Driving through the middle of America in early autumn meant we were bound to stumble upon some sort of fair or festival, but we never expected to find one dedicated to something that we had never heard of… so there was no way we could pass up The Broom Corn Festival in Arcola, Illinois, the self proclaimed “Broom Corn Capital of the World.”
We rolled into town just in time for the opening ceremonies and quickly received an education on all things broom corn. It’s not a kind of corn at all, it’s a type of sorghum that happens to have long, strong, thin seed stalks that are perfect for making the business end of brooms.
The name likely stems from the fact that the full grown plant looks quite like regular old corn.
Legend has it that Ben Franklin was responsible for introducing broom corn to North America, and it became popular as a garden plant in the colonies.
Word spread great brooms could be made from it so soon farmers began to plant it as a crop.
By the mid 1800s most of it was being grown in East Central Illinois, and naturally a booming broom making industry followed.
Bifocals to broom corn, boy Ben Franklin sure did a lot of stuff.
Nowadays most brooms are made with synthetic strands, so the whole business of broom corn is nearly extinct, but the memory is kept alive with this thriving annual festival.
After the official kick-off we wasted no time getting to one of the main events, The National Broom Sweeping Contest.
We scrambled our way through the crowd to catch a peek of the contestants frantically sweeping broom corn seeds through a maze to a hole at the end.
The sweeper with the most grains in the hole within the one minute time limit is crowned Champion and presented with an authentic commemorative broom corn broom. Don’t be using that to sweep off the back porch!
As the excitement died down we headed over to the demonstration tent where real broom corn brooms were being made. These were no factory fashioned brooms.
Using a machine that tightly binds the strands to a handle, two guys were turning out a new, expertly crafted sweeping device about every ten minutes.
We next ambled through the myriad of food and crafts vendors that had set up shop along Main Street.
The usual gastronomic suspects were all represented, corn dogs, funnel cakes, elephant ears, sausages, fried this and that.
Then we noticed something different.
Bacon Dipped in Chocolate. Sounded pretty strange until we imagined something along the lines of a candy bar with a bacon center, might not be bad at all, so we went for it.
It was not encouraging when we saw the small vat of chocolate syrup right next to the bubbling nacho cheese, and even less so when we watched the girl fish out a few strips of extremely soggy bacon. It had been stewing in its own juices all day.
But we had come this far, so we were bound and determined to eat it. In mere seconds we regretted that determination. Awful, truly awful stuff.
WATCH: Your GypsyNesters are horrified by this version of chocolate covered bacon!
Feeling a little queasy, we decided to call it a day and rest up for the big parade the next afternoon.
We wanted to be at our best for the big performance by Arcola’s own World Famous Lawn Rangers.
In spite of their considerable renown we were unfamiliar with them, only having heard that they were a “precision lawn mower drill team” with the motto: You’re only young once, but you can always be immature. We could hardly wait to see them in action.
In order to get a better idea of what makes the Lawn Rangers tick, we took the opportunity to meet up with them in the staging area before the parade.
Founding member Tim Monahan was happy to give us the lowdown on the mower men. The Rangers haven’t missed a Broom Corn Festival Parade since 1980, that’s when they got their name from grand marshal Clayton Moore, TV’s original Lone Ranger.
Since then they have marched in the Holiday Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, the Indianapolis 500, the NFL Hall of Fame Game, and the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parades, but perhaps the pinnacle of Ranger performances came in the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Parade.
Honorary member Dave Barry may have summed up their performances best when he said, “What we do is push lawn mowers and carry brooms.
At various points along the parade route, we stop and astonish the crowd by performing broom-and-lawn-mower maneuvers with a level of smooth precision that you rarely see outside of train wrecks.”
Well if their performance was a train wreck, the crowd of at least double the 3000 people who live in Arcola, certainly loved the catastrophe.
We did too, making it a clean sweep.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com