Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Broomcorn and Broom Making
Nature Bulletin No. 685   Septe4mber 15, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

Back in the late 1700's, Benjamin Franklin found a small seed on a whisk broom that a friend had brought him from France for dusting his beaver hat. Next spring he planted that seed and it grew into a tall corn- like plant with a flowering brush of stiff fibers bearing seeds.

From these more were grown for several years as a garden novelty in Philadelphia. Then, in 1797, a man in Massachusetts who had planted a half acre of it began to make and peddle crude brooms. Broomcorn raising and broom making soon grew into an important industry with skilled workmen producing a greatly improved product. After that, for more than a century, a good broom was one of the American housewife's most prized possessions. No other fiber equals broom-corn for picking up dust and sweeping.

Broomcorn is one of the sorghums. Unlike other sorghums which are grown for grain, for fodder, or for making molasses, broomcorn's only use is for brooms and brushes. It has been cultivated in Asia and Africa since ancient times.

In the United States the main broomcorn-growing regions have slowly shifted westward and are now in Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. For years, east-central Illinois was the largest producer with 60,000 acres under cultivation in 1935. At present, only a small acreage is grown but it yields most of the seed planted in other states. Illinois is still a center for broom factories and broomcorn dealers with large plants in several downstate cities and Chicago.

Broom corn is planted in rows and cultivated like ordinary field corn. One of two principal varieties grown is called 'standard and is usually 10 or 12 feet in height. The "dwarf" variety, grown only in the western states, is about half as tall. Both kinds bear a brush of a few dozen fibers up to two feet in length.

Harvesting the crop and preparing it for the broom maker require a great deal of hand labor. It is harvested before the seed matures -- before the fiber becomes brittle. First, a man walks backward between two rows and breaks over the stalks, crisscross, to form what is known as a "table". Next, each brush is cut off just below the crown and piled in handfuls on this table. These are hauled to a machine with whirling, spiked cylinders which knocks off the seed. Then the brush is spread on racks in a drying shed where, after curing for two or three weeks, it is compressed into bales weighing 350 to 450 pounds. All this must be done carefully to yield good, untangled fiber for use in brooms.

At the factory broomcorn is sorted according to length, color (green is preferred), fineness, and straightness of the fiber. A broom is built up on a winding machine that slowly turns its wooden handle as the brush is added, layer by layer, and bound tight by a wire under tension. After two or three layers of shorter, coarser fibers, the shoulders of the broom are formed by adding brush to opposite sides. Next comes a layer of longer brush, called hurl, pointing the other way. This is folded down over the growing broom, followed by a final covering of hurl.

Another machine clamps the broom in a vise and binds it firmly into shape with four or five lines of stitching of stout twine. Formerly, this was done by a craftsman using an 8-inch, double-pointed needle, with an eye in the center, which he pushed back and forth with a thimble mounted on a leather cuff in the palm of each hand.

Woe to the man that missed the thimble -- he carried scars !

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