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Broomcorn memories of a sharecropper’s son

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(Editor’s note: This is the third installment of broomcorn memories) 

Often this responsibility fell to one of the younger kids. He/she was called the “Waterjack.” “Well off” farmers had large insulated water buckets. Other mostly “poor” farmers, “made do” in other ways. We would get gallon jars or jugs, of one kind or another, wrap them in “gunny” sacks (burlap bags), and stitch the burlap tight with bailing wire. The ubiquitous bailing wire was used to fix most anything around the farm.

After filling the jugs with water, the whole thing would be soaked in water and placed in the shade, if possible. It helped to have a little breeze to evaporate the water around the “water jug”, and presto--a “poor man’s” cool water jug.

Cool might be a little overstatement. That was O.K., because, if you worked the fields hard, you learned that ice cold water, would not quench your thirst, as fast as room temperature water. Ice cold water would give you stomach cramps. Sometimes, we left water jugs at the end of the row, and other times, we carried them around on the B Farmall tractor.

Keeping your shirt on when working, provided the same evaporation, (cooling, with your sweat), as the burlap bag around the water jug. Some Johnnys would, invariable strive to be “Macho” for the ladies, and cut without a shirt.

There were three levels of “itchy misery” in the broomcorn business. The first was the cutting, although, on balance not bad. The next level, threshing, ramped up the “itchy misery” considerably, considering the seeds were beaten off the head, by the thresher. The dust, and to some extent, the Fuzz, was a choking, itching “left/right punch.”

The third, and last level of “itchy misery” was the baling. It may have not been as hot, but the Fuzz on the dried broomcorn straw was everywhere, when it was taken from the shed. It itched like heck, and filled every corner of your clothing, eyes, nose and lungs. Anyone who worked broomcorn, dreaded the bailing, the most.

The whole thing could be educational, if viewed in the right “light.” One learned to pace yourself; you learned what your limits were. You developed stamina, which would, in the coming years prove to be like good muscle memory - without thinking, your body says “can do.”

In broomcorn business, the process that required the most “hands,” was the actual cutting. Getting it done as quickly as possible, and in the yard was good. The threshing and bailing required less coordination and logistics, and could be done with fewer “hands.”

The tradition of feeding the Johnnys (even the girls and women, we called Johnnys) was an old one that could be traced back to, at least the horse and/or mule farming days. The farmer lives closer to Mother Nature than most. People (hands) and animals must eat to work; we never thought about it that way because it was simply second nature - unconscious.

For the sharecropper, and other farmers, food was often the hub around the wheel of social events, pie suppers, churches, and dinner on the ground. Paper sacks of goodies were given to everyone in the community, at Christmas time, in the one, or two room, rural schoolhouses, etc.

There was also the social aspect of the noon meal, in working broomcorn. At our level of farming, the mostly teenage boys and girls and, some adults between jobs, or out of work, would gather around the wraparound porch on the old Victorian house, and laugh, flirt and have a grand time. You could just see their “batteries” recharging.

Mom put on a spread. Providing the meal was also extra motivation, to come and work. And the “hands” didn’t have to eat a stale, sack lunch, that they would have otherwise had to bring with them.

After cutting the broomcorn, it was hauled to the designated area, awaiting the threshing machine. You could do this the same day, or wait for another time. We hauled it on the old “float” to the front side of the broomcorn shed. It had to be threshed (removing the seeds from the cut stalk), which would then reveal the “green”straw of the head minus the seed. This was put into the broomcorn shed to “cure.”

It was common practice to hire a threshing machine and operator. The machine was too expensive for most to own; there would be a few around the county. Pop knew where they were.

The thresher was powered by a tractor, parked close, with a long belt and pulley system. It made a lot of noise, and the dust was everywhere (not too much fuzz yet). Large piles of cut broomcorn were on the ground, and the strong men and boys would “buck” as much as they could pick up and carry to a table, where the operator would separate the broomcorn into small stacks that were “fed” through the thresher.

The thresher beat and separated the seed from the straw. When the broomcorn came through, someone else would make little piles to be carried (“pissanted”) to the shed (this was the correct term in our lexicon). This stage was accomplished by younger kids, both boys and girls, to carry to the shed (yes, that was the exact term.) The girls would also cut the broomcorn and help with the threshing and bailing, but generally not with “bucking” the piles and other heavy work. Today, talking about boys and girls having different jobs, etc., is a slippery slope, but I’m just saying

The broomcorn shed had the common “sheet iron roof” but was distinctive in several ways. It ran east to west in length. There were no ends to the front or back of the large shed, so the southern Oklahoma prevailing winds could blow through. It had about 6 “stalls” (open rooms) running east to west that were about 8 feet wide.

The ends of the shed and all of the dividers that formed the open rooms, were constructed in a clever way. They all were “walled” with, what I remember as 1- by 6 boards, with a space between the boards that was just wide enough to stick a 1 by 2 length of wood, about 8 foot long (slats), between the cracks.

The green threshed broomcorn straw was stacked (not over 3 inches or so deep), and perpendicular on the broomcorn slats, which were about a foot apart. This allowed rows on top of rows, floor to ceiling, to lay and “cure.” The Oklahoma wind and heat did the rest. As anyone knows, who has lived in Oklahoma for most of their lives, harnessing our wind and heat, to do something positive is a rare happening--a “wonderment.”

After the broom straw cured, the process of putting it in the shed was reversed. It was carried from the shed to the baler. For me, this was the third, and deepest level, of broomcorn itchiest hell. You tried to cover as much of your body as possible. You buttoned your shirt at the sleeve and at the neck. You wore a cap or hat, and anything else, to keep out the itchy “fuzz.”

The cured broomcorn straw was carried out and then put through the bailer. The bailer, as best I can remember, was made of heavy beams and iron straps fashioned in the shape of a box. The sides moved and/or the top squeezed the broom straw into a bale. The baler machine had a long tongue/lever that was attached to the draw bar of a tractor. The tractor was driven in a partial semicircle, which powered the movable sides, compressing the broomcorn straw into the bale.

The highlight of the day, for the kids, was if the “Baler Man” didn’t have enough broomcorn straw for a full bale. If not, this was called a “short” bale, and left an empty space in the baler. The “Baler Man” squeezed himself in the empty spot, and instructed another man to drive the tractor and squeeze the bailer down. After this, the “short bale” was “tied off” and the bailer was opened; the “Baler Man” jumped out, all in one peace, bowed, and much like a circus performer, basked in the applause.

In those days Lindsay was known as the “broomcorn capital” of the world. Pop would drive down, or call a buyer from one of his friend’s house phones, and sell the broomcorn bales. We would have supplies and new shoes for the coming school year!

By the time plastics superseded the broomcorn business, three of my siblings had already left home. My parents, who had day jobs in Purcell already, decided not to renew the land rent/lease. They decided “the juice was not worth the squeeze” when it came to “share cropping” in general. We said “goodbye” to farming, forever, and moved to Purcell.

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