From Field to Factory: Broom Making!

broomcornFarmers in Iowa are busy harvesting corn and soybeans from their fields. Nowadays, a lot of Iowa’s corn and crops are grown to feed to animals. In the late 1800s, Iowa farmers sometimes grew a very special plant called broomcorn for a different purpose. Most brooms in the past were made from this plant. Broomcorn is actually not a type of corn at all. It is part of a family of plants called sorghum. Farmers grew broomcorn and sold it to factories, as a way to make some extra money. The harvesting took place in the fall, along with their other crops.

But how did the long broomcorn tassels grown on the farm become a broom? In the late 1800s, brooms were made in big and small factories. Some of the factories in Iowa had only two workers and a couple of factories had over 30 workers. Most factories, like the one we show at Living History Farms, had around 6-10 workers.

broom shop Not every town had a factory, so brooms would be shipped to towns around the state, around the country, and even around the world.

One of the first steps to making a broom was to soak the broomcorn in water.

soaking the broom corn Broomcorn is kind of like spaghetti, it breaks easily when it is dry and bends when it is wet. Once the broomcorn was soaked enough to bend, it was ready to move to the binding machine (also called a kicker). bindingThe person running the binding machine used their foot to make the machine turn and their hands to hold the broomcorn under the working wire that wraps the bristles onto a handle. Brooms are made in layers.setting the wire Each layer was wrapped tight to the handle using twine or metal wire. The wire was hammered down tight around the broomcorn and handle before the next layer was attached.

Some brooms had what are called shoulders – two bundles of broomcorn on each side of the broom – which gave them a curved look at the top. shoulders on a broomThe shoulders had to be put on just right so that they didn’t flatten out. Some brooms used only a small amount of broomcorn, like the laundry/cake tester broom and the hearth broom, while other brooms used a lot of broomcorn, like the house broom. Once a broom had all of the layers on it, which could be three to seven layers, it was ready to be taken out of the first machine to dry.

drying the broomIf the broom was not allowed to dry, it could become moldy inside. At the museum, brooms are hung from the ceiling for at least a day to make sure that all the layers are dry. A laundry/cake tester broom and a hearth broom would have one less step than other brooms. Other brooms like the house broom, children’s broom, and whisk broom were all flat brooms, and in order to make them flat, they had to go into a machine called a sewing vice. sewing vice

This machine smashed the broom flat so that a worker could use string and needles to sew the broom. The sewing is what kept the broom flat once it was taken out of the vice.

All brooms ended at the trimming board. This was a machine with a very sharp blade that cut the ends of the broom to the same length.trimming

Once the broom was trimmed, it was inspected to make sure it was properly made. If it was, the broom was sent to stores to be sold. If workers had made all the broomcorn even around the handle, and if they had sewn it just right, and trimmed everything evenly, the broom would pass the test of being able to stand up straight without being held. Not every broom was made perfect in a factory, so having a broom stand up on its own was a pretty special thing.broom standing

Once the brooms were at the store, it was up to people to buy the right broom for the job they had to do! Brooms were an important part of every household and they were used for many different purposes.whisk, cake tester, hearth broomsA small laundry broom could be dipped in water to sprinkle onto clean clothes before using a hot iron. This would create steam, so wrinkles could be ironed out. A hearth broom was used to sweep ashes back into a fireplace. A whisk broom had the handle cut off, so it could get under places where handles would get in the way. A house broom was used to clean the big rooms in a house. children and house broomsA children’s broom was for the children to help clean the house. Do you have a broom to help with cleaning? If you do, just think of the steps it took to make it for you!


Broom Corn Harvest!

October is a month full of harvests! Harvesting is when farmers pick or cut the crops in their field and use the plants for food or other things. Many Iowa farmers are busy right now harvesting corn–for animals to eat and for people to eat.

At Living History Farms, we also have a special type of corn that is not for eating at all! Instead, it is harvested to make brooms! Broomcorn plant with different styles of broomsBrooms are made from a plant called broomcorn. Broomcorn is a type of sorghum plant. It is different from the corn that people and animals eat. This “corn” does not have ears filled with kernels. Instead it grows swishy tassels at the very top! These long tassels are what broom makers use to make brooms.

Broomcorn seeds  Broomcorn just starting to tassel

The seeds of the plant are very small. Farmers plant broomcorn sometime between the middle of May and the middle of June. Farmers plant the seeds 2 inches apart in rows that are 28 inches to 48 inches apart.

Broom corn plants grow slowly at first, but after they are a foot tall they grow very rapidly. There are many varieties of broom corn, from dwarf types that grow short to really tall types.

Farmers harvest the broom corn based on when they feel it has the best “brush” or tassel for making brooms. Some farmers feel the best brush is harvested when the plant is in flower, or at most when the seed is only slightly formed. At Living History Farms, we usually harvest the plant in the middle of October when it looks like this.

broom corn When the farmer feels the broom corn is ready, the plant is tabled. Our farmers walk through the corn patch and bend the stalk over like this.

Tabled broomcornTabling is when the stalks of the plant are bent over, about 30” from the ground, towards the next row in a diagonal direction. As the stalks are bent over the next row it creates the look of a table top in the field. Doing this allows the tassels to stay straight as they continue to lengthen.

Broomcorn tassles with seeds

Sorted broomcornWhen it is time to bring the tassels out of the field, the tassels are cut off with about 8” of stalk on them. The farmer then takes the tassels to a building that has slotted shelves to place the tassels on. These shelves allow the tassels to completely dry in a flat position. The seeds are then combed off the tassels and the tassels taken apart in order to separate the fibers by length. The sorted tassels are then placed into bundles and the different length bundles are sold to broom making factories. The factories then use the broomcorn to make different styles of brooms to be sold at stores. At Living History Farms, our broom corn factory still makes brooms using machines over one hundred years old!


Photobits and Visiting Tips

Last week we asked our history detectives to solve a photo puzzle. We gave you bits of photos and asked you to figure out where in our town of Walnut Hill those photos were taken. Let’s see if you guessed right!

Photo One:


This small picture is of nutmeg graters in the General Store! Nutmeg is the seed from a tree grown in tropical areas. Many people like to grate nutmegs into cookies, cakes and other tasty things. These tiny graters do a great job! Can you find the nutmeg graters in the big picture?


Photo Two:


This is the power wheel on our Prouty Newspaper Printing Press in The Advocate Newspaper Office. A printer would grab the handle and turn the wheel to make the machine move. He could print 10 copies or more of a newspaper every minute with this press. Can you find the power wheel in this photograph?


Photo Three:


These are gumdrops at the Greteman General Store! Gum drops were a popular candy in the 1870s. They still are a favorite with our visitors in 2014. Can you find them in the big picture? What is your favorite flavor of gum drop?


Photo Four:


This is the anvil in the Blacksmith shop. The Blacksmith uses the anvil as a sort of table to hammer metal. He will also use the round pointed end, called a horn, to bend hot metals. Where is the anvil in this picture?


Photo Five:


This one was tricky! This is the cutting area of a pill machine in the Schafer Drug Store. Druggists used these machines to cut up the sticky medicines they had mixed into individual pills.


Photos Six and Seven:


These items can be found in the Walnut Hill Broom Shop! The wire in the top photo was used to wrap broomcorn onto the handles in the bottom photo. Both handles and wire would have been made in a factory in 1875 and sent to our town by train. The handles were packaged up in big bundles and the wire was in big coils when it came from the factory. Can you find both of these items in the broom shop?


Photo Eight:


This photo is of the top bottle on a show globe in the Shafer Drug Store. Show globes were fancy bottles filled with colored water or oil. The druggist placed them in the front windows to attract attention and show off how good he was at mixing the colors.


Were you able to guess all the objects and where they could be found at the museum? Great job, history detectives!

Some Touring Advice for Caregivers: Don’t forget that Living History Farms opens to the general public for regular touring on May 1st! In May, our museum welcomes many thousand school children and their teachers. If you are visiting with a smaller group of younger children, it can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming to see all those school buses! Here’s a few tips to a successful visit in May!


–Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays are the heaviest visitation days for schools. Touring on Wednesday afternoons or weekend days sometimes makes for a calmer visit in May. Check the museum event calendar for special activities on Saturdays!

–If you are a museum member, May is a great month to use the membership admission perks to make shorter visits more often.

–Most school classes visit the museum between 9:30 am and 2 pm. If you would like to visit without being caught up in larger group arrivals, try arriving at 1:30 pm and ride the 2 or 2:30 pm tractor cart out to see our working farms. Many Walnut Hill shops will also be finished with school presentations after 2:30 pm.DSC_6097

–If you are an early bird, arrive at 9 am and head for the tractors first. Ask the tractor driver to drop you off at the 1900 Farm. The schools sharing your 9:15 cart ride will be going to the 1700 Farm and won’t arrive at the 1900 era Farm until 10 am. You could have the 1900 Farm to yourselves for almost 45 minutes! Just remember to tell the tractor driver you want to be dropped off at 1900 Farm before you get on the cart!DSC_6309

–Most school groups in Walnut Hill town receive about a 10 minute presentation in each of the buildings they visit. If a group is already in a building when you arrive, please feel free to enter that building with them! You are welcome to sit in on the presentation and then look around more freely after the school group has departed.

–School groups generally tour at the Flynn Mansion on the ground floor only. If you have children that love to explore historic toys, the boys’ bedroom and girls’ bedroom on the second floor of the Flynn Mansion have several toys that are part of our hands-on program. It’s a great place for your family to spend some time away from the bigger groups.

DSC_6594–If there is a specific building you wish to visit the day of your tour, ask the admission desk staffer if there is a time when that historic site is free from scheduled tour presentations.

We look forward to seeing you during May!