What is Broomcorn?
I have had several conversations about recording local history as we are doing with Bacacountyhistory.com. Anytime the topic of broomcorn has come up with someone not from Baca County there is inevitably the question “What’s that?” Therefore, if any of you reading this are not from Baca County or one of the other areas discussed in this post, here is some basic information:
The picture below shows Lon Kerr standing in his broomcorn field in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. I want to show this picture as it offers not only some perspective on the varying heights of the individual plants, but also as a bonus (that is correct no extra charge) because Lon was my Little League baseball coach.
Photo courtesy of Lonnie Kerr
Purdue University Tells us,
Broomcorn (Sorghum vulgare var. technicum) is a type of sorghum that is used for making brooms and whiskbrooms. It differs from other sorghums in that it produces heads with fibrous seed branches that may be as much as 36 in. long.
Although the origin of broomcorn is obscure, sorghum apparently originated in central Africa. Production of this crop then spread to the Mediterranean, where people used long-branched sorghum panicles for making brooms in the Dark Ages. Broomcorn may have evolved as a result of repeated selection of seed from heads that had the longest panicle branches. The broomcorn plant was first described in Italy in the late 1500s. Benjamin Franklin is credited with introducing broomcorn to the United States in the 1700s. Initially, broomcorn was grown only as a garden crop for use in the home.
Other reports tell us that this single plant grown by Franklin grew into a tall corn- like plant with a flowering brush of stiff fibers bearing seeds and was the first of many broomcorn plants grown in Philadelphia. Broom making in the US began in 1797 when a Massachusetts man planted a half acre of it and began to make and then peddle crude brooms.
Cultivation of the crop shifted westward with large scale production beginning in Illinois in the 1860’s. For the next 100 years or so US production was focused in Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. The USDA quit tracking domestic Broomcorn production in the 1970s as lower demand for the crop and its vast labor requirements, particularly for harvesting, ended its viability as a modern agriculture crop in the United States. Most of the domestic needs for broomcorn are now satisfied via imports from Mexico.
Our Baca County friend Cotton Huffman suggested awhile back in a social media post that we collectively talk about some of the good times in Baca County and not just focus on the the dust bowl. In honor of that request we will begin sharing a few more Broomcorn stories we’ve collected about a significant period of Baca County History. The Broomcorn era in Baca County began in 1887 and ended in 1978. I have several local recollections of the broomcorn era that I will compile and share, but for the remainder of this post we will shall compare some of the claims that have been made to the title of “Broomcorn Capital of the World”.
Cotton tells us,
“I read somewhere that Walsh was the broom corn capital of Baca county and someone said Pritchett was. I know that Sid and Glen Harrison raised a lot of broomcorn and other people west and south of Pritchett, but I’ve been south of Walsh and West to Campo. I think there was where the most broomcorn was raised. I worked in a grocery store in Boise City OK. and every week the Rogers family came in and bought a pickup load of groceries and sometimes more to feed the broom corn hands…so I won’t say who I think is right.”
Broomcorn Capital of the World?
Let’s go beyond “Broomcorn capitol of Baca County” to a bolder claim of “Broomcorn Capital of the World”. So where is the real “Broomcorn Capital of the World”? If you search for this you most likely will find 1 of 4 places who most often have made this claim:
- Wichita, Kansas in Sedgwick County
- Arcola, Illinois in Douglas County
- Lindsay, Oklahoma in Garvin County
- Baca County Colorado
The Arcola (Illinois) Chamber of Commerce web site tells us that shortly after Broomcorn’s introduction to the area in 1865, nearly half of the broomcorn grown in the United States came from the Arcola area. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County Illinois indicates that in 1935 central Illinois produced upwards of 60,000 acres of broomcorn, which if correct, means that the production of the corp drastically declined between 1935 and 1939. USDA 1939 Census of Agriculture data indicates production in the 3 key Illinois counties was just over 21,000 acres.
USDA began keeping Broomcorn production statistics in 1915, as it had become a fair sized crop in the areas of the country discussed in this post .
Various sources indicate the Yearbook of Agriculture was first published in 1894 as the second volume of the Annual Report of the Secretary of Agriculture and reviewed developments in agriculture over the prior year. Until 1936 the Yearbook contained this summary report as well as “unrelated articles on current agricultural research or study” as well as statistical tables where broomcorn production data was reported. From 1936 on, the series changed, focusing each volume on a single topic of interest and addressing the volumes to the American public, initially to farmers and in more recent decades, to American consumers.
Oklahoma State University states that between 1915 and 1946 Oklahoma led the nation in Broomcorn Production. One of the key measures listed in some of the data shows production in short tons. What is a short ton you ask?
The British ton is the long ton, which is 2240 pounds, and the U.S. ton is the short ton which is 2000 pounds. Both tons are actually defined in the same way. 1 ton is equal to 20 hundredweight. It is just the definition of the hundredweight that differs between countries. In the U.S. there are 100 pounds in the hundredweight, and in Britain there are 112 pounds in the hundredweight. This causes the actual weight of the ton to differ between countries. To distinguish between the two tons, the smaller U.S. ton is called short, while the larger British ton is called long.
The United States Yearbook of Agriculture annual data backs up Oklahoma’s claim for the era above. The images below which show annual production data for a sampling of years throughout this era:
The Western Empire Magazine indicates that in 1929 Baca County grew 80% of Colorado’s crop and 12% of the nations broomcorn corp. Note the article text below acknowledges that some of the finest broomcorn in the nation is raised in Illinois (Arcola area I presume) and in Lindsay OK .
Before we continue the “Broomcorn Capital of the World” discussion, I will define a second term commonly used by the farmer in the United States. Let’s look at the term “acre”.
The term “acre” is common language for the U.S. farmer. For the non farmer reading this it may be a little more difficult to understand. Let’s review.
Let’s continue on with the Wikipedia explanation,
The acre is a unit of area used in the imperial and U.S. customary systems. It is equivalent to 43,560 square feet (approximately 4,047 m2). An acre is about 40% of a hectare or about 80% the size of an American football field (including end zones).
The international symbol of the acre is ac. An acre is defined as 1/640 of a square mile. Therefore 640 acres is a square mile. The most commonly used acre today is the international acre. In the United States both the international acre and the slightly different US survey acre are in use. The most common use of the acre is to measure tracts of land. One international acre is defined as exactly 4046.8564224 square metres.
During the Middle Ages, an acre was the amount of land that could be ploughed in one day with a yoke of oxen and measured one by ten chains (1⁄10 by 1 furlong; 22 by 220 yards), yielding 4,840 square yards.
Claims to the Title of “Broomcorn Capital of the World”
I remember hearing Wichita come up in the discussions about shipping broomcorn, but never really knew their involvement. Although I have found a couple of obscure references to broomcorn it seems Wichita’s primary claim to the title stems from it’s role as a major distribution and shipping center for broomcorn. The Wichita Historic Preservation office says:
“In the 1920’s and 1930’s there were twelve broom corn dealers in Wichita. Wichita’s broomcorn boom coincided with major improvements in the local railroad network. The two story brick building identified as the “Broomcorn Warehouse” (below)
“is part of a row of buildings constructed for warehouse use after the construction of the adjacent Wichita Union Terminal Railway.”
Overall Kansas was always in the top 7 broomcorn states during the years reviewed for this post and it certainly was very important for many farmers. Some interesting Kansas tidbits include the following:
In a September 24, 1989 Hutchinson News article Conrad Jackson credited his opportunity for higher education to his family’s hard work and in particular a specific crop — broomcorn — that helped not only his family but also several others in the area during rough economic times. Jackson, who was 69 at the time and living on the same farm southeast of Elsmore, Kansas in Allen County where he was raised, continued to grow broomcorn in retirement as a hobby and also as a way to maintain the heritage of broomcorn and the role it played in his life.
Broomcorn’s been a great thing to me all my life, I think I was born with a broomcorn knife in my hand. My dad grew broomcorn and my brother and I both were privileged enough to go to Kansas State because of it. And that was in the Depression.
The December 3rd, 1924 issue of the Weekly Kansas City Star discusses an area that includes three of the states/areas in this post plus northeast New Mexico. They state,
Northwestern Oklahoma, Northeastern New Mexico and Eastern Colorado comprise a territory that is rapidly becoming the most important broomcorn producing section in the world. In this territory, formerly considered mainly as a livestock and small grain producing section, live nearly two thirds of the broomcorn raisers in the United States, who produce 60 per cent of the world’s supply of the staple from which the common broom of commerce Is manufactured.
Arcola Certainly Got Started First
The Arcola Chamber of Commerce web site tells us that around 1865, a local gentleman named Col. Cofer experimented by planting 20 acres of broomcorn on his land. The crop did so well that the popularity of broomcorn took off. Soon after, nearly half of the broom corn grown in the United States came from the Arcola area. And so began the storied relationship between broomcorn and Arcola.
Twitter provides an interesting tidbit about the role about one of Arcola’s Broom makers, the Libman company:
The Arcola Chamber continues on with a fascinating look a the rest of their historic ties to the Broomcorn industry,
One of the key elements of Arcola’s past is heavily intertwined with its present. In the 1880s, the harvesting of broomcorn, then a major crop, gave rise to several companies. One such company was the Thomas Monahan Company, which was founded in Arcola in 1922. Since then, the Monahan Company has grown to become the world’s largest manufacturer of handles for brooms and mops. Through all of the growth, the Monahan Company has been able to remain a family-owned business for a remarkable four generations. Even though it seems that Arcola has always been associated with broomcorn, it has not always been a smooth road. During the 1950s, cheaper brooms imported from other countries almost snuffed out broom production in America. Pat Monahan, vice president of the Monahan Company, says that the survival of the broom industry in the United States is directly linked to Arcola.
In the late 1950s, Arcola resident P.A. Lindenmeyer convinced U.S. Senator Dirksen of the need for tariffs on imported brooms. The Senate responded by placing a huge 32 percent tariff on foreign-made brooms, thus saving the American broom industry. According to Monahan, Arcola residents are interested in the history of broomcorn and are proud of the title, “Broomcorn Capital of the World.” “People are curious about it (broomcorn industry) and like to understand it. Almost everybody over 50 knows somebody who used to harvest broomcorn,” said Monahan.
By the 1950’s Broomcorn production in Illnois was on the decline. The August 23, 1952 edition of the Matoon Illinois Daily Gazette discusses a sharp decline in the harvest in this town on the “buckle of the broomcorn belt” . Purdue University also indicates that by 1967 broomcorn production in Illinois had virtually ceased. All areas discussed in this post had warehouses and broom making companies so Arcola’s true testament to this discussion of broomcorn is their ability to adapt to changing market conditions and continue a role in broom manufacturing as well as the continuation of their annual “Broomcorn Festival”.
The Oklahoma Historical Society says,
Oklahoma housewives treasured a good broom to combat the state’s omnipresent red dirt. Unique among agricultural products, broomcorn brush was adapted for making brooms, and no other fiber equaled it for sweeping. During the Territorial Era small broom-making shops appeared in many Oklahoma towns. Later, factories and institutions for the blind made hundreds of brooms each day. When the first broom factory opened in Ponca City following the Cherokee Outlet land opening in 1893, the state held a minor position in broom production. However, broomcorn grew exceptionally well in Oklahoma, and the state led the nation in production between 1915 and 1946.
Oklahoma’s broomcorn brush was sold to local, state, and national broom factories, which purchased it directly from the growers during harvest or from broomcorn warehouses. In the 1940s the state comprised two broomcorn districts. In the northwest, broomcorn first appeared in the Panhandle in 1889. In 1904 a broom factory was built at Gage. Located in south-central Oklahoma, the “Lindsay District” introduced its first crop in 1906, and Lindsay became known as “the Broomcorn Capital of the World.
The Oklahoma Historical Society also states the Lindsay region annually produced twenty thousand to thirty thousand acres of broomcorn. I can only guess they are referring to the 1915 to 1946 timeframe as USDA census data from 1940 through 1970 does not back up that claim. I have a source document identified at Oklahoma State University which may be able to shed some additional light on this issue, but it is not available via inter library loan. Too bad all that tuition I paid to OSU doesn’t get me a little extra pull. If I make a trek to Stillwater one day maybe I can review it at that time. Per USDA census data the maximum acreage during the 1940 -1970 time frame the maximum acreage was 15,590 acres.
Baca County Colorado
Think about this for a second…75,000 acres of a crop that is harvested by hand. A dirty, nasty, itchy, manually intensive process. This process required lots of helpers; usually referred to as Broomcorn Johnnies with an occasional reference to Broomcorn Sallies. The approximate number of acres of ‘corn’ cultivated in Baca County Colorado per the 1949 US Census was 75,000 acres. No place claiming the title of Broomcorn Capital came close to growing the total acreage produced in Baca County from 1940 through the 1970s.
This July 26, 1949 article from the Matoon IL, Journal Gazette fits nicely with the premise of that post and the transition of primary broomcorn growing area:
Colorado Preservation Inc tells us,
Broomcorn was a major agricultural crop raised in Baca County from the 1880s to the 1970s. The broomcorn plant grows long straw-like fibers at its head, used in the production of brooms and as a packing material. The first crop was raised in Baca County in 1887 by Mr. Roseboom, a broom maker from eastern Kansas who homesteaded in the southeastern portion of the county. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, Baca County produced approximately one-third of the United States’ annual supply of broomcorn and by the 1970s had earned the unofficial title of “Broomcorn Capital of the World.” Built environment remains of the broomcorn boom include migrant worker complexes, including that of the Stonington Broomcorn Ranch (5BA.2316), and the numerous Quonset huts inventoried across the county. Though used for a variety of purposes, Quonset huts were commonly used to store broomcorn ricks and bales and date from the middle decades of the twentieth century (1940s to 1960s) when broomcorn cultivation was at its peak.
Drought resistant and fast growing, broomcorn was ideally suited to the semi-arid climate of Baca County, which receives about fifteen inches of precipitation each year. Broomcorn grows best in the sandy soils of the southeastern sections of the county. A member of the genus sorghum, broomcorn is an excellent cover crop that offers protection from wind and water erosion. The most popular variety of broomcorn raised in Baca County was Black Spanish, the “standard” variety. Dwarf varieties were also cultivated, including Reynolds 11 and Scarbrough. In addition to its attributes as a hardy dryland crop, broomcorn recommended itself well as a money crop when compared to grains grown in the area. Without railroad access within Baca County, until 1926 harvested crops had to be transported to adjacent counties or into Kansas, often with the closest station more than fifty miles away from the farm site. With the expense of travel, grain crops left little to profit prior to World War I. However, a farmer could expect sixty to one hundred dollars per ton of broomcorn, even in the early decades of the twentieth century, from which a respectable profit could be realized.
Large broomcorn operations began to take hold in Baca County in the early 1940s. In the wake of the Dust Bowl, the government paid farmers to “list” (plant) ground to guard against wind erosion. Farmers including Leroy Haney took advantage of this program, planted broomcorn, and paid little if any attention to the crop until harvest. In the days before “packing peanuts,” it was discovered that the top of the broomcorn plant used to make broom bristles was also an effective packing material; it was lightweight and flexible. As such, it was valuable in packing and shipping overseas during World War II. As farmers were paid by the government to plant their land, and rewarded with a marketable product at harvest, broomcorn caught on as an ideal cash crop.
The Stonington Broomcorn Ranch mentioned above is also called the Haney Broomcorn Ranch. Below are recent pictures of this location provided courtesy of Jennifer Goodland and the Big Year Colorado Project Knowing that various pieces of history are often connected, it is interesting to note some of the buildings were apparently moved there from Camp Amache, a Japanese American internment camp located in southeast Colorado, about a mile west of the small farming community of Granada,
Note: you may buy prints of the photos above and other Colorado photos or commission research at Big Year Colorado (Thanks for the great pictures Jennifer)
More broomcorn shots from Baca County.
Source: My Mother’s Basement, Anita Bishop and Virginia Bitner
Does Data Tell us Anything?
Data up to 1940 is generally aggregated on a statewide basis for USDA provided data. If time permits I would like to review some other resources to look at the years prior to 1939, but that will take some time. Maybe some feedback from this post will put me closer to more detail data. I chose for this comparison to use US census data to compare broomcorn production during the middle part of the last century with for the locations which for one reason or another also claimed the title of broomcorn Capital of the World. As noted in one of our previous broomcorn posts, the USDA quit reporting broomcorn production in 1975.
Approximate span of key production years for broomcorn in the areas discussed in this post:
- Arceola area, 1865-1967: 98 years
- Baca County, 1887 -1978: 89 years
- Lindsay, 1893-1974: 71 years
- Wichita: Not a major producer, served as a key distribution center
Broomcorn Acres 1939-1974
|Square Miles||Total Acres||1939||1949||1954||1959||1964||1969||1974|
|Baca County Colorado||2,557||1,636,480||43,835||74,384||63,807||45,396||52,621||28,394||3,580|
|Douglas County Illinois||417||266,880||3,714||597||821||NA||NA||NA||NA|
|Coles County Illinois||510||326,400||12,740||2,453||1,703||NA||NA||NA||NA|
|Cumberland County Illinois||347||222,080||5,660||1,027||727||NA||NA||NA||NA|
|Garvin County Oklahoma||814||520,960||15,590||11,711||12,711||11,201||8,744||NA||405|
|Sedgewick County Kansas (Wichita)||1,009||645,760||NA||NA||15||NA||NA||NA||NA|
Broomcorn Tonnage 1939-1974
|Baca County Colorado||2,557||1,636,480||3,566||10,776||4,635||6,759||4,064||3,709||405|
|Douglas County Illinois||417||266,880||1,109||252||166|
|Coles County Illinois||3,486||727||360|
|Cumberland County Illinois||1,157||127||219|
|Garvin County Oklahoma||814||520,960||2,413||2,088||2,338||2,952||2,099||149|
Broomcorn Farms 1939-1974
|Baca County Colorado||2,557||1,636,480||352||377||340||208||184||112||12|
|Douglas County Illinois||417||266,880||130||30||18|
|Coles County Illinois||400||75||42|
|Cumberland County Illinois||259||41||36|
|Garvin County Oklahoma||814||520,960||799||337||283||159||121||4|
|Sedgewick County Kansas (Witchita)||1|
Source: USDA Census of Agriculture Reports
Kudos to all who were actively involved in the broomcorn industry in all of the areas discussed in this post. What a great legacy and work ethic our parents, grandparents and some of you reading this have left us. Thank you all. As for who is right about stating they are the Broomcorn Capital of the world? This post provides some data and references for state and areas of production as well as the specific areas making the claim.
Wichita played a key role in the distribution of broomcorn during the heyday of domestic production. Kansas overall was important in the overall production for many years. However, I think three different areas could rightfully claim the title during different eras of production.
Broomcorn Capitol of the World Era #1
Arcola, Illinois was a leading producer into the early 1900’s and can rightfully claim the title of Broom Making Capital of World even to this day. They have done a tremendous job of celebrating the history of broomcorn production in the U.S. with an annual broomcorn festival. What they are better at than anyone else is maintaining their broom making legacy and the overall industry with their annual festival. Although their broom makers have expanded to other types of brooms and cleaning devices, they are still cranking out broomcorn brooms using imported Mexican broomcorn. I bought one made by Libman just the other day (see below). Finally, I do acknowledge there are other broom makers in Arcola, but you didn’t have your broomcorn broom in a store where I was buying.
Broomcorn Capitol of the World Era #2
As Illinois was winding down the production in Oklahoma and others areas was ramping up. Lindsay Oklahoma was certainly in the top 3 broomcorn producing areas and Lindsay as well as the entire state of Oklahoma produced an amazing amount of the crop from 1915 through 1946. They certainly had their time.
Broomcorn Capitol of the World Era #3
As we entered the final golden era of U.S production around 1940 Baca County Colorado was ramping up and consistently producing the largest acreage and tonnage in the country. This continued for nearly 40 years. The USDA Census of Agriculture data above confirms that from 1940 until the last crop was grown in 1978 no other area in the country produced as much broomcorn as Baca County. From 1939 on Baca County led U.S. broomcorn production while production was still commercially viable and their claim as Broomcorn Capital of the World in the era from 1940 through the 1970’s was right on target.
There are compelling arguments for all locations. Great work Arcola, carrying on the traditions even today. I am a little biased about Baca County’s golden era of production, but I think after looking at this for awhile I am a little like Cotton….”I won’t say who I think is right.” You can decide for yourself.
I have listed the spelling in most places as broomcorn and several references use that spelling. The Oxford Dictionary, however, lists it as “Broom corn”. Broomcorn in all of these areas was often referenced as just “corn” All of my Dad’s letters home during WWII reference “corn” such as his November 11, 1942 letter which asked,
Has Ray (Brooks) got all of his corn taken care of by this time sure hope so.
In these instances corn always references broomcorn. Interestingly the only broomcorn related reference I have found thus far where “Corn” does not mean Broomcorn is in Tim Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time”. It mentions (page 27-28) a (moonshine) still near the Osteen homestead and how the vacuum cleaner replacing the broom encouraged a few farmers stopped raising broomcorn and start raising corn for alcohol during the depression. It mentions some farmers making up to $500 a week making whiskey.