Couple finds creative spark in iron and grass
What started as a simple gift for their daughter 20 years ago has grown into a lucrative and fulfilling post-retirement trade for David "Woody" and Brenda Harman.
Two decades ago, Woody-a metal worker-made a fireplace tool set for their daughter and Brenda made the broom. At the time, both were working in northeast Ohio. Woody at General Motors' Lordstown assembly plant. Brenda training horses.
Today, the work of BrenWood Forge & Brooms appears in catalogs and adorns homes at the exclusive Greenbrier Sporting Club in White Sulphur Springs.
Woody first learned to work with iron when he went to horse-shoeing school in the mid 1970s.
"A blacksmith from Greenfield Village would come in and work with the forges," he said. "I'd go over there and play around with him. That got me interested in doing the iron work. And I've been tinkering with it ever since."
Meanwhile, in the course of working with horses, Brenda learned horsehair hitching and weaving.
"I made my own lead ropes for the horses," she said. "I also did some horse tack with leather."
When the two moved to Pocahontas County around 2003, Woody said he came here with the idea of establishing himself as a blacksmith, while Brenda said she was looking for something she could do from their new home near Hillsboro, overlooking Spice Run.
Woody was among the first members of the Pocahontas County Artisan Co-operative Gallery in Green Bank. Soon after that, he was being commissioned to create fireplace screens, tools and hinges for homes at the Sporting Club. Nearly two decades after she had made her first broom for their daughter's fireplace set, Woody asked Brenda to make another for a fireplace set he was making for a homeowner at the Greenbrier Sporting Club.
"I said if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do a nice one," she said.
Just three years ago, Brenda took some broom-making classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. Her gift for broom-making manifested itself quickly. Within a year, she became a juried exhibitor at Tamarack.
Brenda makes all sizes of brooms, from vegetable scrubbers to floor brooms. Her large Man's Porch Broom bears a label that states "big enough to scare a bear off your back porch."
To her knowledge, no other broom maker uses the varying colors of twine that she uses in tying her brooms. There are about 2,000 people in the U.S. who make brooms by hand. Brenda is in the minory of those 2,000 as someone who hand-ties her brooms, versus those who use the easier method of mechanically tying the brooms with wire. She has a special tying table that features a long spool that runs horizontally at floor level. She keeps tension on the spool with her feet while pulling the twine taught with her hands as she winds and weaves it around the tops of the brooms.
She then sews the brooms with a variety of colors and designs.
"I try to vary them all by my sewing techniques," she said "I try to use different colors and different stitches."
She also grows her own hybrid broom corn to accent the bulk of the corn she uses in her brooms, which is grown in Mexico. While there are no commercial growers of broom corn in the U.S., Brenda says she has tried to convince some local farmers to grow broom corn as a niche product.
Her broom handles are all locally grown, so to speak. When she and Woody take to the trails near their home on horseback, they look for downed branches.
"Woody has developed this eye for unique broom handles," she said. "We look for ones that have buck rubs or lightning strikes, scar tissue, knot holes."
The most popular handles, she said, are those that have spiraling grooves in them where a honeysuckle vine wrapped itself around the branch.
"Each one's different," Woody said, "because nature's making these. Not us. We might highlight some of the handles, but nature put the prime ingredient there."
Woody's own work in iron takes strong cues from nature. He sculpts iron into highly-figured, organic forms, such as leaves, branches and vines with painstaking detail.
"Most of my work has nothing plain on it anywhere," he said "I have to hammer it someplace or texture it in some way. I don't like leaving any plain spots."
In the same way that he finds broomhandles lying on the forest floor, Woody is also a recycler and scavenger at heart when it comes to metal.
"When I don't have money to buy metal to work with, I have old rakes here," he said. "I tear them apart and recycle the metal. I've got scrap metal laying every place. There's very little I ever throw out."
Some customers take pride in the recycled origins of his work.
"Some door hinges that I did at the Greenbrier Sporting Club used parts off a rake for the pins," he said "I told the owners that, and they consider that a bragging point."
Looking around the Harmans' own home, it quickly becomes apparent that all their pieces are highly functional. The pieces they make aren't knick-knacks that have to be picked up and dusted. Instead, they're hooks, handles, hinges, curtain tiebacks and curtain rods, pot-scrubbers over the sink, a broom propped up in the corner.
While some who buy Brenda's brooms say they are too pretty to use, she is the first to say she wants to see her handiwork used to sweep the kitchen floor rather than hung up for display.
Woody says he enjoys making something unique and seeing someone take pleasure in something he has made.
As for what can be made from iron, he says the only limit is one's imagination.
"You can make anything if you can figure out how to do it," he said. "That's one of the things I really like about doing the iron work. It's the ability to take something that's rigid and unbendable, heating it up in the forge, and making something artistic out of it."
The Harmans' brooms and iron work are starting to appear in homes well beyond Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties. They're now filling orders from a catalog distributor, while Brenda is selling brooms to a few wholesale distributors.
As for that first broom she made 20 years ago for her daughter, Brenda said she'd like to make a new one, using the new techniques she has learned in recent years.
"It was kind of a crude one," she said with a laugh. "I've since tried to replace it, and she won't let me. She wants to keep the original."
Locally, the work of Brenda and Woody Harman can be found at the Pocahontas County Artisan Co-operative Gallery, Gunthers General Store, The Old Hardware Gallery and The Pretty Penny Cafe. Their work can also be viewed online at forgeandbroom.com.