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Broomcorn’s last thresh

Remembering a forgotten era

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

Broomcorn Johnny Essentials

Wherever they went, there were two belongings Broomcorn Johnnys could be counted on to possess. One of which was not a shirt! Often, they were naked from the waist up, which facilitated dusting the broomcorn seed and stalk residue from their torsos before falling into bed at night. Shirts were just another needless obstacle when it comes to “Tabling, Booting, Batching and Shelving,” the broomcorn.

It’s an easy consensus that the spice of life in the broomcorn fields was tobacco and Johnny Knives.  Brown Mule Chewing Tobacco, Garret Dipping Snuff and roll your own Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco were as much a part of a Johnny’s life as was the hairless strips up and down his forearms. Strips of  ruddy brown skin cleanly shaved, thereby affirming the sharpness of his surgically honed blade.

The Johnny Knife’s four inch wooden handle was slightly bigger around than the handle of the typical garden hoe. The knife’s handle is only a mite longer than the three inch long, two inches broad blade itself.

Not often, and never in large numbers, occasionally,  women dubbed, “Broomcorn Sallys,” would show up with their own Johnny Knives to boot the broomcorn. It was called booting because the broomcorn stalks 18-inch long ghostly gray plumage had to be removed or, “booted,” from its tubular housing in the stalk’s foliage without extracting the foliage itself.

As crop harvesting goes, no other begins to approach the modus operandi carried out in the tabling of broomcorn. It was both beautiful, and at the same time, about as hygienically stressing as sticking one’s head in the dust chamber of an engaged street sweeper. 

Aside from the fact that the broomcorn culture preceded the portapotty, one of the most glaring omissions of sound hygienic practices in the broomcorn patch was the paltry  rehydration protocol.  Designer water bottles had not yet been invented!

Thirst ridden Johnnys could only hope that the boss’s kid, as was almost always the case, would turn up on the family saddle horse.  The big horn on the western style saddle ideally accommodated two one gallon water jugs wrapped in gunny  (tow) sacks. Each dangling from one side of the well worn saddle horn. 

If the dehydrated johnny was fortunate enough to flag down the, “water boy,”  oft called the water jack, a number of problematic maneuvers had to be decided upon. There were no shot glasses and no paper cups. It was strictly out of the jug and down the hatch!

Thus, the challenge was how to shun the corrosive brown lip print embossed on the jug’s mouth by the snuff dipping, tobacco chewing, Brown Mule spitting Johnnys up the row!   

The tabling process began when the brawniest of Johnnys positioned himself between the eight-foot tall rows of pollen laden, dry husks of the broomcorn stalks.  Then, while reaching behind his back, the Johnny (referred to as a tabler) with his ungloved right hand grasps the first stalks off the row and with a forceful twist breaks the stalks at waist high so the bamboo-like upper section of the stalk forms a horizontal cross beam across the row behind him.

This creates the initial configuration of a weight bearing broomcorn table. Then, with his left hand, he repeats the breaking process, so as to meticulously crisscross the horizontal stalks in such a manner as to fashion the perfect table.

The crisscrossing by the tabler, stoically repeating the routine as he advances down the rows, transforms the banal broomcorn forest as if by magic, into a quarter mile long plush green console. It  became a resplendent table serendipitously adorned by the one and one half foot long plumes of broomcorn fiber dangling over the edges.

Left standing, the eight-foot tall stocks, their seed-ridden plumes used for making brooms, would have been out of convenient reach of the men with Johnny Knives. However, the tabling process proves to be of greater value than simply lowering the broomcorn plumes for convenient booting by the cutters. The newly created tables, serve as excellent staging platforms for freshly harvested broomcorn plumes.

First, the cut plumes, sometimes called heads, or tassels were assembled into batches of fifteen or so. These arm load-sized bundles were then stacked on the improvised broomcorn tables by cutters. 

Subsequently the bundles were picked up by haulers rounding the tabled rows in flatbed carriers;  sometimes trucks, sometimes trailers pulled by slow rolling John Deere-like tractors. From the fields the plumes or heads from which brooms were to be fabricated were transported to specifically constructed open-air sheds.   

Shed construction consisted only of a corrugated tin roof covering props of two inch wide slats sequenced twelve inches apart. The slats were used to cradle the broomcorn before and after its dreadfully irritating seeds, negative waste, were machine threshed from the heads.

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