Broom plants outgrowths of real ones
By Tom Stafford
Electricity, the vacuum cleaner and an economic downturn that came in a swirl of dust would pull the rug out from under Urbana's broom making industry. But in 1911, the Champaign County seat was still a booming broom-town.
A souvenir copy of the Urbana Citizen's Progress and Prosperity edition from Oct. 10 of that year reports that the city's two biggest broom makers had a combined daily production capacity of 525 dozen (6,300) brooms.
Located on Court Street, the then-recently enlarged and refurbished Urbana Broom Company "cater(ed) to the best class of trade and their high grade parlor brooms have a reputation all over the country," the Citizen reports. "The handles have an enamel finish that makes them the most substantial and desirable in the market."
The White Valentine Company had a better handle on production, cranking out 350 dozen broom. a day for a market stretching "over all of the central states and ... reaching a little farther each year," according to the Citizen's report.
In an article written earlier this year, Champaign County historian Barbara Stickley Sour notes that in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, Urbana'a broom factories employed more than 200 people and consumed more than 700 tons of broom corn, a variety of sorghum, each year.
On Ludlow Road
Although as business grew, more of the broom corn was brought in from the prairies of Illinois and Kansas, Sour writes, the roots of the broom industry in Urbana are in the islands of prairie land in Champaign County.
The earliest giant in Urbana broom making, David S. Perry, began both growing broom corn and "in a small way" making brooms when he moved from Pennsylvania to a farm on Ludlow Road east of Urbana in 1862,1 according to Perry's obituary in the Jan. 29, 1917 Daily Citizen.
In 1880, the obituary adds, "he came to Urbana" and with brothers James and William began to manufacture brooms "upon an extensive scale ... Their shop became one of the largest in the country and was a power in the industry."
When James and William headed west, they sold their share of the business to Joseph White, and when David Perry sold out to J.D. Valentine, the business continued as White, Valentine and Company.
Dust to dust
Just as he used his broom corn crop to expand into the broom business, Perry used the cash crop he harvested in the sale of his factory as seed money for other business ventures.
At the time of his death, he was "one of the richest, if not the richest" man in Champaign County, the Citizen reports.
He owned both the Ohio Straw-Board Co. and the Ohio Laundry Co., and the Citizens National Bank, of which he was a vice president, and the Urbana Packing Company, of which he was a founder, closed their doors for a few days before Perry's burial.
The heyday of Urbana's broom industry was nearly over by the time Perry died and would disappear in the swirling dustbowl of the Great Depression.