DEWY ROSE, Ga. – Soon after Dan Donaldson and his late father, Ralph, began making arty yet functional brooms and selling them at crafts festivals in 2008, they noticed some curious customers. “From time to time we’d have a customer come by and sort of wave their hands near the wood and they would be in deep reverie, concentrating pretty heavily,” Donaldson said. “It would be a Witch trying to feel for energy from the various different broom handles, but it took us a while to find that out because most of them didn’t volunteer a great deal of information. It got to the point where we could spot one by how they approached the broom as it was hanging on display.”
Donaldson, an “agnostic in all senses” who “tried other paths and just never felt called to one,” said that “Paganism wasn’t even on our radar. I didn’t know a thing in the world about it.”These days Donaldson, who calls himself the “broomsquire of Dewy Rose” after the town where he lives (“really it’s a crossroads with a post office”), is encountering many more Witches and Pagans. While his agnosticism remains intact, the bulk of his vending activities are at Pagan festivals and pride days throughout the Southeast and Midwest. He sold at the Mystic South conference in Atlanta in July, and this weekend at Merry Meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. His busy fall schedule is listed on his website.
The shape-shifting of Donaldson’s clientele began in 2010 when he and his father, who called themselves the broom brothers, met a young woman at an arts and crafts festival in Augusta, Ga. “She was very talkative and she told us she was a witch, and she explained that there were Pagan festivals and how we should sell brooms there,” Donaldson said. “She even invited us to apply to the Augusta Pagan Pride Day. That same year I met Heather Greene [managing editor at the Wild Hunt] at an arts and crafts festival outside of Atlanta. She bought a broom and we talked about things for awhile, and she also took my business card.”
Donaldson’s father passed away in 2014, shortly after Greene had invited the broom brothers to vend at the upcoming Merry Meet, the annual gathering of Covenant of the Goddess, to be held that year in Atlanta. Donaldson attended the event alone – but with some hesitation. “It wasn’t because of anything to do with Paganism or Wicca,” he said. “It was because at these arts and crafts shows, some people would walk by and make jokes: ‘Ah, I see you’ve got witch brooms there.’ ‘Oh, my wife could ride that broom home.’ I just thought there was such a stereotype there, that if I took brooms to a Wiccan event or a Pagan pride day, would people feel like I was making fun of them and just pursuing it because of the stereotype? I didn’t want to be disrespectful.”
At Merry Meet, Donaldson said, “The brooms were well received and I certainly sold enough to make it worth my while from a commercial standpoint. The atmosphere was completely different [from arts and crafts fairs] and accepting, and I really enjoyed it.”
There he met wand-maker and fellow vendor Gypsey Teague. “A customer asked about the wood in a broom, and I said sweetgum,” Donaldson said. “The moment I said sweetgum, Gypsey bounded across the room and said ‘liquidambar styraciflua,’ which is the scientific name for sweetgum trees. The customer and I were both standing there mouths agape.
“Turns out Gypsey is an expert in wood and has written a book called ‘The Witch’s Guide to Wands,’ about the magical properties of wood. That was my first encounter with Gypsey, and she as a fellow vendor has really sort of taken me under her wing and given me advice and helped me out. I really appreciate her.”
Donaldson said his path to broom-making “was an accident. It’s almost like it found me rather than me finding it.”
Donaldson had worked as a police officer, an insurance fraud investigator and private investigator in Georgia and Florida when he became unemployed and moved back to his hometown of Dublin, near Macon, Ga. His father, who worked as an administrator for Easter Seals, “had an interest in broom-making, I think partly because it was agricultural-related,” Donaldson said. “He had always wanted to farm and never got to. It was on his bucket list to learn how to make brooms.”
The elder Donaldson invited his son to join him in attending a broom-making workshop taught by Marlow Gates at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. “What neither of us expected was that we seemed to harbor a hidden aptitude for it, and we both kind of fell in love with broom-making,” Donaldson said. While the elder Donaldson continued working his day job, “we just started making brooms all day long without even having to discuss it. We had to do something with them, so we started selling them at arts and crafts festivals.”
The Donaldsons even grew their own broom corn plants for their creations. “Broom corn, despite its name, is not related to what we call ‘corn,’ which is more properly known as ‘maize,’” according to Donaldson’s website.
After six years of father and son making and peddling their creations as the broom brothers. the elder Donaldson passed away in 2014. Soon after, Dan’s mother developed ALS, and he stopped broom-making for a year and half to care for her until she passed in late 2015.
Donaldson then returned to broom-making full time, mostly on the Pagan circuit.His website includes numerous photos of his creations, a detailed account of his broom-making process, and an online shop where his brooms and besoms are available. When he’s not vending on the road, he likely will be working in his broom shop, a storefront open to customers, in Hartwell near Dewey Rose.
Most of Donaldson’s brooms range from $30 to $80, although double brooms — two broom heads tied onto a forked handle — are $100 and up. His website describes his brooms as “functional art — suitable for sweeping, decorating, and ceremonial uses.”
“You have to say that it can be used for sweeping,” Donaldson says, chuckling. “One of the common questions people would ask at a craft show is ‘Dan, can you sweep with these?’ It’s the kind of thing that just takes you aback. ‘Well, yes ma’am, it’s a broom.’ Inevitably their response back is ‘Well, it’s too pretty to use.’”
As for ceremonial uses, a section on his website notes that brooms are popular in wedding ceremonies known as “jumping the broom,” and that the custom has its roots in “pre-emancipation African-American culture.” The double brooms are especially popular for weddings because they symbolize “the melding of two lives into one.”
Patti Wigington, who writes on Paganism and Wicca at thoughtco, notes that “besom weddings” have gained popularity among modern Pagans, and that there is evidence such ceremonies were practiced in the British Isles.
“I have had plenty of people who really appreciated what I do and some who understood it, but not the same way that a Witch or a Wiccan understands and relates to brooms,” Donaldson said. “Rather than it being a trinket or a decoration, or even a joke, a broom is something a lot more serious to a Witch. It becomes a part of their life instead of just something to hang on the wall and be a conversation piece, if you will. I like the fact that brooms make them happy.”