ARCOLA -- Before growing to what it has become with the inclusion of concerts, vendors and carnivals rides, the Arcola Broom Corn festival focused on celebrating the heritage of broom making and its support of the community.
Broom corn was Arcola’s staple crop in the 1880s, with fields of grass surrounding the town. Up until about the 1950s, the town was known as the broom corn capital of the world.
Allen Yoder, one of the festival organizers, said without the creation of a mechanized way of harvesting broom corn, specifically the tassels at the end of the broom corn, planting moved further south into Mexico where it became a bigger industry.
Despite the swift reduction in broom corn planting in Arcola, Yoder said the production of broom corn in Arcola became a source of history and tradition for the town, which was one of several reasons the festival got its start in 1800s.
The festival faded off in the '70s. At the time, the festival was just not being organized, until a few including Yoder revitalized the event.
Yoder said it has certainly changed, though, with many different focuses besides brooms filling the festival. He said the festival once only took place on a tiny section of Main Street with one broom-making demonstrator in the middle of the square.
Other than informing the community about its history, the festival also has the added benefit of creating buzz for Arcola.
“It creates a lot of excitement in the town,” Yoder said.
He said the addition of things like carnival rides and other things created more action in the festival.
Now, the history of the brooms, as well as the demonstrations, were centralized to one tent on the edge of the festival this year.
There, Juan Vazquez of Arcola and Leonel Alvarado Garcia of Charleston worked together to show the crowds that entered the tent how to use the three broom-making machines there, once utilized in the '50s.
The two would completely create a broom. They first started off by getting the broom corn straw wet to ensure it did not break. Alvarado Garcia would handle stitching the broom corn straw to the broom. It would then be passed off to Vazquez where the broom would then be straightened and sewn, then cut.
Vazquez said it is important for people to see where broom making started and to see what members of previous generations likely did and used when they were young.
“This is a tradition for new generations,” Vazquez said.
These machines are now long outdated. Vasquez said the machines only allow for the ability to make about 50 to 60 brooms without breaking down, essentially, as opposed to machines now that can make a broom in 30 seconds and work for much longer.
Alvarado Garcia said he learned how to use these machines in Mexico when he was young. For many in Mexico, it was more affordable to use machines like the ones used at the fair.
While both of them were not broom making now, Vazquez said he still enjoyed showing people the process behind the broom, which has become a household staple.
“They want to know how to make brooms back in the day,” Alvarado Garcia said.
Pat Monahan, president of Monahan Partners, said people do not pay attention much to what goes into making what’s at the end of the broomstick.
“It gives people the opportunity to learn something,” he said.
Brooms and broom making evolved for those in the field. Over time, it became a craft for artisans to show off their work.
In the National Broom Crafting Competition held in tandem with the festival, there was a record-breaking amount of entries with 17 from across the country reaching to places like Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
Three judges looked at the functionality of the authentic brooms as well as some of the interesting aesthetics like one that had seemingly used a tree branch for the handle. Entries also had intricately woven stitching through the brooms.
The broom made by Henry Tschetter of Rockford, Mo., earned first place, followed by a broom made by Shawn Hoefer of Mountain View, Ark., in second place, and a broom by Arjuna Larson of Mountain View in third.
“It is a unique festival,” Monahan said. “It is probably one of the best in Eastern Illinois.”