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Mainstay of Arcola, Ill. : Broom Industry May Be Facing Sweeping Change

September 17, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

ARCOLA, Ill. — Local farmers no longer grow the broom corn that must be harvested by hand, and plastic bristles have won widespread acceptance, but the main industry of Arcola, population 2,500, continues to be brooms and brushes.

The three broom companies in town, Thomas Monahan Co., Libman Co. and Warren Broom Co., have a total of 250 employees with an annual payroll in excess of $5 million, according to Arcola Chamber of Commerce Secretary Allen Yoder.

Arcola's annual Broom Corn Festival, which attracted more than 50,000 people earlier this month, dates to 1898. And the weekly Arcola Record Herald still publishes the monthly Broom, Brush & Mop, the industry's 66-year-old trade journal with 1,400 subscribers.

Through World War II, Arcola, which claimed the heaviest concentration of broom corn farms on earth, was known as the broom corn capital of the world. Local farmers, however, no longer grow broom corn. The 4- to 5-foot plant looks like corn, but instead of ears has flower clusters with stiff, branching stalks that provide the 12- to 30-inch-long fibers to make natural brooms.

Because of high labor costs in harvesting by migrant workers, Arcola farmers switched to more profitable crops and the farming of broom corn moved to Mexico. Today, 95% of the broom corn used in making natural fiber brooms is imported from Mexico. The rest comes from Ethiopia, Argentina, Italy, Hungary and Greece.

Arcola's 66-year-old Thomas Monahan Co. imports more than 65% of Mexico's crop of broom corn. Monahan operates a plant in Laredo, Tex., where the fiber is processed, sorted according to quality and compressed into 100-pound bales. One bale accounts for enough fiber to make 96 brooms.

Variety of Handles Made

Bales of broom corn are shipped to Arcola for distribution throughout the nation. Monahan is also a major supplier of materials for brooms, mops and brushes and operates one of the largest handle companies in the nation, producing in excess of 15 million handles annually.

"We manufacture handles for brooms, mops, brushes, rakes, shovels, squeegies, pooper scoopers, for any product needing a long handle," explains Jim Monahan, 42, the company's vice president.

His brother, Tim, 49, is president and brother, Pat, 46, is secretary-treasurer.

Thomas Monahan, which employs 100 Arcola residents, was founded by the grandfather of the three brothers now running the company. It does not reveal gross sales or earnings.

Warren Broom Co. in Arcola is the exclusive manufacturer of Broom Corn Brooms, turning out 384,000 natural fiber brooms a year and 240,000 natural fiber whisk brooms. Employing 25 workers, Warren's gross sales exceed $1 million a year, said Alvin Wingler, 58, president.

At the Warren factory, many broom makers, such as Caesar Zuniga, 47, have been on the job for years. Zuniga has operated a broom-making machine for 30 years, turning out an average of 216 brooms a day.

Libman Co., a 92-year-old family-owned broom and brush company, produces mops, brooms and brushes with about half of the broom production using natural fiber and half using plastic. Robert Libman, 50, is president, his brother William, 47, is treasurer, and sister Joyce is vice president.

William Libman said he is concerned about the almost total reliance on Mexico for broom corn. "Because of the population explosion and need for food in Mexico, I can see farmers there switching over from broom corn production to food production sometime in the future. It's too bad farmers in the United States don't raise broom corn, a good cash crop. But it's too much work to harvest a crop for American farmers."

Plastic No Equal

A severe drought in Mexico this year resulted in a smaller crop than the usual 18,000 tons of broom corn exported annually. Broom corn prices have more than doubled in the past month to $1.25 a pound. Libman expects the average retail price of natural fiber brooms to increase to $8 from $7 by the end of the year.

"Plastic brooms have won widespread acceptance in recent years," said Jim Monahan, "but the good sweeping quality" of the natural fibers, which retain dust, cannot be duplicated in plastic. He noted that increased production of cheaper brooms from abroad has eroded the domestic producers' production considerably the past 10 years.

"It is difficult to get a good handle on broom production statistics as the manufacturers are primarily family-owned businesses with the owners close-mouthed and reluctant to release information," explained Judy Cline, director of marketing for the O-Cedar Division of the Cincinnati-based Drackett Co., largest manufacturer of long-handled goods in the U.S.

"But we do know that more than 99% of all American households have at least one broom, and that a broom is vital to everyday living."

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