We harvested the broom corn months ago and only recently is it dry enough to work with. This post is the first in a series of posts as I take you through our first experience in broom making. I'm not sure how it will turn out, but I invite you to come along with us.
This was our first year growing the giant plant. Some of the stalks cleared 9 feet tall!
(The seeds we planted right photo)
Broom corn, despite its name, is actually in the sorghum family. It looks very similar to corn in each of it's life cycles.
The stem is smooth with slender knuckles that remind me of bamboo and the leaves are long and papery just like a cornstalk. In fact, we used bunches of broom corn in our autumn decorations instead of cornstalks this year.
Before plastic became really popular (around the 40's and 50's) most brooms were made from broom corn.
The broom corn grows as a large rigid stalk. Near the top of the stalk, just inside a leaf set, it develops a tubular pouch. As the plant grows the pouch opens and a fan tail of hundreds of seeds that grow on long wire like fibers emerges.
Once dry, the seeds can be removed from the stems and the remaining fibers are what create the broom bristles.
This is our first year growing broom corn and we learned a lot through trial and error. One of our main concerns was when to harvest the corn. We wanted to allow the bristles to grow to their maximum length but not too long that they would start to bend over and begin drying in that curved form. We decided to harvest different amounts at different times and see what worked the best.
The first harvest was when the seeds started turning their vibrant colors. The stalks were still green but beginning to dry. We cut the stalks at the ground level to remove them from the field. We brought the bundles up to the house and shortened the stalks at the first leaf. These we gathered in bundles and hung in our back room to dry hanging vertically.
The leftover stalks made wonderful imitation corn stalk decorations for our porch.
This method seemed to work the best. They took a while to dry but the bunches dried straight and don't seem to be any shorter than the bristles that were harvested later in the season.
The second harvest was about a month later, right before the first frost. We brought in most of the remaining field and laid the stalks flat on our enclosed porch.
This worked fine as far as the bristles staying straight, but we were really sad to find that the center of the bunch had molded. I think laying the broom corn flat would have worked if we would have turned the bunches periodically or maybe in not so dense of a pile.
The third harvest was after the remaining field had dried on it's own. These stalks turned the traditional "broom color" which was a golden tan. However, because they dried in the field, the bristles are all curved from gravity pulling them down and might be difficult to make into an attractive broom. The seeds however, were the most vibrant, and these were the few stalks where the rust and red colors transferred to the bristles.
Overall, the first harvest is the most useable gathering and will be what we will use to make brooms.
Throughout history, the blacksmith was an integral part of every developing town. Many of the other craftsmen like the carpenter, relied on the blacksmith to make blades for his plains and hinges for his cupboards and cabinets. The farmer relied on the blacksmith's ability to make rakes and scythes and to fix equipment as new inventions developed.
Even the dentist would ask the blacksmith to make special hammers and tooth pulling devices like this dental pelican that Zach made for a historical reenactment museum some years back. The blacksmith forged axe heads to fell lumber, he made nails for boards, blades and knives for cutting and was responsible for giving the strength of steel to many items needed on the homestead.
Often, when Zach tells
people he is a blacksmith they assume that he shoe's horses. Historically,
the blacksmith was also the farrier of the town. But as automobiles
replaced horses, the art of blacksmithing became a separate skill from
the synonymous farrier.
must have an understanding of the blacksmith trade in order to shape and
mold horse shoes and to make nails other tools like tongs to hold the
shoes and shape them in the forge. But in addition, a farrier must be
trained in hoof care, like shaping the hoof, fitting shoes for a horse's
particular needs and being able to recognize disease or injury.
Often, in newly settled towns where there was no doctors or veterinarian available, the blacksmith would have the most experience in animal anatomy. Many times he was called upon for all sort of animal ailments like treating injuries and assisting with difficult births. And even one step further, he was sometimes called to assist in delivering human babies.
The Term Blacksmith refers to a craftsman who
works with metal in a forge.
Historically the blacksmith worked with wrought iron, but today, more commonly works with "mild" steel or carbon steel. The prefix "Black" refers to the dark scale that flakes on the surface
of the steel when it is heated. The work of the blacksmith is usually a more
rudemental art. Shaping larger pieces like tools or horseshoes as
opposed to fine work like jewelry.
Zach is mostly an artist blacksmith, but not everything he makes is for beauty. He forged a disk a few months ago to fix our dishwasher, tractor parts, car parts, rake teeth for our hay rake, and tools...lots and lots of tools. Not only tools like the fro shown here, (used to split wood) but tools for his own blacksmith craft.
A blacksmith's starter kit requires a forge, an anvil of sorts, and a hammer. There are many variations available to use, but after these three elements are established, the blacksmith must learn to make his own tools. Mostly because the tools that he uses are non-existant and very specialized. You can't go to Sears and pick up the things you need to start forging.
One of the first tools a blacksmith must make is a set of tongs so that he can remove hot objects from the forge and hold them steady on the anvil while he hammers. More tongs are made as projects require specific holdings. Jigs are created to shape metal in a repeated or awkward manner and as the blacksmith's craft develops, a collection of handmade tools acquire over the years.
A Whitesmith is someone who might work with a more malleable metal like tin or pewter. It can also refer to a blacksmith who works his products to finer finish through detailed filling, polishing and buffing, thus leaving the metal in a shiny or "white" finish.
When I was a little girl, we had an advent wreath. It was a flimsy tin wreath, with crooked, spiked posts and the candles always sat lopsided and melted and dripped all over. We were forever scraping pink and purple globs of wax off the stand, the table, the doily it usually sat on, with our finger nails. But I thought it was beautiful! We would light it every evening at dinner. It was one of the rare times, as a child, where I was allowed to use the lighter. Not that I was some sort of piro-maniac kid, but it felt very grown up and serious. I was always anxious to see the final pink candle lit on the Sunday nearest to Christmas, as there was something satisfying about the circle being completed, and it meant that Christmas was less than a week a way. The story behind the tradition of lighting the candles in Advent is symbolic of the anticipation of the birth of Jesus. There are many variations to the tradition, including different colored candles, different number of candles, but the overall tradition is pretty much the same. To read the whole story and history of Advent click here.
We've since retired the old tin wreath. We could no longer find the odd shaped candles that fit in the little spiked posts, and any candle that we could jam into was too heavy and would just fall over. Eventually the spikes were left miss shaped and unusable. We went without an advent wreath for many years, and I must say, I missed the tradition.
Last year, Zach forged me an advent wreath. It is beautifully crafted with twisted stems for the candles to sit on. The traditional wreath is supposed to hang from the ceiling horizontally. But as we like to light the wreath at dinner time, there isn't really a spot to hang a horizontal wreath so Zach made it vertical.
Last year Zach was so busy with orders that he barely had the wreath done in time for the first Sunday in Advent. We hung it on the wall bare. It was beautifully made, but I always imagined it spruced up a bit with Christmas decorations.
My mom is really talented when it comes to flower arranging. I will post some of her handiwork as Christmas comes nearer. Because the colors of advent are purple and pink, we used a deep purple velvet ribbon with gold trim, purple and gold mini Christmas bulbs and these beautiful gold leafed leaves and curly cues. We had to make sure that all the adornments were pushed back into the wreath so that the candles wouldn't catch fire.
I melted the wax from last years candles, added some new wax and wick, and made 3 new purple candles and 1 pink.
All in all, the Advent wreath was a group effort, each of us adding our own craft.
For any of you interested in adding bees to your yard this spring, now is a great time to start thinking and planning. I bought our first hive for Zach a few Christmas' ago from Dadant, and the folks there told me I was smart to contact them in December. As spring approaches, waiting lists start forming, especially when pre-ordering the bees themselves.
To get you in the "Honey Bee" mood check out the Grit Barnyard Series Guide to Backyard Bees and Honey. It's filled with wonderful information about building hives, honey extractors and so much more. Zach and I already plan on using quite a few of these helpful suggestions come spring time.
If you already have a hive, then check out The Community Buzz section where I give some helpful suggestions for overwintering bees, page 85. (PS the photo in the upper right corner of the page is Zach using the smoker.)
To find Iron Oak Farm's work in other places besides the blog visit our Publications Page
Firewood season is the season of chainsaws and trips up and down our ankle-grabber basement stairs to feed the furnace. The wood burning furnace is by far the most self sufficient thing about our farm. Yes we have a garden with fresh veggies, and chickens who lay eggs, and at times the freezer is full of chickens and turkeys and frozen dairy products. But if the chickens stop laying or we need a pound of butter I can always run up to the store to buy more.
But our heat in the winter is another story. Kroger doesn't sell heat. And even if I bought a bunch of logs somewhere, no one is going to trek it down the basement stairs and light the match, and the newspaper and the kindling for me. And if the fire doesn't start, I have to try again until it does, or Oliver and I are going to spend a rather chilly day bundled up in our hat and fingerless gloves while I type on the computer.
I like the wood burning furnace, I love the smell of the cracking wood in the morning as I brew my pot of coffee. I love the downdraft that occasionally brings that rustic smell of smoke through our leaky windows in our bedroom. I love how it heats the walls and the floors and the furniture differently than a blast air furnace.
The collection of firewood is a harvest like any other. A gathering of sustainability and life. I view the piles of logs and timber as I would a bushel basket of heirloom tomatoes. Only instead of tomato sauce, and salsa and nourishment, it is warmth and heat and comfort to the soul. As the howling winds whirl against the house in the Michigan winter, it is as sweet to hear the furnace come on as it would be to open a jar of raspberry jam and relive the fruit of summer.
The wood burning furnace also brings a certian element of responsibility and routine. I find it ironic that I've programmed my electronic phone to remind me to feed the furnace every few hours. Just as I write this blog on a computer, one more way that technology is helping us get back to basics. A paradox for sure, but one that I'm grateful for.
Timber is in my blood. Lumber, firewood, the felling of trees, it's a part of me. My grandfather Henry Lompra was a lumberjack in the Upper Peninsula, just north of Escanaba. He was born in 1901 in Canada and spoke only French, but was half Chippewa Indian. He lived in a shack with his brothers and sisters. There was no electricity or running water and they would pass down boots and coats from brother to brother until the souls wore out and the coats could no longer be patched. Often, there was little to eat but crocks of baked beans made with salt pork and molasses and lard sandwiches. When things were good, his mother (my great grandmother) would make things like pickled pigs feet, head cheese, pasties and French meat pie. Some of these recipes are still in my family to this day, in fact, we eat meat pie every Christmas Eve after Mass. There are many fascinating things about my grandfather, he played the violin (which is who I presumably get it from) and had a gift for telling wonderful stories which over the years my mother has passed down to me. Some of my favorites are of the winters that he and my family endured up there in the northern wilderness.
There is one story that will always stick out in my memory. My grandpa and his brother were coming home from the lumber site. It was a night where the woods were so dense and thick with blackness that he and my great Uncle Fred had to rely only on the horses ability to see and follow the path that led them home. They were a few miles from the cabin when they heard wolves howling all around them. Closer and closer the howls came. The horses twitched and spooked, but my grandpa steadied them and clicked to get them going faster. Suddenly the howls became yelps as the wolves had organized the pack and were now hunting the horses and the wagon. My grandpa snapped the reigned and the horses took off in an all out gallop. The wolves had surrounded them and were running with the horses snapping at their feet. One wolf jumped the wagon and my uncle Fred kicked it in the shoulder to get if off of them. The horses ran and ran frothing in the cold and the wagon bounced and jarred over the path as they beat the starving wolves home. My grandpa ran the horses hard and straight into the barn and shut the doors behind them. They were forced to sleep in the hay loft that cold winter night with the hungry wolves pawing and scratching at the barn doors.
Zach and I have his two-man saw hanging in our barn.
Fast forward 80 years, after the glory days of Detroit, after the riots and after suburban sprawl moved my parents from a tiny brick bungalow on the west side of Motown to the rural wooded property of my youth.
My family cleared the wooded land for the builders to break ground for our home, with a strong devotion to keep as many trees standing as possible. (Which is why I could never grow a garden...too much shade). But the cracking of a tree as the wood starts to give way, a sad sort of sound, that snap that stops your heart like a bolt of lightening and then falls like a clap of thunder is one that is both nostalgic and respectful in my memory. I spent many days exploring the fallen trees, criss-crossed all over what would be our front yard. Balancing on the tree trunks, plucking acorns from branches that had once been 100 feet in the air. They were my fort, my wonderland.
Because I grew up in the woods, gathering fire wood was always a part of my childhood. My dad, the dog and I would hike through the woods in the fall and collect large pieces of fallen limbs for cozy fires throughout the winter. There always seemed to be a fallen tree each year that some summer thunderstorm would bring down. The smell of green wood, chainsaw exhaust and the bon fire to burn the smaller messy branches would mingle with the sweet smell of my dad's pipe which he occasionally smoked on weekends. I would collect the logs as my dad cut them into manageable pieces and stack them between two large oak trees.
I learned to split wood at a young age, though I'm still no expert. I learned to use a wedge and a sledge for large pieces that I wasn't strong enough to blast through with sheer might. I also have a large scar to this day on my left index knuckle where the axe kicked back and smashed my finger. I think I was about 14.
It was always my job to collect fire wood for evening fires. We had a large black sled and I would bundle up in a hideous snowmobile suit from the seventies. It was black and brown and cream with angular stripes, and a zipper that was about a 1/2 inch wide with some serious metal teeth. But it was the warmest and most convenient thing to slip into. I would make my way through the snow with nothing but the sound of the dog galloping through the drifts (the way dogs do) and my boots crunching in the dark silence. The fog of each exhale echoed in my head the way wearing a winter hat sometimes makes you aware of your breathing. I'd fill the sled and haul it back up to the house. It was a good chore.
Now that we live on the farm, the firewood isn't as plentiful but we get by. Last spring we lost a large Maple tree in an ice storm. The gathering is still the same. The same smells and memories, only Zach wields the saw now and the dog is a different dog but just as loved. And the seasons of life are cyclical. Not just firewood season, or apple season, or fall, winter, summer...but the years that repeat themselves. The generations. Our roles that trade, and fade, and give-way to new relationships, but somehow reacquaint themselves with the oldest of human instinct. The instinct to keep warm and make it through another winter. The equation of a log melting into ashes and heat bursting forth in that exchange is something I never want to take for granted. Somehow the tangible act of stocking a fire, one of the most basic of human acts, something that until a very short while ago was a large part of human daily routine, exists as fuel for the soul and warmth of the spirit. The continuance of that routine is one that I gladly do each winter. It is my heritage, my family and most of all, my humanity.