Illinois’ first big crop: Broomcorn plot, processing featured at show

Illinois was once the nation’s largest producer of broomcorn. A plot and broom-making demonstrations will be held at the upcoming Half Century of Progress in Rantoul, Illinois.

RANTOUL, Ill. — Half Century of Progress visitors can take a trip back into time for a glimpse of what once was a common sight across the Illinois landscape.

The Prairie State was the nation’s leading producer of broomcorn in the 1860s and remained a major producer until the 1960s.

A broomcorn plot along with processing demonstrations will be featured at Half Century of Progress Aug. 22-25.

John Spannagel of Hidalgo has been broomcorn plot and demonstration coordinator since the 2015 show and has had a plot at his home for six to eight years.

As with other crops, heavy rains has challenged the broomcorn plot at the former Chanute Air Force Base where the Half Century of Progress is held, but there are contingency plans in place for the demonstrations.

“The broomcorn at Rantoul is not doing the best. It’s kind of in a low spot and got flooded out, so we had to plant it twice,” Spannagel said.

“We will have one, maybe two, threshing machines at the show. I should have broomcorn ready to harvest at home and they also have quite a bit at Pinckneyville, so if we need more brush, we’ll just bring some up from Pinckneyville, too, and thresh it at the show.

“We probably won’t be able to show the actual cutting of the broomcorn at Rantoul, but we can at least show the threshing. We’ll daily demonstrations of threshing and making brooms all day long. We may also have a baler at Rantoul, too.”

The demonstration site has been moved to near the main entrance for this year’s show.

No Ears

Broomcorn is in the sorghum family and typically is planted after the regular field corn has been planted.

“It has nothing to do with corn. There are no ears. It just has a brush on top and grows very rapidly and grows to between 12 and 14 feet tall,” Spannagel said.

“The brush to make brooms is usually ready to harvest in mid to late August, at the latest the first of September. You harvest it when the seed is in the soft dough stage.”

When broomcorn is harvested, the heads are run through a threshing machine to remove the seeds from the tassels. The brush is then placed in a drying shed, similar to a crib, where it is dries for four to six weeks, depending on the moisture.

Once dried, the brush can either be baled in three-foot square bales for shipping to a bale factory or brought as is to the broom-making equipment, including a kick-winder machine to wind straw around a broom stick.

“You could get anywhere from $250 up to maybe $500 a ton if it had a good long brush and good quality,” Spannagel said.

Spannagel’s first visit to Half Century of Progress was in 2013 when he helped his wife’s cousin with a threshing machine. Two years later, he became involved with the broomcorn part of the show after an invitation from Darius Harms, one of the founding members of Half Century of Progress.

“We were at the American Thresherman Association’s Show in Pinckneyville, Illinois, and Darius was there. For some reason he knew there was a broom kick-winder there and some other tools. It was a week or week and a half before the Half Century show and he told me to take the stuff home, get them oiled and bring them to Rantoul and start making brooms,” Spannagel said.

“So, in 2015 we were cutting thrashing broomcorn and making brooms at Rantoul. That’s when I started making brooms really. I was involved with it a few years before that, but not a lot because I was still working full time.”

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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