Libman: Generations Working to Achieve the American Dream

Libman: Generations Working to Achieve the American Dream
Libman: Generations Working to Achieve the American Dream

For much of his childhood in the late 1940s and early '50s, Robert Libman would keep his father company as he drove the back roads of central Illinois.

With his son sitting next to him, Clarence Libman would make deals with farmers who grew broomcorn, a hardy sorghum plant with long, tough fibers that the Libman family had built its broom business on since 1896.

"I saw how my dad negotiated, how he talked and that had a big impact on my life," Robert says, now 71, recalling those Sundays with his father and the lessons he learned along the way.

Despite taking Robert with him on those drives, his father had no intention of letting his youngest son join the family business. He considered it dirty, manual labor, Robert remembers. "My father didn't want me in the company because it was so hard."

But his father's work ethic inspired Robert so much that he went against his father's wishes for him. When he was 14, Robert began working in the Libman broom plant on weekends without the elder Libman's knowledge.

He learned every job in the factory from a foreman who kept his secret, including how to make brooms from the crop that his father bought on those Sunday drives.

<b class="credit">Credit: Brent Mann</b>Robert Libman used to sneak into his father's factory to work when he was a teen.
Credit: Brent MannRobert Libman used to sneak into his father's factory to work when he was a teen.

On those weekends, Robert watched and learned as broom makers weighed out 12 ounces of the long fibers, then bundled them with tin-coated wire and spun them into shape with a pedal machine. The final touch was shaving the stray pieces off with a sharp three-inch paring knife. Making broomcorn brooms was and still is one of the most manually intensive jobs at the Libman Co., just as Robert's father had warned.

"One day [my father] walked in and saw me and he was upset," Robert says. "I was a stubborn guy and I just loved the broom factory."

His father was equally stubborn and wanted his son to get an education. "My father said, 'You could always lose money, but you could never lose an education.' "

So Robert left his family and the factory and went to school, getting an MBA from the University of Michigan in 1966. That same year he joined the Army during the height of the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Maryland as a second lieutenant. A year and a half later, he got word that his father was sick.

After years of keeping his son away from the family business, Libman needed Robert to keep it going. The family petitioned the Army and received an early compassionate release for Robert.

About 15 years after he had defied his father's wishes, Robert was in charge of the family business along with his older brother Bill.

Chapter One: Lithuania to Arcola

The Libman family wasn't meant to go into the broom business.

Robert's great-grandfather, Cuppel, was a rabbi in Lithuania, which was controlled by tsarist Russia in the late 1800s. He was an educated man with a young family, serving a community his ancestors had been a part of for hundreds of years.

But the late 19th century brought immense change to eastern Europe. Following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, an anti-Semitic press blamed the Jews for his death. The ensuing backlash resulted in the destruction of Jewish neighborhoods, the murder of hundreds of Jews living in Russia and the enactment of laws that restricted, among other things, the number of Jewish students that could enroll in college.

Fleeing persecution, more than two million Jews left Russia from 1881 to 1914 to start over in America and Western Europe, including Cuppel.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-If it wasn't for my grandfather fleeing Russia, there would not be a Libman Co. I probably wouldn't even be alive today.%Cuppel picked Chicago, leaving everything behind to bring his family -- including Robert's grandfather William -- to safety in America. "They started with nothing," Robert says. "If it wasn't for my grandfather fleeing Russia, there would not be a Libman Co. I probably wouldn't even be alive today."

William was just 9 when the family came to America, but by the time he was 23 he was in business for himself. The rabbi's son started peddling the brooms he made at home out of a horse and cart he drove through the teeming busy streets of 1890s Chicago.

By the 1920s, William owned a broom factory in Chicago and had opened a second plant in Michigan to keep up with demand -- and to help steer clear of the Chicago gangs and union bosses who controlled that city.

His sons, including Robert's father Clarence, followed him into the family business -- and after his death in 1929, they managed to keep the business going through the tough times of the Great Depression.

In the late 1930s, the Libmans decided to consolidate the family business in Tuscola, Illinois, where broomcorn grew across hundreds of acres. The business boomed in 1940s as the company became a supplier to the U.S. military. Libman brooms cleaned everything from submarines to Army bases during World War II.

By 1957, Libman needed to grow, so the family moved the business 10 miles south to Arcola and into a former 10,000-square-foot schoolhouse.

That building is still the heart of Libman, but now it's surrounded by a 1.25-million-square-foot factory. You can still see the old plant through the new one. There are markings on the floor from the school's gymnasium in one section of the old building.

From almost nothing, Libman is now is the biggest employer in town and has become a core part of yet another immigration story -- one that is bound by the very crop that Robert and his father used to buy on their Sunday drives.

Chapter Two: The Crop That Binds Nations

The geographic distance between Cadereyta, Mexico, and Arcola may be more than 1,300 miles. Yet broomcorn and the Mexican farm workers, who once harvested the crop before it began disappearing from the Illinois landscape in the late 1950s, intimately link the two towns.

Illinois farmers stopped planting the crop as cheaper broomcorn imported from other countries made it difficult for them to compete. Some of that cheaper product even came from Cadereyta, known as Mexico's "Broom Capital."

Harvesting, threshing and curing broomcorn has to be done in small batches, and that takes people, not machines, to do. Those people often were migrant workers who would harvest broomcorn in Mexico. Those jobs in Cadereyta's fields and broom factories paid little; so they headed north in the summer and fall to work in fields, factories or on the railroads. The migration path was already set when Clarence had to start looking south as the broomcorn disappeared from Illinois.

At the same time, workers from the south were looking north for better jobs.

<b class="credit">Credit: Brent Mann</b>Saul Sanchez, 23, started out working on the factory floor. Today, he's part of Libman's team of graphic designers.
Credit: Brent MannSaul Sanchez, 23, started out working on the factory floor. Today, he's part of Libman's team of graphic designers.

One of them was Baltazar Gauna's grandfather, Jose Cruz Gauna, who immigrated to Arcola in the late 1960s because he heard he could make more money working in the Libman broom factory than harvesting broomcorn in Cadereyta.

"Eventually the whole family came to Arcola," says Gauna, 45, who started his first job at Libman in 1985 making corn broom bundles. Today, he is the plant manager.

As many as 50 members of Baltazar's family, including his parents, his sisters and his daughter, have worked in the broom factory. Now the third generation of Gaunas is working at Libman, including Baltazar's cousin, Saul Sanchez.

But where past generations of Gaunas have worked in the factory, Sanchez, 23, has moved from the plant floor to the front office. He was so excited to work at the factory he applied for a job a few days before he was 16. Sanchez worked on the factory floor, but he wanted to do more. After graduating from college, he returned to Libman. After successfully earning a design internship, he's now one of the company's full-time, in-house graphic designers.

He's so proud of his work, especially of the black and red swoosh label he helped design for one of the company's industrial brooms, that he takes his wife to the cleaning aisle at Walmart to show it off to her. "I say, 'I did that,' " he says proudly.

Today, around 65 percent of Libman's 435 workers are Hispanic, many with three and four generations of family at the plant, and most of them come from Cadereyta.

The intertwining of two immigration stories means a great deal to Robert, whose great-grandfather received another chance in America after fleeing Lithuania. "Our country was founded basically by immigrants -- you have to give them an opportunity."

Chapter Three: The Old With the New

The sweet and musky smell of broomcorn fills the air in a section of the plant where a small group of workers still make corn brooms by hand every week. These men and women follow the same patterns that Robert learned when defying his father almost six decades ago.

Once Libman's only product, the brooms make up just two percent of the company's sales today. But no Libman, not even Robert's son Andrew -- who has helped turn the company into a major national brand with hundreds of products -- would think of discontinuing corn brooms.

Andrew understands the corn brooms legacy -- both to his own family and to the U.S. In the 1920s, there were more than 3,000 broom manufacturers in America. Today there are only a handful of companies making the sweet-smelling brooms. "There are some people who still really like a corn broom," Andrew says. "That was the original cleaning product in the U.S."

<b class="credit">Credit: Brent Mann</b>Robert Libman's son, Andrew, who joined the company in 1995.
Credit: Brent MannRobert Libman's son, Andrew, who joined the company in 1995.

After joining his father and Uncle Bill in 1995 to help run the company, Andrew has watched over a fourfold increase in sales as the company diversified and began making everything from mops to industrial brooms to dishwashing brushes. Andrew has been a driving force in the diversification, branding and marketing of their products. He also manages sales and finances, as they all do a lot of everything in the family business.

While corn brooms are a distinctly hand-made product, much of what Libman manufacturers today is completely automated. It has to be. While Libman workers make about 5,000 corn brooms a week, they turn out 800,000 other products in that same timeframe.

While machines do much of the work now, Libman has grown its workforce by vertically integrating its factory so that there are more jobs to do. Libman makes almost every part of a broom or mop from the handles to the brushes -- instead of buying parts from abroad and assembling the products here.

"It allows us to control the quality of the product," Andrew says. "When you're not making it yourself, no matter how hard you try to put in procedures for quality control, it's hard to control that quality when it's coming from across the world. Here, we can all walk out from our offices onto the factory floor and if there's a problem we can fix it immediately."

More often than not, Robert is the one fixing the problem. He starts work every day at 5:30 a.m. from his office in the middle of the plant next to machinery that makes synthetic fibers, handles, sticks and other parts.

Robert makes the rounds of the factory either on an automated cart or on a bicycle emblazoned with his name. On a recent day, he stopped his cart to pick up a pile of empty broom boxes. No job is too small for this man who once had to sneak into the factory.

"Wearing many hats is not a problem for me," he says. "I can do everything everybody else does, here but I've taken them to a step beyond me."

Teresa Puente is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and she writes the Chicanisima blog for She has spent much of her career writing about immigration and the Hispanic community, and her work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Beast, and The Guardian and other media outlets.