Off the Beaten Path: Modern-Day Eli Whitney and His Brooms
When I first met Bob Duffrin at the Sturgeon Bay Farmers Market last year, I was fascinated with his knowledge of broom making; so much so that I bought one of his handmade brooms. My wife and I now display the broom in our home as a work of art rather than a utilitarian tool, but there was more to Bob’s story than just his hobby of making brooms.
It all started at the Evinrude plant at 27th St. and W. Capitol Drive in Milwaukee where Bob worked for almost 25 years. Bob’s epiphany came at lunch one afternoon as he watched hundreds of his fellow workers run out the doors at lunch time to the local taverns around the plant to down a couple of boilermakers that were all set up on the bar waiting for them. This practice dated back to the old days when bars offered a free lunch with the purchase of liquor. During his time at Evinrude he saw fellow workers hitting the bars at noon and doing the same repetitive jobs day after day and he realized that this was a dead end job for him and he quit.
The following year he and his two brothers started Michigan Handle and Broom. Undaunted when it didn’t work out with his brother, Bob started a second business with his son Matt and daughter Cindy. Excel Brush Works sold push brooms for retail and one of their biggest customers was Sears. Bob told me that he would drive down to Chicago to meet the Sears buyer in what was then the tallest building in the world (Sears Tower) and he always wore his straw hat to the meeting to reinforce the idea that he was just a small fish in a big pond. The hat also disguised Bob’s shrewd business mind and he usually cut a good deal with Sears. He ran Excel successfully for 14 years before selling it to the Walters family in LaCrosse.
If you spend a few minutes talking with
Bob, you’ll know more about brooms
than you ever thought you would …
It wasn’t long before Bob felt the urge to start another business. This time he decided to make broom parts like handles and broom blocks. Bob called it a “dimension plant.” He owned MCM Industries for four years and was very successful. Bob obtained a contract to sell push brooms to federal prisons, and even sold parts to his previous company Excel Industries which amused Bob to no end. Over time the value of the government contract had increased the net asset value of MCM to the point that Bob decided that it was too risky to own, so he sold that business as well.
True to his entrepreneurial spirit Bob was not ready for retirement so he started yet another company. The Even Weight Brush Company was probably Bob’s most successful company, and yes it was in the broom business, but in an unusual way. The company made brushes for the cotton gin industry. Eli Whitney’s eponymous invention is still in use today in an evolved way. Cotton seeds still need to be separated from the cotton fiber and Bob’s invention was the key to accomplishing that task. In modern cotton gins very thin saws separate the seeds from the cotton and Bob’s brushes pulled the cotton off the saws. It all sounds so simple but Bob dominated the world market for the little brooms that swept the cotton off the saws. Bob’s product dominated the cotton markets in China, South America, Australia and Africa. Bob was lucky in one regard, when he got into this business right as a competing company went belly up. He sold the business in 2007 and decided that he wanted to pursue a hobby that he had dabbled in since buying the 150-year-old equipment in 1985. Yes Bob wanted to make brooms!
Bob has a small shop in Menominee next to his home where he manufactures his brooms. As I talked to Bob I saw all the completed brooms hanging from the rafters while he demonstrated how the equipment worked. Each broom is handmade by Bob; he has no one helping him. Some of his brooms have a rustic handle that Bob personally cuts from local Tamarack trees which have beautiful reddish brown bark when young. Bob has the eye of an artisan that shows in the little details of his brooms. I asked Bob why he drove all the way to Sturgeon Bay to sell his brooms, and like Willie Sutton the infamous bank robber, Bob replied “That’s where the money is.” If you spend a few minutes talking with Bob, you’ll know more about brooms than you ever thought you would, and you will have the pleasure of meeting a true entrepreneur and now an artisan.