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The sweeping story of Hanset Brothers' broom factory

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


There’s a certain amount of satisfaction one receives when one has hand-crafted an item that another person desires.

Emil Hanset learned the art of broom-making, and was able to share his passion with other family members – a passion that would support generations to come of the Hanset family.

Emil J. Hanset immigrated to the United States from Belgium in the 1880’s to avoid being drafted into the military. While working the harvest fields of a cotton plantation in Blossom Prairie, Texas, he met and fell in love with the owner, Eugene Bosse’s, daughter Palmyra.

After their marriage in 1884, Emil and Palmyra moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where many Belgians had settled previously. Their stay was short-lived, as Emil received word that his mother was in poor health. With family in tow they returned to the small village of Opprebaise, Belgium, to care for Emily’s mother, and where her children Joseph and Margaret were able to experience the hospitality and kinship of the Belgium people.

by: COURTESY OF THE HANSET BROTHERS - Leon Hanset is shown in the foreground - who, according to Mark Hanset, enjoyed making brooms more than dealing with sales, and customers on the phone. A special phone, visible here on the wall, was installed just for Leon - so Leon could answer any questions from the clerk staff as he made brooms.After Emil’s mother’s death, the Hanset family returned to Green Bay in 1896, and Emil operated a broom factory for the Wisconsin State Prison, where he began to learn the trade of broom-making.

Excerpts from the Hanset family biography reveal that Emil and his family followed his father-in-law to Salem in 1904. Eugene Bosse opened a flax plant near Mill Creek that Emil was in charge of for a short time. His passion for broom-making was too strong, and he accepted a job operating a broom factory for the Oregon State Prison. Between “25 to 30 dozen brooms were processed per day for use by the state offices”.

Two years later, the Hanset family relocated to Montavilla, a neighborhood that was then a community east of Portland. Emil hired on at the Standard Broom Company at 73rd and N.E Glisan. He continued to enhance his expertise in broom-making, and shared his skills with other workers when he later transferred over to the Portland Broom Company.

Emil taught his sons Joseph (Joe), Homer, and Leon the craft of the broom industry, and when they were experienced enough, they all hired on with the Portland Broom Factory until they were drafted into service during the First World War.

In 1919, the Hanset Brothers Broom Business became a reality when the three boys began manufacturing hand-crafted brooms in the basement of Joe Hanset’s home, across from Madison High School in Southeast Portland. The operating machines were powered by belts and pulleys through the use for power of Leon’s Excelsior motorcycle that he once raced around the neighborhood.

During the early days of the new business, their father Emil was still assembling brooms by hand using a foot treadle machine. By using Leon’s innovative process with a motorbike engine, the boys were able to save considerable time in manufacturing brooms.

The young men promoted and sold their brooms door to door throughout the neighborhood. They honed their sales skills by signing exclusive contracts with local stores and merchants to carry only the Hanset Broomcorn in their shops.

Once the Hanset Brothers Broom Business was booming, they decided to deal in the wholesale market only. Within the next few years, the Hanset family had transferred their business from their brothers’ basement to a warehouse at N.E. 4th and Hancock. Emil was beginning to realize his dream of working together with his family, when he became president of the Hanset Broom Company in 1921. Son Homer was Vice President and Leon was the Secretary and Treasurer.

From sorting bundles of cornstalk to flattening and sewing in place broom heads, every family member hired on at the Hanset Brothers factory, and learned the broom-making business from the bottom up. Recalling his younger years, 4th generation grandson Mark Hanset said “I was about eleven or twelve when I spent my summers learning to craft a broom, working among the other workers, and earning a few bucks for college”.

Broomcorn (a type of sorghum grass) was shipped to the Hanset factory in large bundles or bales. Mark would be taken to various parts of the factory by an experienced worker, or a relative like Joe Hanset, and was taught many of the required skills. He would watch as the Broom Sorters grouped stalks according to the length of the grass and color, and he learned that broom corn was wetted before use, so it would be more pliable for the shaping of a broom. He also became a popular Rousty (a boy who got supplies ready for the broom makers) among the workers.

Back in the 1920’s there were only a handful of broom and brush manufacturers in Portland, and competition among them for customers and orders was stiff. Companies depended on the loyalty of their employees to survive in the marketplace. Many employees who hired on at Hanset Brothers spent their entire careers there, retiring well into their 70’s and 80’s – a testament to the stability of the company.

On August 15th, 1927, the Hanset Brothers expanded their business, building a new two-story factory at 12th and Division. The Oregonian announced that Hanset Brothers was one of the largest manufacturers of brooms in the northwest, with an annual production of over $50,000 annually. Believing that the present company was not able to support all of the family members, Homer Hanset ventured north to Seattle, where he obtained his own broom manufacturing business by buying the existing Sunset Broom Company. Following the lead of his father Emil, Homer’s own sons Herbert and Virgil learned all phases of the broom production, and helped the Sunset Company become one of the leading broom distributors in Western Washington.

With Homer’s departure from Portland, younger brother Eugene Hanset took over many of the duties and responsibilities left vacant by Homer’s absence.

Gaining the knowledge and confidence in the business world from his time at Hanset Brothers, Eugene quit his position as sales manager to make a start at owning his own company. Eugene was very creative, and in 1930 he patented the wire broom hanger that could be attached to the end of mops and brooms. He later invented the “Plasbod System”, a special resin that he formulated for manufacturing corn and plastic fibers, and which was in use for many years.

Even with the loss of his other brother’s experience, Leon Hanset and his dad continued their success at Hanset Brothers with the added help of Leon’s son David. The Hanset broomcorn broom became one of the top-selling items in their warehouse, because of the high quality of fibers used in its production. Unlike plastic fibers or broom heads made from synthetic materials that just push the dirt around, broomcorn stalks absorb the dust and dirt, and outlast any other type.

Broom factories, however, were sometimes hazardous places for workers and employees. Occasionally careless workers could end up losing fingers by getting caught in machinery, and leftover grass shoots and seeds after cuttings were fire hazards as they accumulated on the factory floors. In the early years a few of Portland’s big broom factories caught fire and burnt down.

The start of the Depression in 1929 also forced many companies to close. The Hanset Brothers was no exception, the brothers were forced to sell their 12th Street building to Mason’s Supply Company, but at least were able to lease it back at a more manageable rate.

Joe Hanset returned briefly in 1941 to continue his position at Hanset Brothers, but four years later opened the Acme Broom Company on North Mississippi Avenue. To avoid conflict with his own family members, he sold most of his supplies to merchants and stores in eastern Washington, where Hanset Brothers Brooms were not a presence. According to family documents, Acme Broom Company produced from 40 to 50 dozen brooms per day until Joe Hanset retired at the age of 82 years. In retirement, he took a broom winding machine home and continued making fancy whisk brooms in his basement.

In 1950, the Hanset Brothers purchased their existing concrete building at 11th and S.E. Woodward, but times were changing, and brooms were no longer the big seller that they once were.

Now vacuum cleaners were faster, easier, and more convenient than using a broom to clean up with. Hanset Brothers began making and marketing aluminum rakes, dust mops, plant supports, tapered and treated garden stakes, and raised capes.

The North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 lifted the tariff imposed on most imported trade goods from Mexico, and pretty much signaled the end for small companies like broom factories who could not compete with the cheap labor south of the border. Only 15 broom manufacturers were left in the United Stages. Hanset Brothers discontinued the production of brooms in 1995, ending a tradition of manufacturing and selling handmade brooms after over 80 years. A celebration was held for the factory’s last broom maker, Don Devore, when he retired after many years as a loyal employee.

Mark, Diane and Ron Hanset have successfully continued the tradition of the family-owned business started by their great-grandfather Emil Hanset over 90 years ago. While the famous Brown Beauty Hanset Broom is no longer manufactured in their warehouse, you can still order the Hanset Broom through their catalogue. Hanset Brothers today continues, near the east end of the Ross Island Bridge, as an historic business in Inner Southeast Portland, specializing as master distributors for Rubbermaid Commercial Products – and is also a top-line seller of janitorial supplies and a variety of other cleaning products. And it’s still going strong in the 21st Century!