Schenectady County: “Broomcorn Center of the World”

The majority of us keep a broom in our homes, an extremely useful tool that has been handed down from generation to generation. Even with the creation of the vacuum cleaner and robot vacuums, there is something special about the sturdy old broom that helps remove debris from unwanted places. Most of us take brooms for granted and give it little thought, that is until we have broken a glass on the floor and are afraid we are going to cut our feet.

H. Whitmyer Jr., J.C. Daly, & Chas. Hortsman Broom Factory on River St. (Retrieved from Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Schenectady, Schenectady County, New York . Sanborn Map Company, May, 1894. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/sanborn06246_003/)

Schenectady, New York was the home of several broom factories along the Mohawk River. “According to the Gazetteer of the State of New York, Schenectady County produced more broomcorn than any other county in the state during the first half of the 19th Century. Half of New York State’s entire production came from Schenectady. In 1880, Schenectady County’s broomcorn production peaked at 1,500 acres.” Proud of it’s accomplishment, the city of Schenectady even included the symbol of broomcorn on it’s official flag.

Trade card, D.Toll & Co., manufacturers of brooms & brushes, Scotia, Schenectady Co., New York

“Schenectady, as well as Scotia and Glenville, were the chief centers of broom making in the United States in the mid-19th century, producing 1 million brooms a year.” “New York state censuses showed that while Schoharie County produced 135 tons of broomcorn in 1855, the number jumped to 4,119 in 1865. For Schenectady County, the numbers were 727 and 12,007, respectively. Montgomery County tonnage remained fairly flat, at 257 and 328 (Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson).”

John H. Seeley, was a German Immigrant who purchased 360 acres of farm land from Volney Freeman, “a prominent Schenectadian who owned property on both sides of the river. It was Freeman who in 1855 build the first Freeman’s Bridge, linking his two parcels of property as well as Schenectady and the town of Glenville (Steve Stoessel of Niskayuna, New York).” Seeley’s farm was one of the most successful broom corn farm’s in the area. Seeley’s farm was also known as Little Richard’s Tavern and is the current location of the Waters Edge Lighthouse. The house is the oldest building still standing in Glenville, NY. It is an atypical Greek Revival style home in the shape of an “L”.

Farm of John H. Seeley, 19th Century broom corn grower, broom manufacturer. First bridge erected here in 1855 by Volney Freeman

John. H. Seeley Farmhouse on Freeman’s Bridge Road. (Retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)

The Seeley barns used in the broom-making business (Retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)

The Seeley Farm Building as it is today, also known as The Water’s Edge Lighthouse located at 2 Freemans Bridge Road Glenville

There were several Schenectadian farmer’s who were also highly successful in the making of brooms. This includes names such as Otis Smith, John S. Barhydt, Whitmeyer, and Ephraim Cole.

In 1851 there was a devastating fire that broke out along the Mohawk River. Robert A. Petito Jr., AIA’ wrote the following excerpts about the event for the Schenectady Historical Society Newsletter (Volume 54 Number 5-6 May-June 2011):

“It all started innocently enough: boaters on the Mohawk River noticed wisps of smoke emanating from a pile of brush near the southwest corner of the large frame warehouse along the north side of West Front Street (Cucumber Alley) at 4 in the afternoon. Within minutes, the flames—fanned by ―a tremendous gale‖—spread rapidly to engulf the entire building and were moving toward the office located at the corner of Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley. Clouds of black smoke filled the sky as flames rushed eastward with startling speed and power. By morning, the northwestern corner of the Stockade and several scattered structures lay in smoldering ruins. The lead story in the local news section of Schenectady’s Evening Standard and Times for Wednesday, August 7, 1861, devoted two columns to ―The Fire of Yesterday – A Deplorable Calamity – Fifteen Buildings Burned – The Old Dutch Church in Ruins. “The fire which had started in Otis Smith’s broom factory had destroyed the warehouse and broom factory, dry house, store house, sheds, 70 tons of stored materials, 3,000 dozen brooms, machinery, wagons, harness and related equipment, and a house. Damage to the factory operations was estimated at $22,000 and the house at $1,000. Smith carried only $8,000 in insurance.” “Otis Smith sought to rebuild the broom factory on his property at the northwest corner of Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley. However, an October 10, 1861 editorial in the Evening Star and Times noted that “citizens” in the vicinity of Smith’s broom factory had begun to protest the erection of another factory at that site. The editorial went on to suggest: Some of you solid men of Dorp, that live in the west end, just buy Mr. Smith’s lot there, and give it to the city for a park… Smith didn’t live to rebuild his broom factory. It was reported in the March 24, 1862 issue of the Evening Star and Times that he had died on the 22nd of March at the age of 51 years. His funeral was conducted from his home at 21 Front Street. Nothing seems to have come of the proposal to turn the site at the confluence of the Mohawk and Binnekill into a public park. Subsequently houses and a new broom factory, later owned by Charles L. Whitmyre, were constructed on the property. The cause of the fire was never determined to anyone’s satisfaction. Some claimed that it was caused by the carelessness of roofers tinning the roof on the north side of the building, but that was countered with the accounts of many who were sure that the fire appeared to have started at the southwest corner of the building. The Evening Standard and Times concluded its initial article about the fire with the following thought: In the few hours on Tuesday, more wretchedness has been condensed, than in any year since 1837. Such a scene of terror is not often witnessed anywhere, and we trust that it will be long before another such a desolating spectacle shall visit the banks of the Mohawk. Retrieved from https://schenectadyhistorical.org/admin/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/May-June-2011.pdf

Whitmyre & Co Broom Factory after fire – circa 1870

“Broomcorn seed was planted by hand. It took from six to eight quarts of a seed to plant one acre.” George Campfield (Canfield) invented a “wheel planter that deposited seed at uniform distances, making it unnecessary to thin the young plants.” The following image is a planter that was used on the McMichael farm.

(Retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)

Stalk of broomcorn (retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)

“Panicles of broomcorn are attached by winding wire around the handle as it is rotated.” (retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)

The broomcorn was then flattened and sewed by a machine that used “heavy cordlike thread to stitch a needle eight inches long. Parlor brooms had the longest and straightest panicles, and as a decorative touch, bright velvet was added beneath the last stitching.” (retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)

The broom was then placed into a trimmer with a sharp cutter. At this point the broom could then be bleached by sulfur fumes or dyed. (retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)

Round brooms were known as hurl or hearth brooms. Flat brooms were known as Shaker brooms. (retrieved from “Glenville” Schenectady County Historical Society Arcadia Publishing, Sep 7, 2005)


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