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Broomcorn memories of a sharecropper’s son

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(Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a series on broomcorn)

From deep in Norman’s suburbs, I picked up my latest edition of The Purcell Register. The front page story “Broomcorn’ Last Thresh” jumped right out at me! A lifetime ago, I was a share cropper’s son. One of our crops was broomcorn.

I went to my study and took down from the wall one of my cherished possessions - my johnny knife. I was flooded with memories of bygone days, some good, some bad. Such things keep me grounded, and mindful of my McClain County roots from more than a half century ago.

My motivation for writing this letter is twofold. First, to correct some of the misinformation in the article, and secondly, to share my memories and thoughts on raising broomcorn. Along with the technicalities, I will share snippets of the colorful, local small farming culture.

We had no running water. We “drew” water from our well, with a bucket, pulley, and rope. We had an outhouse and the Sears catalog to go along with it. There was no telephone nor television, although we did eventually get a television the year before we moved to town (Purcell).

My family had 80 rented acres of land, with an old house (1920s vintage), and out buildings which included a broomcorn shed. We had electricity, which consisted of a single long cord, with a bulb dangling from the 10 or 12 foot ceiling in each room. It was 10 or 12 miles, due west of Wayne, in the old time Bryant school house community.

Technically, we were not sharecroppers. We rented or leased the land. The rent or lease money took the place of sharing a portion of your crop with the “landlord.” This allowed the owners to be somewhere else and not have to worry about turning “goods” into cash.

Although it was a misnomer, we were still known as sharecroppers. “Pop” had to figure out how to pay the rent, have the equipment to plant and (hands) to harvest and turn a profit. The Oklahoma weather had to cooperate. The time frame would have been somewhere around 1953 to 1955. I was about 12 or 13.

Of course, we were on the bottom rung of the farming community social ladder. Social stratification was alive and well. I am aware that my view from the bottom, of the latter, is a myopic one.

I do not wish to be misunderstood, I would not trade my memories and lessons learned for anything. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I am sure broomcorn farming on a much bigger scale, would make for different memories.

Addressing another misnomer, it was not the “horse industry” that was the demise nor the next stage of sharecroppers and broomcorn, to horse ranching. It was technology. Plastics could make an arguable better broom.

The substitution of “plastic straw” for “broomcorn straw” was easier, less expensive. The exception was the occasional witch, who needed a new broom for transportation. Can you imagine a witch flying around on a plastic broom? The demand was slim.

The small farmers who raised broomcorn didn’t plant Bermuda or other grazing grasses, after plastic brooms came out. The distance between the horse culture and the amount of land and capital required, compared to broomcorn farming, is vast. If one is really in touch with the share cropping broomcorn culture, you would have a hard time even thinking your way across the divide.

Cattle ranching and farming communities were always blended to some extent; changes in land usage didn’t happen “overnight.”

A few ranchers had cow ponies to work the cattle. Horse ranching on a large scale, was a rich man’s game. If you follow the money, the money came first. Don’t get me wrong. I love horses, the culture, and the romance of it all. The land we farmed is still farmed, while many farmers “run” cattle, some more some less.

Most small farmers, in the old days, normally raised a variety of crops, so that if one failed, the others might not. It was a complicated guessing game to outwit the Oklahoma weather, and the “markets.” My best guess is, when broomcorn was superseded by plastic, the farmers just planted something else.

Although, undoubtedly, some current horse ranch land was once broomcorn land, the transition took many turns. Oklahoma’s farming/ranching culture is rich and multi layered, from bib overalls, to cattle ranching, with a few cow ponies - and on to the “Quarter Horse Culture.”

Although it has been 65 years or so since I last rode a tractor, I cannot imagine how anyone could rent, lease, or pay for land by only running horses, even in those days.

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