the 16th century, deriving from the guitarra Latina, a late-medieval instrument with a nipped-in waisted body and four strings.

After a few months, when it became clear that my interest was more than passing, my dad wondered if I needed lessons. My teacher was Jerome Fowler, a resident of Clifton Mill #2, near Spartanburg. Mr. Fowler was one of the most unique people I have ever known.  He had been the Minister of Music at a Methodist Church. He not only worked in the mill, but he also served as the band director at the mill. His language was salty. His teeth were usually in a glass on top of the piano. He smoked cigars.

An accident left Mr. Fowler with a broken arm that healed improperly. He could not hold a guitar. But he understood the instrument as if he had invented it. He could hold a mandolin, which he played while I played the guitar. He often stopped to press my fingers into the right places on the fretboard. He used the Gibson Guitar Course, teaching scales and runs, bar chords, and harmonics.

Again, the guitar inspires a sense of gratitude. I am thankful for Mr. Fowler.

Joe Bennett and three buddies started a band, The Sparkletones, in 1956 at Cowpens High School. Joe Bennett, originally from Glendale, had also taken guitar lessons from Jerome Fowler.

In January 1957, Bob Cox, a talent scout for The Columbia Broadcasting System, held auditions at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. The Sparkletones took first prize at the event. Convinced they would be a success, Cox quit CBS to manage the group and flew them out to New York City to sign with Paramount.

At their first recording session, they sang “Black Slacks.” Released as a single soon after, “Black Slacks” became a hit and built up national recognition. The Sparkletones toured the nation doing numerous concerts and performing on “The Nat King Cole Show,” “American Bandstand,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  “Black Slacks” remained on the record charts for over four months, peaking at number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 late in 1957.

Before his illness and death, Joe and I got together occasionally. I took a few lessons from him to renew some of my guitar skills. We sometimes ate breakfast together at Dolline’s in Clifton. We talked about what life had been like for both of us. We were two old codgers sharing memories.

Joe served in the Air Force in Vietnam. He was an air traffic controller. Maybe his most important job was to play his guitar at the Non-Commissioned Officers Club. The commander was trying to keep the soldiers on base instead of having them go into Saigon, where they could get into trouble.

Joe said, “Every day, somebody there got a Dear John letter. I played every broken-hearted song there is to play. I bet I played ‘Your Cheating Heart’ five hundred times.”

Joe shared a remarkable story. Years ago, the Sparkletones were playing a concert in Hartford, Connecticut. They were opening for Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. The place was packed out.

Just before the show, two kids from Brooklyn, Tom and Jerry, were to make their first appearance ever. The promoter had asked them to sing one song. Joe explained that the two young men were scared to death.

Joe said, “You guys need to know that this is probably your best chance. You have a great audience here. They have come to hear good music. The promoter thinks you have the talent to do this. Just go out there and give it your best shot.”

The two singers, Tom and Jerry, were a knockout! People loved them. A few years later, they changed their names to Simon and Garfunkel.

Several years ago, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did a reunion concert in Central Park before thousands of people. About halfway through that concert, Paul Simon said to Art Garfunkel, “Why don’t we play ‘Black Slacks’?” They broke into the old song, and Joe said, “We have gotten more royalties off of their recording of that song than we ever made off of our recordings.”

What were Simon and Garfunkel doing? They were using the guitar to express their gratitude.

When I hear Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, or Joe Bennett play the guitar, I could feel envious, but I know that the best medicine for envy is gratitude.

I listen, and I am thankful.

Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet of old, wrote,” We will sing our songs to the Lord with stringed instruments.” That is our highest expression of gratitude.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com