Sweeping up a bit of Vermillion’s history

People attending Sunday's Christmas festival at the W.H. Over Museum also received a glimpse of a unique part of Vermillion's past.

On display in the museum are many of the original trappings of The Vermillion Broom Factory, which goes down in history as one of the longest, continual operating family operations in the community.

"This is the complete contents of this business that functioned here for almost 100 years within one family, said Larry Bradley, president of the board of directors of the W.H. Over Museum and chairman of Anthropology Department at the University of South Dakota.

The exhibit includes labels that one time were affixed to brooms made in the 1800s, and a couple of the actual brooms that were made here.

The display also includes three main pieces of machinery from The Vermillion Broom Factory. "The first piece of equipment actually turned the broom and you would apply the broom corn to it, and it would wrap the wire around it. A second machine here would flatten the broom, and allow you to hand-stitch it," Bradley said.

A third piece of machinery from factory would allow workers to make either a straight or angled cut of the end of the broom.

Bradley said from start to finish, a worker could make a broom using that equipment in 20 minutes. "Some of these kinds of operations could make 6,000 brooms a year," he said.

According to Burr family members, most of the time the factory was a one-man operation. At times when demand was heavy, however, up to 10 people would work at the business.

"A series of brooms were made, all the way from whisk brooms to hearth brooms to what they called "trailer house" brooms and warehouse brooms – all different sizes," he said. "They were all made totally by hand. There was no electricity used, except for later in the factory's operation. They did use electricity to power equipment to get the seeds off the broomcorn.

"This equipment was made in 1870," Bradley said, further explaining the contents of the museum exhibit, "and the most powerful machinery was foot-powered. Everything is still functional, so we still could make brooms with it today."

The display includes a timeline that points out the development of this unique Vermillion industry. In 1865, Merrick Burr homesteaded two miles north of Vermillion. In 1885, his son, Newton, launched The Vermillion Broom Factory.

Merrick died in 1892, and soon after, William S. Burr, brother of Newton, joined the partnership. A two-story brick building housing the factory was built at 2309 N. University Road.

In 1907, the partnership of William S. and Newton Burr dissolved. William S. Burr died in 1936. The next year, his son, William D. "Bill" Burr resumed the broom factory's operations.

The factory was busy manufacturing brooms until 1983, when it ceased operation.

It's likely that the broom factory wasn't the first manufacturing establishment in Vermillion's long history.

"I'm sure that there were a lot of other operations where people were manufacturing or producing something," Bradley said, "but this one lasted probably longer than any other one, and with the same equipment."

A wide range of people helped make this exhibit possible at the W.H. Over Museum.

"Most of the staff here at the museum has worked on it," Bradley said, "and the university students have spent time on this off-and-on since early summer."

One of the students was working on a master's degree in anthropology. "This was one of her projects," he said, "and we have other students from a museum studies class that helped out."

The Burr family donated the equipment featured in the display to the museum. "Some of the material itself, some of the extra labels, even one of the electric lights that hung in the building were donated," Bradley said, "so we have the entire operation as it was when it was shut down."

More than a quarter century has passed since the last Burr broom was manufactured. The building on University Road that housed the factory is still standing. "A lot of people in town have Burr brooms, and they remember going to this particular location. He (Bill Burr) sold popcorn as well – a lot of people would go out there to pick up popcorn, and they would horseshoe games in the area.

"Apparently, part of the attraction of it all was that it just served as a gathering place from time to time," he said.

The Burr family initially grew the special corn needed to make the brooms. Eventually, they began importing the corn from other areas in the United States. The demise of the factory, in part, came about when supplies of the corn became inadequate.

"Eventually, he (Burr) couldn't get enough corn, and that's when the business kind of collapsed," Bradley said. "What makes this display so interesting is that we have the original equipment from day one when they were in operation, and it's also interesting because it was a specific family operation and it lasted so long."

Megan Olson, a graduate student from USD, who is working on her master's degree in interdisciplinary studies, helped make the museum display a reality.

"Instead of doing a thesis, this was my project," she said, "which was lot more fun than writing a thesis. And, I'm a lifelong Vermillion resident, so it was fun to learn something about Vermillion history."

Olson treasures the opportunity she's had in the last year to work with the Clay County Historical Society. "And the USD graphics department really came through for us. It was fun that this project touches on an important part of Vermillion history, and it coincides with city's sesquicentennial."

She was happy to see many people stop by the exhibit, look over the equipment and other items on display, and learn about an important piece of the community's past.

"I think it's great to bring all of that information out," Olson said. "This factory was here for almost 100 years, and maybe some people didn't know that."

Olson, herself Vermillion native, learned new things about her hometown's past thanks to this project.

"It was a great experience, and I'm glad I could do this," she said. Olson was a 1-year-old when the factory closed, so she had no personal knowledge of its operation when she began her work on this project.

"My family, of course, had heard of the broom factory, and when I brought it up and told them who I was contacting, they knew them," she said.

"Even though this equipment is what we would term archaic and old and so on, it was hand-powered or foot-powered, all of it, and it was functioning right up into the 1980s, and provided income. It didn't have to be electrified," Bradley said.

Other than a single-bulb electric light that hung from the ceiling, and a single piece of electric-powered machinery late in the factory's history that removed seeds from the corn plant material, the only other thing that was plugged in was a radio that Bill Burr operated while building brooms so he could listen to ball games.

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