Broom Making With Broom Corn
A Clean Sweep: Turning broom corn into house brooms, barn brooms and whisk brooms
Jim McCormick and his grandson at work making brooms at a recent show in Illinois.
In the old days, people made their own basics: butter, soap, even brooms. Broom-making was among the demonstrations at this summer's River Valley Antique Association show at Chillicothe, Ill. Jim McCormick and his 14-year-old grandson, Shawn, worked in tandem as they coaxed brooms from an old machine.
A common misconception is that brooms are made of straw. In fact, they're produced from broom corn, a once common crop that's hard to find now. For a time, Jim got broom corn from a farmer in Arcola, Ill. Then he tried growing his own.
"Now I contract it from Mexico," he said, paying about $2 per bushel. Shipments are bigger than what he's accustomed to. "I used to buy small bunches, but now I have to buy big bundles. Last time I had to buy a 134-lb. bundle."
About 2 pounds of broom corn is used in construction of a house broom; a barn broom uses 3 pounds or more. Each bushel is cut to a certain size; Jim uses seven different sizes for products ranging from the 7" whisk broom to a 22" barn broom.
Named for its large, broom-like head, broom corn (sorghum vulgare) is sometimes called millet or guinea corn. The crop is grown much like oats or barley. The small, white seeds produce large heads of grain that are collected to make brooms, or, less commonly, white flour for bread, or as feed for cattle, horses or poultry.
Broom corn is a labor-intensive crop: it must be harvested by hand. Then a seeder is used to remove the seeds. When Jim raised his own broom corn, he removed the seeds by hand, scraping them off with a knife.
"It was slow, but it worked," he said.
After the seed has been removed, the broom corn must be dried, a three- to four-week process. After the corn is dried, it is cut, sorted and bundled.
Making the brooms is no easier than raising the broom corn. Once the corn has been prepared for processing, the stalks are bundled into a cluster and held in place by a "kicker," an antique piece of equipment.
"This one was built in 1870," Jim said. "It was built here in Galesburg. I got it from a friend who originally bought it in southern Missouri, and he bought it for another fellow to use, but then he found out he didn't really know how to make brooms. He took it home and put it in his shed, and then sold it to us. I paid $600 for it."
Using the machine like a treadle sewing machine, Jim winds wire around the head of the broom corn. A simple process? Looks can be deceiving. Using that 130-year-old machine, Jim makes 35 different types of brooms.