Broom Making With Broom Corn

A Clean Sweep: Turning broom corn into house brooms, barn brooms and whisk brooms

| November 2000

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.

11/6/2013 9:17:30 AM

I grew up around broommakers. Except for my dad, they have all passed on. I also worked in the broomshop when I was in high school. I haven't made a broom, now, in over 30 years. I worked as a buncher, stitcher, and as a winder.