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Broomcorn’s last thresh

Remembering a forgotten era


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

Broomcorn Johnny Essentials

The seed threshing operation is yet another of the broomcorn industry’s less conventional functions. The threshing machine itself, a privately owned and operated mobile unit serving 15 to 20 separate broomcorn growers, in season, was always in such demand, that it made scheduling a thresher pretty much  a,  “Catch as Catch Can,” proposition.

Indeed, the threshing part of broomcorn harvesting was a marvelously memorable spectacle. It was a profound juncture in the harvesting process.  “Man and Machine,”  Hand and lever, concerting in such lockstep cadence as if products of the same genome. 

Without fail, or so its seems, the threshing event always came at an unconventional hour. To begin with, during normal working hours, there is nothing to thresh. You couldn’t thresh what had not yet been harvested.

In any case, quite often, the thresher wouldn’t show up until the last possible measure of daylight, thereby, pushing the start of the threshing back until 6 or 7 p.m. By which time, most of the Johnnys had drawn their 10 dollars pay for their 10 hours’ work and headed for their respective homes, road houses and swimming holes and seldom in that order.

Broomcorn Johnnys Out of the Field

The slightest understanding of the rigors of the life of a Broomcorn Johnny will reveal that the elements of fun and frolic were passions left behind when they headed into the broomcorn patch.  But, the love of chance was one innate passion that followed Johnny throughout his otherwise stifling day!

And, as was the case with most crews, every chance they got out came the dice. Very little money ever actually changed hands. But, with the “Hully Gully,” clatter of the elbow shaking craps, the arrested esteem of the broomcorn johnny was transformed!

In that moment, with each throw of the ivories, and before, “Snake Eyes,”  appeared on the smoothened earth, there was that fleeting instant when the crap shooter was privileged to live the life of his wildest dreams!   

The threshing machine, wheeled from site to site behind a fender bent deuce and a half truck, was a simple apparatus, consisting of just two essential parts, a buffer wheel and seed blower. The buffer wheel to dislodge the seeds from the husk, and, the blower, a thunderous air cannon, capable of blasting the separated seeds into a perpetually rising mound of gray, some 15 to 20 feet out.

As far as the threshing crew itself, a more eclectic assemblage of mankind, all from the same community, I have not since encountered! Normally comprised of an, “anyone will do gang!”  made up from 15 to 20 availables, I heard the wife of one of the growers describe one such motley crew as all being cut from, “Cloth of different yarn and spun on different looms.”

Affirming their bottomed out echelon, among the ranks of broomcorn workers, the carriers and help  on the thresher crew were albeit indignantly  referred to as “Piss Ants.” The N-sync line of hour jobbers toting boomcorn fabricant between the drying shed and the threshing machine flowed like a well choreographed stage production.

The captivating diversity all up and down the line was a classic likeness from a Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post magazine cover.

A  12-year-old lad with his dog, “Shag,” in escort, a trimester expectant mom, whose pay would go for baby clothes,  the local minister in support of his parishioners, the grower’s wife who was just doing what had to be done,  one of the Johnnys, left over from a day of booting, still waiting for his ride home, a teenage girl, hair up in curlers, in anticipation of tomorrow’s  bus ride to school and an elderly gent with a jaw full of Brown Mule, who took special care never to spit in the direction of the thresher’s powerful blower. 

As absolutely different from one another as the thresher crew was, they had two things in common. They all loathed the itchy effect from the deluge of dust-laden, lung destroying broomcorn particulate generated by the thresher contraption. But! They all loved the money! And, why not? No taxes! No annuity deductions!  No union dues! Nothing whatsoever withheld. It was a clear case of, “Take the money and run!”   


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