VICTOR — Sam and Karen Morrison learned to make brooms by pulling them apart.
The Colorado couple’s unlikely craft started after watching a demonstration in rural Iowa, more than three decades ago, when Sam said, “We could do that.”
And they did. They lugged pedal-powered machinery made in 1900 to their shop in a remote mountain town that seems to be stuck in a time warp of its own — not far removed from the gold rush days — and tore brooms apart only to stitch them back together again.
“It was a steep learning curve,” Sam Morrison said standing in front of several hundred brooms mounted on the wall of their shop that fills a 120-year-old building. “There’s a lot more inside a broom than you realize.”
The Morrisons never expected to become broom experts, let alone sell them for a living from their shop in Victor that has become a destination in the once-booming mining town tucked in the mountains southwest of Colorado Springs.
Yet 33 years later, they guess they’ve made 30,000 brooms with no plans on stopping. Their clients range from Hollywood set directors to curators at the Smithsonian. One broom was so treasured it was disputed in a divorce settlement.
“I think there’d be a huge backlash if we just quit,” said Sam, 69.
Their business, Victor Trading Co., has helped keep the town of 400 on the map, while attracting people from across the world to watch the couple crank antique machinery from the front of the shop while keeping 19th-century techniques alive.
“Some people will stand here and watch the entire thing,” Karen said, “and other people are bored after 2½ minutes.”
Customers tell them their handmade brooms last 10 to 15 years, or more, long past the lifespan of a plastic grocery store broom. Praise for the couple’s craft and excellent customer service flows on Google reviews, one calling their shop a “must-see” when visiting Victor and “one of the best vintage stores in the universe.”
The Morrisons always enjoyed working with their hands. When they started making brooms in 1988, they grew broomcorn on a farm in Wheat Ridge, Sam said, remembering the itchy feeling when the coarse seeds from the tall grass fell down his shirt, sticking to his sweaty back during the warm harvest months.
Now, they buy 100-pound bales of de-seeded broomcorn from a supplier in Texas, the country’s last. Broomcorn, a member of the sorghum family, is different from actual corn and has been used to make brooms and brushes for centuries. Once it is processed, broomcorn is referred to as “hurl” and ready to be crafted.
“This is No. 1 hurl. This is the very best broomcorn you can buy,” Karen, 66, said.
A lot of work still goes into their brooms. After Sam dyes and dries the broomcorn, Karen soaks it in hot water again, making the pieces pliable. She weighs the broomcorn, according to the size of the broom she is crafting, secures a wooden handle in the chuck of a winder and sets the 1900s-era machine in motion with a push of her foot.
She tightly binds wire around the handle to attach the layers of broomcorn and with a few whacks of a broom pounder — not a hammer, she said — secures a tiny nail.
“This is my cordless drill,” Karen said, using a hand-cranked device to drill a hole in the end of the wooden dowel before passing it from her dye-stained hands to her husband.
Wearing leather sewing cuffs to protect his hands, Sam then pushes a double-pointed needle through the broomcorn. Four rows of stitching, which require forearm strength, keep the broom tight and flat, he said.
The finishing step: a price tag Sam prints using his foot-powered printing press, also from about 1900. Sweeping brooms sell for $39, $49 or $69, depending on the size and can be made to order with customers choosing the colors of the broomcorn. Craft brooms — decorative witches’-brooms or brooms attached to antlers — are much harder to make and cost more. It takes about an hour for the couple to assemble a sweeping broom.
They no longer ship to Colorado addresses, so to get a broom, you must visit the store.
“If you’re just sitting in a shop all day and nobody walks in, you’d go crazy,” Karen said. “We can at least be making or doing something.”
“Hollywood comes knocking at our door”
More than once, Hollywood has called to place an order for the Morrisons’ crafts.
When not assembling brooms, Karen also makes old-fashioned tins, cutting and applying labels that are replicas from 1880 to 1920s to cans.
Disney once bought 360 cans to put on display at an attraction in Hong Kong. Movie crews ordered them for sets of “The Missing,” Ron Howard’s 2003 Western thriller starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, and “The Greatest Showman,” though you can’t see Karen’s tins in either. (You can barely make them out in the background of a scene in the “The Lighthouse” set in the 1890s.)
“Hollywood comes knocking at our door,” she said. “But they’re always: ‘We need it now.’”
Sam and Karen have made brooms for The Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Their sweeping brooms were featured in a 2004 fall edition of Martha Stewart’s magazine, though Stewart has not made it into the store herself.
Some stumble upon Victor Trading Co. on their way to gambling in Cripple Creek, a few miles down the road. Handmade crafts including candles, cookie cutters and other antique souvenirs pack the first level of a two-story Victorian building built in 1900 after a fire wiped out nearly the entire town.
A U.S. guidebook published in France that lists Victor as a destination attracts many French tourists to the store. But often, word of mouth brings customers to their door.
“They went to somebody’s house and they say, ‘Where did you get that broom? I’ve been looking for one of those,’” Sam Morrison said. “We get that story a lot.”
Two people have had Victor Trading Co. on their bucket list — they wanted to come one last time before they died.
Another customer, a kid in college, entered the store admitting he had never swept a broom before.
“He ended up doing the whole floor. He was having so much fun,” Karen said.
A couple going through a divorce told the Morrisons that their broom was the only thing they fought over.
“He lost, but he came in and got a new broom out of it,” Karen said.
The two have run the shop, without any employees, since 1990. And that’s what they plan to keep doing.
“I like my shop. I like my customers. I like my business. I like what I do,” Sam said while pushing a sewing needle through layers of broomcorn. “Yeah, I passed retirement age, but what are we going to do if I retire?”
Once a booming mining town
Victor now caters to two types of visitors: hikers and those who appreciate the town’s history, said Jon Zalewski, Victor’s Main Street manager. Some days, its streets can be bustling with tourists drawn to see an authentic Wild West town. On others, its roads — at 9,708 feet — can appear desolate, especially on a harsh winter day.
But the Morrisons crafted the right formula to keep afloat, Zalewski said. On a hazy Monday afternoon, sidewalks were nearly empty and Victor Trading Co. was one of the few businesses open.
Posted on the shop’s front door window read a sign: “After 32 years of being open 7 days a week … We are now open by chance or appointment.”
“They came up with a unique business, revived historic craft in broom-making and tin-making, and also figured out a way to incorporate modern internet presence to sell things online,” Zalewski said. “And that’s the key to really having a successful business in Victor, unless you’re a bar or restaurant, because our marketplace isn’t big enough to support just people walking in your door when you’re that kind of retail store.”
Victor used to be mostly populated by miners during the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the 1890s. At the turn of the century, its population had swelled to 12,000, according to History Colorado.
But as the mining industry dwindled, so did its population and its businesses. By 1920, its population had fallen to about 5,600 people and has hovered around 400 since 2010. Cripple Creek and Victor mine, the only significant producer of gold in the state, is still operating.
“They’re kind of the glue that binds the historic district together,” Zalewski said.
Aside from the mine, Karen and Sam’s broom-making business is one of the town’s oldest, Zalewski said.
“They definitely have kept us on the map.”