When the Humble Broom built Broomcorn Empires

It has been reported that  99% of all American households have at least one broom, and that a broom is vital to everyday living.

-Los Angeles Times 1988

LOC Broom Picture

Source: (Library of Congress) http://1.usa.gov/1s1dglw

Think people don’t have strong feelings about the humble broom?   A recent review at Amazon.com of an old fashioned broomcorn broom says,

I have backyard chickens, and a patio and paths, so I do a lot of scooping and sweeping. The scooping part was going fine, but until now I was very unsatisfied with the sweeping part of the job. The last broom I had came from my neighborhood grocery, and it was sadly inferior. It lasted about 6 months, but towards the end, I felt like I was sweeping on 3 bristles. I went looking for something better, and I found it in the most surprising place, because really, ordering brooms on the internet, isn’t that some kind of cultural anachronism? But it came with free shipping, so I gave it a try.

The free shipping turned out to be excellent shipping, and the broom arrived right away in an appropriate box that wasn’t damaged a bit. So my first impression was, this looks good. All my further impressions bore that out.

This is a glorious broom, a broom beyond compare, a broom like none I have ever seen. The handle is round and thick but surprisingly lightweight. The smooth wood feels good on the sensitive palms of my hands. The color is soothingly pale. The label has a picture of a horse and a buggy. So I like the handle.

The bristles are long and firm. There are lots of them. They are thickly bundled and uniform and well sewn. They are attached to the handle in a complicated arrangement of wires and padding that is completely firm and doesn’t jiggle a bit. So I like the bristles too.

I’ve been sweeping chicken leavings for a month now, and sometimes things are wet, and there are pine needles and other things, so I have given it a workout, and the broom looks like new. So I am completely satisfied with the broom.

Now, may I say something about the benefits of sweeping? Sweeping is wonderful exercise. I hope I am not getting too personal, but do you know how some people get kind of flabby on the sides of their belly? This is the best exercise for that area, especially if you are an older person. It stretches those muscles in a gentle way and over time they get stronger. Those muscles hold up your internal organs, so it is good to keep them in shape. Plus, sweeping is rhythmic and soothing, and it gives you a reason to be out on the porch, listening to the birds. I just think it’s great. So buy a broom already. You’ll be glad you did.

Ladies with Brooms

Source: Library of Congress http://1.usa.gov/ZhafDy

You might not get that excited about your broom, but most of us use one and it is hard to imagine that a simple, humble, broom could play such a big part in someone’s life beyond sweeping.  However, the July 15th, 1975 issue of the Greeley Daily Tribune indicates the broom was essential for housewives who didn’t have fancy new electric sweepers. Also that brooms were handy for shooing stray cats and stubborn salesman.

The End of an Era

The other part of the Greeley Tribune article reported something more significant…the end of an era.The end of brooms made with American broomcorn. After 60 years of reporting U.S. Broomcorn production, the USDA announced they were sweeping aside that set of statistical data. In 1915, when the crop was fairly large, they began reporting production numbers but by the mid 70’s, when this article came out, production had dwindled to small acreages isolated in Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma. One place where the last of those small acreages was cultivated was Baca County Colorado. In 1949, in this place called Baca, there were 377 farms growing nearly 75,000 acres of this crop.  Broomcorn is grown primarily for making brooms.  The 1983 Baca County History Book tells us the last of the Baca County broomcorn crops were raised  in 1978, not for brooms, but for decoration. Even the last of the broomcorn crops in BacaCounty ignored the humble broom. By the mid 1970’s most of the broomcorn used to make traditional broomcorn brooms was imported from Mexico.

The heyday of broomcorn production had passed.

BroomCorn Capital of the World

Baca County is one of four locations which at one time or another claimed the moniker

Broomcorn Capital of the World

Growing up in Baca County Colorado I have heard the statement above my entire life, however, occasionally I have stumbled upon the same claim from other places as well.   I totally lack objectivity since I am from one of the places to claim this title so you already know my vote.  Therefore, I am not writing with the purpose of proving one claim superior to another, but rather to observe some of the factors that go into such claims.

It is clear the production of this crop by American farmers dominated the economies of  a few places in Illinois, Oklahoma and Colorado  through the middle of the last century with a rapid and almost complete decline into the early 1970’s.  Ultimately broomcorn production in the US fell victim to to cheap foreign labor.

Even during the 1950’s heyday in Baca County the Baca County Banner would lament week after week in articles such as the September 17, 1951 article (shown below)  which proclaimed,

Labor Shortage Threatens Baca’s Broomcorn Crop; 1200 Needed

Broomcorn Worker Shortage Sept 13 1951 reported   by Baca County Banner

Source: Baca County Banner Sept 13, 1951

To further explain the challenges leading to the decline in the production of this crop the October 25, 1971 issue of the Pueblo (CO) Chieftain states,

No machine has yet been invented to successfully replace the hand labor.  The men, using broomcorn knives with sharp five-inch knives, move down rows in a field, bending the heads or brush with one hand and cutting the stalk about six inches below the bottom part of the brush with the other hand.  

When a worker has cut what heads he can hold in one hand he starts a small pile by bending over some stalks in one row and placing these in one row and placing on these bent stalks the heads with butt end pointed down.  With the brush off the ground, this allows air circulation needed for drying

Thus the four U.S. locations making this claim at various times lost the key crop which when associated to a place seemed to be described with terms such as “Broomcorn Capital”  “Broomcorn King”  and “Empire”  began to change from the cash crop that significantly impacted the economies and development of these areas.   Where were these “Broomcorn Empires”?  Below are the primary candidates:

  • Baca County Colorado
  • Arcola, Illinois in Douglas County
  • Lindsay, Oklahoma in Garvin County
  • Wichita, Kansas

I doubt that I will provide any argument to convince anyone from any of the places listed above will concede their title, but in our next post we will explore why these places made these claims.  At a minimum it will provide an interesting connection between these places where Broomcorn was King.

References

“Farming and Ranching.” Baca County History Book. Lubbock: Specialty, 1983. 40. Print.

“Broomcorn Stats Swept Out.” Greeley Daily Tribune [Greeley] 15 July 1975: 7. Print.

“Baca County Known as Broomcorn Capital” Pueblo Chieftain [Pueblo]  25 October: 1971, Print.

 

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