Wichita: Broomcorn capital of the world

Wichita: Broomcorn capital of the world

Workers load bales of broomcorn onto boxcars at the John L. Denning Company in 1950. The three-story warehouse, north of Central on Mead, was built in 1908 by J.H. Hockett; the property is now part of the Hiland Dairy campus. Source: Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum

Our fair city has laid claim to the proud title Air Capital of the World for most of the past century, but there was a stretch of several decades in which Wichita was also the planet's number one trade center for a now-marginalized agricultural product: broomcorn.

Broomcorn isn't corn at all; it is in fact a species of the grass crop sorghum. While most varieties of sorghum are cultivated for animal feed — and in many cultures, human consumption (sorghum is the fifth most-consumed cereal on Earth) — broomcorn has been hybridized over the centuries specifically for its long, tough, straw-like fibers. These fibers, which can grow to as much as three feet in length (atop plants growing as tall as 15 feet!), have been bound together and used as brooms in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa for at least 600 years.

This oddball sorghum variant has little use outside its curious niche as broom material, but for that particular application, no other naturally-occuring substance has rivaled it yet. The 1908 publication Broom Corn and Brooms: A Treatise on Raising Broom Corn and Making Brooms on a Small or Large Scale states: "Like cork, Broom-corn is one of those natural products that are so perfectly adapted for the uses to which they are put, that no substitute has been, or is likely to be, found for it. In toughness, elasticity, sufficient, but not too great rigidity, lightness, and ease with which it is manufactured, it excels all other materials used for brooms."

Credit for bringing the plant to America has been ascribed to none less than Benjamin Franklin. Legend has it that Franklin was given a small French-made whisk broom for brushing his beaver-felt hats, and in its bristles he found a broomcorn seed. Curious, he planted the seed and then replanted the seeds from the resulting plant. For some years the broomcorn plant was a novelty in horticultural circles around Philadelphia. In 1797, a Massachusetts farmer planted a half-acre of the stuff and went into the business of making crude brooms. Before long, a well-made broomcorn broom was counted among the prize possessions of homemakers all over our ever-expanding nation.

As young Wichita boomed, busted and boomed again in the last 20 years of the 19th century, it found good fortune as dual center for both agriculture and rail transportation. The city was served by no fewer than four railroads: the Santa Fe, the Rock Island, the Frisco and the Missouri-Pacific. The cowtown days faded into memory, but the built-in infrastructure that had made Wichita an important center for gathering cattle for shipment nationwide adapted easily to the new hot commodity: broomcorn. By the turn of the century, farmers in every single county in the state were growing the crop, and in short order, eager businessmen were plotting to capitalize on their labors.

The March 16, 1906 edition of The Wichita Eagle reported: "The American Warehouse company has purchased the Burton Car Works from J. H. Bartlett, one of the old directors of the company, and the site and buildings will be remodeled and used for warehouse purposes. Two of the buildings will not be used by the company, but will be occupied by a factory. The other three buildings will be fitted up for the company, giving Wichita the largest broomcorn warehouse in the United States." (Some of these buildings still stand as part of Coleman's 37th Street North plant, and were once occupied by the Jones Six automobile factory; see the July 18, 2013 edition of F5.)

Three months later the same paper noted: "H. A. Hockett has purchased a tract of land 127 feet by 200 feet located 200 feet north of Central Avenue between the Rock Island and Santa Fe tracks and plans to build a three story brick broom corn warehouse." That building eventually went up in 1908.

The boom was on.

By the end of the decade, Wichita had stolen the broomcorn crown from Arcola, Illinois, which had long been the reigning king of the crop. An Illinois-based broom company, Southwestern Manufacturing (makers of the famous "Little Lady" broom), built a large factory at 15th and Santa Fe in 1908, and by May 1909, according to The Wichita Beacon, was "making brooms … at the rate of 100 dozen a day." The Associated Broom Corn Dealers of America, a trade association, set up its offices in Wichita, and locals in the business began publishing a trade magazine called Broom Corn Review.

Through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and into the early days of World War II, Wichita retained its preeminence in the broomcorn industry. During that period, almost three-quarters of the broomcorn business in America was operated out of Wichita. On Sept. 27, 1919, The Wichita Beacon reported: "The Wichita territory is supplying the material in one year's cutting which would sweep every home in the United States at one time. Most of this material is handled directly or indirectly by Wichita dealers." Even during the height of the economic despair of the 1930s, some 22 million brooms were manufactured in the U.S., which was at the time the only country in the world exporting them. As many as 16 warehouses and factories in Wichita were dedicated to the industry, all located along various train tracks; the 400 block of Commerce Street boasted four such buildings in a row.

But America's involvement in World War II changed the broomcorn game forever. The war effort dictated that agricultural resources be shifted to production of food and fiber crops, and manufacturing concerns increasingly to production of militaria. The labor-intensive harvesting of broomcorn fell by the wayside. Then, in the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar years, as new family homes were outfitted with wall-to-wall carpeting, quality brooms were replaced in short order by vacuum cleaners. Demand fell, and by the 1970s, the business of broomcorn was largely relegated to the clerical work of directing shipments of the crop grown in Mexico.

The lasting legacy of Wichita's era of broomcorn supremacy is a number of brick buildings still standing today, including the group of warehouses on Commerce Street (one of which, at 416, has now been converted into loft apartments) and the three-story structure abutting the River City Brewery on the south.