Feb 21, 2017

Southern Traditions: Why Did My Grandmas Sweep Their Yards?

Photo left Granddaddy Walter, Aunt Fannie, Grandma Cora and her mother my Great Grandma Maggie. Photo right is of my Grandmother Goldie

Today's post came to mind from seeing a meme on Facebook with an elderly lady sweeping her yard. Yes, sweeping the yard was a common thing back in the day.  I as a child watched my grandmas and Aunt Fannie sweep their yards. I seem to remember them doing this especially hard on Saturdays. Back then chores had to be done and done well to get ready for Sunday.

I was small but certainly remembered how hard they worked at keeping that yard around the house clean. If there was a sprig of grass coming up it had to be hoed up. There was no grass to be found in the yard around the house ever!  That made me scratch my head for sure.  We had grass growing around our house why did the grandparents not want any grass anywhere near their home?  I couldn't stand it so I of course asked them. They said "Well, it keeps the snakes away and if a fire was to get out it would protect the house from burning down".  I guess that settled it in my mind at the time at least.

The grandparents on the left lived in a home at one time that I remember had the heater room as they called the living room which had a wood burning heater in it.  The kitchen had a wood burning stove in it.  Those two rooms were separated from the rest of the house.  Well when they moved into the home there was a long hall that connected the home that once was completely separated.  In the olden days they were very afraid of fire and with good cause because those houses were built with as they called it "fat lighter" wood.  In fact this very house I'm talking about burned down due to faulty wiring a few years later.  It happened in a matter of minutes and they had family guests at the time so the house was full of people.  We've always said it was a miracle all got out of the house safely. Thank God.

This memory caused me to search more to find out more.  I came across the following drawing that is part of a booklet online and a very interesting one at that.  Click on the credit below and read it is an interesting part of history and traditions.

Memories by George!
I'm going back to read this booklet!

Excerpt taken from the booklet:

Our modern homes have floors covered with carpet or the floors may be varnished hard wood or vinyl.  The housewife cleans her floors with a vacuum cleaner, dust mop and stick broom.  Her great grandmother swept her floors with a "straw Broom" and got down on her knees and scrubbed them with water and lye soap.  The wood was bleached almost white.
She made her straw broom herself.  She cut a bundle of "broom straw" and wrapped twine around about two feet of the butt ends and used the bushy ends to sweep with.  The broom straw was found on ditch banks and unplowed edges of fields.  It looks like a form of grass, about 3 or 4 feet tall with a stiff stem running most of the way up the plant.  Grass like blades run out the sides of the stem and the top is bushy with fluffy seed pieces that float away in the wind.
Yard Brooms
She swept the fallen leaves from the yard with a brush broom which was a bundle of small straight branches with bushy ends cut from small selected hardwood trees or branches.  They were cut about five feet long and the butt ends were tied into a bundle with wire or strong cord.  Fan rakes had not been invented.

Grandma Cora

I do remember watching my Grandma Cora make her house brooms with the straw sedge and twine. It was fun to watch her soft hands with the beautifully manicured nails work so smoothly to make one.  I don't know how she worked that hard and was able to keep her hands and nails looking so good.  Wish I'd paid more attention to how she made the brooms so I'd know how to do it.

Broom straw credit
gathered by Jannie Pinckney in the 1960s 

I found some  (broomstraw/straw sedge) here a few years back and tried to make a broom but I didn't do it right so it fell apart. If I see more of this precious straw growing I'll have to research how to make one of these and hopefully do that.

Ms. Catherine Waiters
Amelia Wallace Vernon, African Americans at Mars Bluff, South Carolina (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University, 1993.
Reprint. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1995), p.168-171. Credit

Description of picture above
Here at her old home, showing the old ways of housekeeping.  Ms. Catherine is holding a yard broom that she made. When she lived here, her yard was swept daily.  This custom was widely practiced in West Africa and widely practiced by both African Americans and European Americans at Mars Bluff. Note that the yard broom was made of tree branches, while the house broom on the left was made of broom straw. (Photo 1986) Credit

Ms. Catherine with her Wash Pots credit 

I see that old fashioned iron on that chair Chuck and I both have some of our grandmother's here. Look at that old iron wash pot too.

Ms. Catherine would set up her ironing board across two chairs when she was ready to iron.  They would heat those irons in the fireplace until hot.  Evidently they had two or more to switch them out when they cooled.  We have ours in storage guess I need to pull them out, take pictures and share them with you.

It is interesting to see how others lived even those who had been in slavery and remembering how your ancestors lived.  I'm finding out that they had a lot in common and lived almost exactly the same in those days.  Evidently each shared their customs and eventually many learned and used them to make them their own.

Look at this adorable cabin that belonged to Ms. Catherine and is now located at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina.  You can read more about the Hewn-Timber Cabins:  African-American Life in rural South Carolina 1840s to 1950s here

Listen to Ms. Catherine talk about things in this recorded message from 1988 here

Be sure to visit Hewn-Timber Cabins here for a very interesting read.  Click on all of the topics on this page here and click all of the links. Click topic and when you want to see next picture in that topic click NEXT. That makes for a much easier tour of those. Very interesting read and I'm glad they are local at Francis Marion University. There are many, many links that take you on an awesome journey.  A historical look at these people, their lives and how they and local lives intertwined.  I feel sure they learned from each other and the traditions were carried on until newer things took their place. Change is inevitable although looking back can be very eye opening.

Yard Brooms made by Ms. Catherine

She would have had her children to sweep the yard everyday which was a custom found in South Africa.
One in which caught on with the Southern Folks around here and in other locations.

Another great read Credit

Look where my search led me!
Some of you may be old enough to remember your grandparents or great grandparents doing this.
Share your stories if you wish.
I've had several family stories shared on my Facebook page about it today.
We think we have it hard evidently we live the "Life of Riley" (a luxurious or carefree existence).


  1. Very interesting Dolly. I had no idea people used to sweep their front yards or that they kept them free of grass.

    I watched Jim Henson makes brooms at his shop near our lake house It was very interesting. His brooms were famous around the country. He passed away last year and nobody in his family is carrying on the tradition, which I think is kind of sad.

    1. Hey Kim! How wonderful that you got to see Mr. Henson make the brooms. It is sad the family isn't carrying on the tradition. Did you pick up enough to make one for yourself? I hope so that would be so cool! You do and find the most interesting people and places to visit.
      I until yesterday never knew some of the history behind it only what I'd seen the ancestors do.

  2. Great post! I have seen yard sweeping too. Glad you posted about this because I always wondered.

    1. Hey Ginger! I enjoyed learning more about it myself. Thank you too!