Broom maker and woodcarver
Marion, NC (McDowell County)
Alton Blankenship remembered that when he was a boy in Rutherford County, his father grew broomstraw and made, sold, and traded brooms. "I didn't know you could buy a broom ‘til I got to school and saw those fancy ones with the long wooden handles," he said. Though he watched his father make numerous brooms, it wasn't until Alton was in his mid-sixties, when he received a lesson from Buncombe County broom maker Marlow Gates, that he tried his hand at making his own. He went on to make kitchen, whisk, hearth, and turkey wing brooms. In his later years, he still kept a broom that his father made in the 1930s.
Blankenship also took up woodcarving during his retirement. On a camping trip to Florida, he met a man from Indiana who was sitting outside his camper whittling a little dog out of wood. Blankenship remembered saying, "I'd give anything in the world to be able to do that." The man gave Blankenship a dog form cut with a band saw to practice on, and told him, "Start in the corners, and anything that don't look like dog, cut it off." By the next day Blankenship had carved a dog so well that the man gave him a cut-out starter from which to carve a cowboy. "For about three days I sweated blood," he said, but finally "got it looking right." Dogs and cowboys remained some of his favorite forms to carve. He also made elaborate walking sticks with snakes, ball-in-cage, and other traditional designs.
Alton Blankenship demonstrated broom making, often with the assistance of Gina Wheeler of Barnardsville, whom he taught. In addition to demonstrations, Blankenship offered lessons and classes in broom making.
Alton passed away on August 27, 2011.
Note: "Historic Artist" designates one who is deceased but whose legacy continues to influence and inspire new generations.