Broomcorn Harvesting, Thrashing and Broom Making

Don Colwell feeding broomcorn into the seeder.

Don Colwell feeding broomcorn into the seeder.

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Superintendent Cache Public Schools 201 West H Avenue Cache, Oklahoma 73527

Yes, broomcorn, which is used to make straw brooms, does give off a powder that does itch and chap some people when mixed with sweat and sunburn. I have seen one or two person simply break out in large red welts. Maybe this is why I have never seen or heard of any display of broomcorn harvesting in the past 10-12 years since I have been reading magazines and going to exhibits. I can learn about harvesting beets, potatoes, wheat or grain of any type, wool and who knows what else, but I am here to stand up for those marvelous people who made it possible for us to clean our houses before Mr. Kirby's sweeper or WalMart and their plastic brooms.

But first, please allow me to digress and tell you about my son's 1938 John Deere Model B. It all started about 1950 when I was six years old, in our first new vehicle, a '49 Chevrolet pickup. We drove from our home in Elmore City, Oklahoma, to Boswell, Oklahoma, to visit my dad's grandmother, aunt, uncles and cousins. We finally got to the old home place northwest of Boswell, and for the first time, I saw their great big tractor with steel wheels. Back then, we still used horses (Buck and Dan) on our place. The excitement was almost more than a boy could stand. My older brother DeWayne and I were all over that tractor. It was a John Deere B not nearly so big now, since I have grown up.

L. M. (Luke) Colwell, my great grandfather, bought the John Deere B and some equipment in July of 1938 at Bokchito. I have the original Bill of Sale. Luke died in September of the same year, while he was in the field watching his grandson, Marion Huf-ford, plowing with the tractor. Marion carried him on the back of the tractor to the house where he later died with a heart attack. Marion used the tractor for years before he parked it. Marion, his sister Gertrude, and his mother, Opal lived with her parents after her husband died in Shamut, Arkansas, of the fever.

In the early '80s, my dad, Hugh E. Colwell, and I got interested in our genealogy. My family in 1982 went to Boswell to visit Marion and his wife, who still lived at the old home place in the same house that Luke had built in 1919. He used lumber cut off his land at Shamut, Arkansas, to build with. Luke said it was good Arkansas pine.

Marion and Opal showed us a lot of pictures and other information for our family search. But when I saw the old tractor left out in the field in the bushes, my heart just about stopped. I was already interested in old iron and this would be a great piece. I did not say anything about it for almost four months and then I couldn't stand it any longer. I asked my dad if he thought it would be permissible to ask about the tractor. So, I wrote a letter and called Marion about the 'B.' He was more than happy to let me have it to restore. My only regret was that I did not take a. camera with me, and they did not have one, to take a picture of the trees, bushes and vines I had to cut with a chain saw to be able to move it. But the one picture I would love to have now was of Marion guiding the tractor as I pulled it to the loading spot through their yard.

I took it to my dad's place so he could direct us in the overhauling, since he worked as a mechanic for Warren Petroleum Company for several years. We finally got it running and painted it green. When my brother came in, he painted the wheels for us. My son Terry, 15 years old, who is a great-great-grandson of Luke, owns the tractor now.

Thank you for your patience in letting me share that story. Now ... back to broomcorn. Here's part of the talk I give during demonstration of our exhibits:

This is broomcorn. It is used to make straw brooms. The old common 'Black Spanish' variety grows about 10 to 12 feet high, or at least it did where I grew up in Elmore City, Oklahoma, and worked on its harvesting. I also worked at Maysville, Pauls Valley and Lindsay, Oklahoma, the broomcorn capital of Oklahoma and the world. The Washita bottom grew broomcorn from 'here to there' in the '40s, '50s and early '60s.-The head grew right in the top of the stalk which looked like an ear of corn stalk. Early in the morning, the harvest crew would start in a field, with the big boys and men breaking the corn over so the head could be cut.

To break the corn, you walk between two rows, gather as many stalks as you can, break it about waist high, swing the tops back behind you, crossing it to the other side to make a table out of the two rows. The heads would be sticking out so the women could start cutting the heads. The men would come back and help cut after they broke down what could be cut during the day. To cut the heads, you use a 'Johnny knife' or a 'Sally knife' which is the same knife. A male worker was called a 'Johnny' and a female worker was called a 'Sally.' The knife is a stubby-looking knife with a three inch wood handle and a three inch wide blade. You lay the knife on the stalk between the boot and the first leaf at an angle and pull the head up through the knife, not having to move the knife at all. You cut until you get a handful, then lay that on what you call the 'on table' (the broomcorn broken over across the row made the table). There would be an on table and an off table; on table, off table. The float (a broomcorn trailer) would go down the off row and a person on each side would stack the cut heads on the float to be hauled into the shed where the seeder would be set up. The float, hinged in the middle, was hooked in front. When unhooked, the back end would go to the ground and you could take the tail off and pull out from under the corn, leaving a neat stack ready to thrash. Everyone would quit cutting about 4 or 5 o'clock to go into the shed and thrash what had been hauled in that day. The seeder was a piece of equipment that basically had two round cylinders with flat metal tooth-like nails sticking out about two to three inches. The broomcorn head would run between the two cylinders and the seed would be stripped off. The seeder was belted to a tractor for power. First the 'bukers' (large boys) would carry as much as they could get their arms around, to the end of the table. (This table is a wooden table about three feet wide with a 6 inch back.) The men would work on the table. They would start moving the corn down the table, making smaller hand-fuls and getting all of the cut ends lined up. The feeder was the man who owned the machine. He would keep the broomcorn going into the seeder. A man on the other end took the corn as it came out and gave it, a handful at a time, to the 'ant trail 'the women and small kids. They would carry it to the shelter in the shed for drying, which took about two or three weeks, depending on the weather. Another crew came to bale it.

The baler is a press that makes a 350 to 400 pound bale, ready for the market. It would then be sent to the people who make the brooms.

Cecil Lebaud has an antique broom machine, brought to Oklahoma in 1907 by his grandfather. This is a one broom, one man operation. Terry and I are trying to learn how to make a broom.