(Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a series on broomcorn)
If that famously fickle love/hate conundrum ever once found a perfect Shangra La for coexistence, it surely must have been during the era of McClain County’s once glorious, but long forgotten Broomcorn Dynasty.
Loved, because broomcorn was one of the pure and unalterable cash crops. The livestock wouldn’t eat it and it had no value as a material resource around the farm.
All you could do with it was to sell it and pocket the cash, a quality that made it immeasurably popular with owners of sharecropper farms—But, often hated by the sharecropper himself. Hated because of the seething harvest conditions and its propensity for sponging up the last ounce of nutrients out of the soil. But, ironically, loved by the harvesters, known as Johnnys, because of the five star complimentary dining that came with the day’s work.
When I first hit upon the notion that if I didn’t write about McClain County’s broomcorn legacy, it would soon be totally forgotten. At that time, I was thinking everyone still remembered and simply needed a refresher. I had no idea of just how prehistoric the subject of broomcorn would be among current generations.
Recognition of just how rapidly the actuality, “Out of sight, out of mind,” adage materializes came with my very first call. The call to the local agriculture agency only served to reveal that no one in the office was aware that McClain County had ever cultivated any such crop.
I learned that the one person who might know about the history of broomcorn in this part of the world was out announcing a horse show. I was left with the assurance of a call upon his return. Something I got the very next day.
This courtesy call to confirm that if ever there was a broomcorn industry in McClain County, it left no footprints around his office. The agent on the phone did take my number in case he came across a person or source that might contribute.
I never heard back!
Beginning in the 1950s, the worn-down life of broomcorn farming in McClain County was mercifully pushed aside by the infinitely less callous and far more romantic equestrian culture.
Almost overnight, broomcorn fields, once profitable, although, by that time, downtrodden, were being plowed under and sowed with Bermuda and Bluegrass, providing plush green pastures for world class quarter horses. Thus, changing lifestyles and creating a heritage of the more glamorous equestrian culture.
A culture by today’s reckoning, that made it all too easy to forget the unimaginable toil and sweat shouldered by our predecessors, the far less celebrated broom corn farmers.
The year was 1950 in the sweltering 100 degree sauna of McClain County, Oklahoma’s perennial August sizzling heat wave.
Mercurial temperatures coupled with exhaustingly high humidity served to create a seething workplace for Broomcorn, “Johnnys.”
The broomcorn harvests in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s were absolutely the most wretched of all farm labor jobs ever existing before or after. It was a positively hellish work environment. However, one which out of blind intent, created an incomparable food extravaganza arranged in country splendor by farm wives drafted into the mix.
The towering fields of eight foot tall broomcorn were concentrated primarily in Grady, Garvin and McClain Counties located along the central part of Oklahoma’s South Canadian River Basin.
Rich and wild, while it lasted, the broomcorn dynasty was an amazing, but, short-lived agricultural anomaly. Flourishing during the war years of the 1940s, the Oklahoma broomcorn agricultural industry had completely vanished by the 1960s, replaced by the emerging quarter horse community.
The sudden demise of the broomcorn culture threatened to take with it fragments of the very heart and soul that defines McClain County’s zeitgeist, a superlative heritage, tracing back to before statehood and handed down from generation to generation of neighbor helping neighbor.
In ways not to be forgotten, the broomcorn planters proved to be much like their immortalized predecessors, the Boomer/Sooner land rushers whose stay on the land was also short-lived.
But, as with both Boomers/Sooners, and the broomcorn planters, each left indelible footprints of everlasting quality and aggrandizement of immeasurable proportions.
Intense Labor: Unintended Perks
Perks commonly enjoyed by many of today’s workers, such as rest periods, break lounges and coffee setups were all beyond the imagination of the broomcorn Johnnys —Back in the day!
The broomcorn harvest featured a grueling ten or more hours work day, filled with exceedingly frazzled working conditions, too punishing for any remembrance of them to ever be exaggerated. The broomcorn plumes (or heads) shed an insidious shaft with an itchy micro husk which in spite of all efforts to repel, nevertheless always seemed to make its way into every pore of a person’s body.
However, the excruciating work aside, the gourmet food extravaganzas which were laid out at mid-day for Broomcorn Johnnys did a lot to overcome the debilitating morning’s work in the field. It is not at all clear just how or why broomcorn’s gratuitous food rollouts got started.
There were no such accommodative indulgences offered other segments of the farm labor population. There was no such hospitality extended to cotton pickers, corn huskers, sorghum shockers, haymakers, or peanut diggers. The glorious mid-day broomcorn harvest smorgasbord was simply staged without semblance.
Broomcorn’s cachet as strictly a cash crop afforded broomcorn growers something of an elitist standing within the farm community. The elitist factor may have prompted a degree of togetherness that led up to the legendary noonday food fest. As well, the need to provide a little something extra in order to attract the often hard to recruit broomcorn Johnnys could also have been a contributing factor to their recruitment.
In any case, the glorious noonday food fest made up for a lot of the broomcorn Johnny’s inglorious forenoon sweat in the sweltering fields. Broomcorn harvest field hands for the most part, were day jobbers in desperate need of greenbacks.
The currency with which they were paid at day’s end was often counted out directly from the bib of the blue striped overalls worn by the crop’s owner.