In the last week of September 2017, my wife and I decided to do a quick eight-day road trip to the West Kootenays; two reasons, explore some new areas of British Columbia and secretly I wanted to photograph more people for my Back to The Land project. My wife continues to give me evil eyes if I don’t even humour the idea of bringing her along. Like any trip, we stop where ever we can pitching a tent in lieu of a hotel, cook food roadside because we can, annoy each other when we are bored and always keeping a keen interest to explore the things we both enjoy. Our approach may be slightly different from some and our motto is simple; we stop if it feels good and we keep going if it doesn’t. For us, it’s about trusting our intuition and just letting it happen. I know it sounds hippie-dippy, but unless you’ve ever made a conscious effort to just let shit happen, trust me, it may surprise you where paths lead and what doors open; figuratively and literally.
We departed on my wife’s birthday and stopped in the town of Fernie for a quick lunch at the Lunch Box so we didn’t get the road-trip runs from some of the other highway options; rhymes with Schmack-nonalds. After a few hours with some stop-and-go road construction, the subtle changes of vegetation as we headed west, we finally landed in Creston and decided to spend the night as we had about an hour of light left in the day. With the fall harvest in full swing, a plethora of pumpkin varieties lined the roadside market stalls with incredible beautiful bright oranges, greens, yellows and tans. Our eyes wide and with just a look, words were not necessary as we already knew what the other was thinking; on the way home we’ll stock up. The orchard pickers were gone for the season and we asked a woman at a street stall where might be a good place to camp for the night. She mentioned a spot where the pickers set up shop during the summer months at Canyon Park. Located just outside of the main town, there was not a single vehicle or human around. Ecstatic we had the entire campground to ourselves, we set up for the night and made Kraft dinner in the dark with a nightcap of whiskey to celebrate the start of our little road trip through the Kootenays.
The next morning we grabbed a coffee and decided to explore Creston a little before hitting the road. We walked into King Fisher Used Books and were blown away by the selection. We spent about an hour there and had a great conversation with the owner and a few other customers with recommendations and spots to check out along the way including a broom maker in Crawford Bay.
As we headed north, this stretch of highway is nothing short of stunning giving you brief glimpses of Kootenay Lake between the trees as you drive past. We stopped for lunch just in time as our hangries were borderline leading to a domestic. In the late afternoon, we pulled into the village of Crawford Bay with signs forcing you to slow down and I’m glad they did. Character shops and artisan studios refurbished out of older houses and barns line each side of the highway, doors open to the fresh mountain air as if inviting you in for a warm hug. We stopped and started to explore enjoying the last few hours of sun that warmed the valley. My wife noticing a store selling what looked like hand-made blankets, one of her guilty pleasures, she immediately set her course with a muffled “meet you in 20” seeing only the back of her head and halfway across the highway. Taking the advice from a customer in the bookstore in Creston, I noticed the North Woven Broom shop he had mentioned. A warm glow of the interior lights leaking to the outside, barn doors wide open, like a moth to a flame I couldn’t help myself. Immediately I was in another world. There were brooms of various shapes, sizes, and textures floor to ceiling; the urge to re-read the Harry Potter series suddenly came back. I noticed a tall individual with red hair and genuine smile helping other customers, so I took five minutes to look around taking in all the smells and textures. I approached the tall gentleman who was working away, building a broom with a foreign piece of machinery that looks as though was being powered by magic itself. I introduced myself as you do. The man’s name was Luke and I started asking questions which I’m sure were no different from every other third person who walks into his shop. Still intrigued and wanting to know more, I asked if he would sit for a portrait. Luckily he happily obliged and said “How about in an hour”?
As Luke continued to work away on a broom he was fastening, I set-up my gear and tried to stay out of his way and not disrupt the last few customers of the evening before closing. The portrait took about 20 minutes and we talked about a lot of things in regards to his life and why brooms. The whole encounter left me elated with joy. How could you not enjoy the company of a man who loves what he does, see the value in craft and a genuinely kind person? I asked Luke if I could send him a list of questions to answer, that way I didn’t have to take any more of his time as he was in the final days of closing shop for the season and re-opening in the spring. This is what he had to say.
• Where are you from?
I was born here on Kootenay Lake but grew up in Ontario.
• What’s your background with regard to your life growing up?
My dad is a woodwork teacher, that meant I had a very hands-on childhood; I was always doing creative things. I wasn’t excluded from projects and encouraged to make things. My parents were sort of back to the landers, they both valued having tactile experience and believed it was important for me to have a rich aesthetic experience by doing things and spending time with natural materials. Wooden toys, bark, and natural objects were my main toys. I spent a good part of my formative years in an old farmhouse outside of Toronto which gave me a unique perspective between a rural and very urban place. In high school, I was very fortunate to attend a special art-focused high school that challenged me to translate my creative impulses and expressions. I moved on from that to achieve a degree in Environmental Studies at York University. I found a community of people that could more readily appreciate the fine balance that my life had been between closeness to the land, tradition, history and the hurricane of change and development that is urban life. Here at the broom shop, I live in a community of craftspeople working in one of the most beautiful parts of Canada.
• How did you come to Crawford Bay?
Crawford Bay is a very special place. The Artisans of Crawford Bay, of which I am a part, practice their crafts in studios open to the public and provide an opportunity for people to experience craftsmanship at its finest. But it doesn’t end there; there’s a natural beauty amongst the mountains and clear water of Kootenay Lake that is unequivocal. I spent many summers visiting Kootenay Lake and always knew it was a beautiful part of the world that I wanted to spend more time in. I started working in the Rockies for Jasper National Park when I was still in University in Ontario. I had a summer job that I kept doing for six seasons, continuing even after graduating and staying out west. I started really planning to move to The East Shore of Kootenay Lake before my last season working at Jasper when I first began working with my aunt and uncle here at North Woven Broom.
• How did you start making brooms?
I got into this craft because of my family. My aunt and uncle have made brooms in this small barn for over 20 years and as they began to think about retirement so I showed up with a keen interest in learning traditional skills and crafts. I grew up making things; I always worked with tools and art supplies. After finishing school in Ontario I had resolved that working with my hands was very important to me. My interest in brooms has grown as I spend time with the craft. Brooms have a rich and deep history that’s very easy to overlook. Some version of the broom was probably one of the first ways that people had for caring for a home and is still an everyday object in modern life. The first stage in our process that I began learning was the woodwork as we do all the finishing of our unique broom handles ourselves and I had previous woodworking experience. I worked with a carpenter in high school and had helped with a couple of timber framing projects shortly before getting into brooms.
• How long have you been making brooms?
I made my first broom in 2012 and have been making brooms ever since. I spent about three years learning the different stages and intricacies of the craft before taking over the business.
• What is the material called and where does it come from.
The material for our brushes is 100% natural broomcorn, which is also called sorghum vulgare. We use the immature flower tassel of the plant for the brush and the stem to weave the brush onto the handle. The broom corn we use is grown in northern Mexico which is now the nearest big producer. We use a variety of woods for our handles which I find and finish myself.
• With your machinery, can you provide a little insight into its history and origins?
I have several tools from different eras in broom making history. I use them all on a daily basis to produce my brooms. I have a hand winder that is a very old design, mine is from the 1940s and I have an electric winder from the 1930s; these two machines are used to build the broom onto the handle. I have a broom maker’s vice for stitching the brooms flat from the 1860s and a much more intricate mechanical broom stitcher from the turn of the 20th century. These machines I use to stitch the brush flat which is the modern standard style for corn brooms although we do build many that we leave with a round brush for an older style of broom. The mechanical stitcher is a very interesting and complex Lipe and Walrath machine from Syracuse, NY. These tools span pre-electric, steam and electric eras in industrial history.
• Do you see a shift in thinking where there is a greater demand in handmade/quality as opposed to mass-produced products?
I think that for a while now there has been a growing interest for people to know more about what they buy and use in their lives. Industrialism has moved production and people apart. This has been a good and a bad thing. It’s added convenience but it’s also become rare to really know more than the most immediate facts of the everyday objects around us. When you can connect and understand the plants, the people and minerals that make many of our products and witness the production it becomes more meaningful. The demand for fair trade and organic reflects a greater interest in economic, social and environmental justice. I think there are a lot of externalized expenses that don’t sit well with people when they realize the “true cost” of things. This growing awareness is good for my business. We actually build our brooms from beginning to end right here in this tiny shop and are happy to have a conversation and meet people from all walks of life as we do it. Building our brooms by hand with our techniques and using our materials, we create a higher quality broom that feels better to use and lasts longer.
• Can you describe the process of sourcing the wood for your more artisan broom handles?
I find most of the wood for my handles myself by hand (I do buy the straight dowel handles). I use a small handsaw to gather dead branches of various woods. My favourite is Manzanita, which I gather in the winter months in the southwest United States. It’s a very dense hardwood that grows very thick in areas to the point of being a fire hazard especially as the dead wood builds up. I have a unique perspective on the world now looking for interesting broom handles when I’m out and about. I also use some of our local woods like birch which I find right around Crawford Bay or make small excursions around the province for other woods.
• What is the length of your season when you’re in the broom shop?
We typically start up sometime in March and go into November. We stay open seven days a week when we’re open.
• When you’re not in the shop what are you doing in your spare time?
When I have free time I like to remember how lucky I am to be living in Crawford Bay, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I try to make time for hiking in the mountains and have been getting into mountain biking. There have been recent projects to develop and promote some beautiful local trails in our community. I am very passionate right now about mountain biking and seeing a friendly and sustainable outdoor culture being adopted. I also try to get out on the lake when I can. We are very lucky to live amongst so much natural beauty and such a deep clear lake. In the wintertime, I make a trip to the southwest States to explore a different landscape and collect the wood that I will finish and turn into brooms in the coming year.
• Can you tell us about one of the more exciting projects you’ve worked on when it comes to your brooms?
Our brooms have been used in quite a few very cool projects. Over the years there have been a number of brooms for movies, TV shows and, other stage productions. We still have many people visiting interested in our role with the publishers of the Harry Potter books. We made over 300 brooms that were used at the launch events for the last three books in the series. This is about as cool as it gets for a broom maker although I personally get excited about many of the brooms that I make on a daily basis. They can have a personality and character that is completely distinct and the odd phone call or email to make something special for a film/tv or stage production is just icing on the cake. I’m full of gratitude for the interest in my craft that people share with me every day.
If you’re ever exploring this part of the Kootenays, I encourage you to take the 3A north of Creston and make little stops along the way that suits your mood. Enjoy that time in the car and with the people you’re with or if you find yourself flying solo, this could be a time to sit and be a little more present. Regardless of the company, you can be sure you will find a friendly face, learn something new and have a new appreciation for the mountains and the people who reside in British Columbia’s Kootenays. Also don't forget to visit Luke in Crawford Bay and I can guarentee you won't miss his shop, North Woven Broom Co.
I find great pleasure to share these stories about the individuals I encounter during this project Back To The Land and honoured for the openness and hospitality I receive each time someone sits in front of the camera. When I have put time aside and set dates to hit the road, nothing makes me happier when I pack the truck with the bare essentials, camera gear, and a paper map and just start to drive.
If you have someone you think would be a good fit for this project in a town, village or hamlet ANYWHERE in Canada, I would love to hear from you. I’m looking for those salt of the earth individuals; the unsung heroes of Canada.