Department of Tourism
Broom-Making Family Carves Tradition in Southwestern Kentucky
SYMSONIA, Ky. – Richard Henson hopes he can pass along his broom-making business to his son, which would make four generations of Hensons hand crafting brooms in southwestern Kentucky.
Henson, 58, has been hand making broom-corn straw brooms for 28 years, first in Fulton County and then for the past 10 months in the tiny Graves County village of Symsonia, about 10 miles southeast of Paducah. Henson’s father and grandfather had operated the business since the 1930s in McCracken County, and he continued the craft in Fulton County, the most southwesterly county in Kentucky.
Richard’s teenage son, Richard Nathan Henson, shows signs of wanting to keep the tradition alive for another generation. He says he sees it as a way to make some extra money for college.
The elder Richard was a high school teacher and basketball coach until age 30, when his dying 81-year-old grandfather told him, “You’ll always be able to make a living if you learn to make brooms.”
“Those were his last words to me. When I made my first broom, I knew it was my calling,” Henson says.
Since learning to hand-make brooms, Henson has developed a motivational stage presentation which he gives while demonstrating the making of a broom. He has traveled throughout Kentucky and major cities in the South and Midwest demonstrating his craft and sharing words of inspiration with school, business, service and social groups.
He has also won his share of awards at crafts competitions, vying against potters, chair makers and other artisans whose work most people consider more artistic than broom making. “The broom is the Rodney Dangerfield of tools,” Henson says with a chuckle.
Henson studied speech communications at Murray State University and says he always knew he wanted to entertain others. Over the years, he’s gotten his share of coverage from TV and newspaper writers.
The Hensons were featured on a KET program, “Crafting Family Traditions,” which selected the broom makers and four other artisan families from one hundred candidates throughout Kentucky to profile on the public television show.
Henson garnered national attention by supplying the brooms featured on the TV series “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” He’s made nearly 300 of the Dr. Quinn brooms with twisting hand-carved handles.
Henson’s path hasn’t been without some setbacks. His daughter was killed in an auto accident in 1996 while returning home for Thanksgiving from the University of Kentucky.
Since moving to Symsonia, Henson has expanded his business into a general store where, in addition to watching brooms made, visitors can play checkers and have an RC Cola and a Moonpie or peanuts and a Coca-Cola. Besides brooms of several sizes and descriptions, Henson sells handmade wreaths, door decorations and seasonal baskets made by his wife. The store also carries sorghum molasses, honey, maple syrup, candles, baskets and hats made by Amish residents of Graves County.
To supplement his income, Henson works as a coordinator for in-school suspension for the neighboring Marshall County school system. His wife is a respiratory therapist at a nearby hospital. They plan to keep their second jobs until their store gets better-established in Symsonia.
Being close to Paducah and the tourist towns of Kentucky Dam Village and Grand Rivers is an advantage of the new location, Henson says. But he acknowledges that some promotion such as advertising may be necessary to become better established. “The flower may bloom where it’s planted, but we may have to fertilize it some,” he says.
Henson’s store, located on Hwy. 348 East, is open Tuesday through Sunday. If you want to be sure to see Henson actually making a broom, call ahead and set a time for your visit.
The Kentucky Department of Tourism, an agency of the Kentucky Commerce Cabinet, exists to promote The Commonwealth as a travel destination, generate revenue and create jobs for Kentucky’s economy.