I had reported from a lot of places on the ground, but never from inside a helicopter soaring about the ground.
Until I attended the 42nd annual Arcola Broom Corn Festival.
I walked into the copter whose propeller made the green grass beneath it shimmer like a wave.
Mike the pilot made sure I was strapped into the back seat of the four-seater.
Seconds later, we started to lift off and fly above the ground.
We were there as part of our project about demographic change in Central Illinois with our friends at CU-CitizenAccess.org.
There was plenty to see.
Our flight began just after the conclusion of the parade that snaked around the town’s streets and that featured town and county youth beauty pageant winners waving to the crowd from atop their perches on the back seat of convertible cars, the area’s uniformed veterans whose service stretched all the way back to the Korean War, and the acclaimed Lawn Rangers.
The rangers, whose members include renowned humorist Dave Barry, performed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade. Wearing t-shirts and tan shorts, they adroitly wheeled their lawn movers, which were adorned with flags, corn, owls and SpongeBob CheeseHead, among others, down the main street.
At regular intervals they’d cross over and toss their brooms across the street to the man facing them, cheering after the successful transfer.
A ranger with a keg on his mower stopped in front of me and asked me if I was thirsty.
When I responded that I was, he whipped out a cold and frosty can of Bud Light and handed it to me.
While my receiving a beer was unusual, others gathering candy was not.
Float riders threw tootsie rolls, smarties, peppermints, dots and others to the crowd that cheered and yelled their gratitude and appreciation.
A Sense of Community
Mark Thomas, son of legendary football coach Steve Thomas, said the annual event binds the community together. High school class members gather at the Beer Tent on one of the side streets for informal reunions, he said.
“It might be the only time that you see someone all year,” said Thomas, a 1978 graduate of Arcola High School.
Sandra Dyle agreed.
She had come north from near St. Louis to visit Dawn Miller, a niece who lives in Arcola. She also traveled to purchase brooms for her three daughters-two got standard sized models, and one got a multi-colored hearth broom-and generally soak in the pleasure of being back in her hometown.
“There’s a big sense of community,” she said.
People come from far outside Arcola, too.
Cars with license plates from all over the Midwest and as far away as Florida filled the area around the town’s center.
The cars were just one of the sights visible from the chopper, which Mike steered and angled over the town’s main street as well as over the flat green expanse that makes up much of the land in the rural area.
Stands lined the town’s main street, where brightly colored murals depicted its Amish and Norman Rockwell-like history, as well as on blocks of side street that flow off the main drag
The lead singer in this 16-piece-band of banjos, guitars and drums sang about a coat of many colors her mother gave her.
Nail is just the latest in a series of country music luminaries to appear at the festival, according to Dan Cantrall of Z’s Sound Company. Previous performers like Garth Brooks went on to become superstars.
Wares and Broomcorn
Dan and Trish O’Nan were selling $50 raffle tickets that gave the buyer a chance to win the 1967 Ford Mustang the couple had driven in when they were dating. Proceeds will benefit the First Christian Church of Monticello, where they had raised their three children, O’Nan said. The church had helped provide them with a solid religious, spiritual and moral foundation.
“It helped us raise our children in a good way, so we want to give back,” said O’Nan, adding that he and his wife eventually sold 189 tickets.
Food stands sold everything from Amish-prepared fried cheese to pumpkin pie fudge to Greek salads to barbequed ribs to salsa that began in Shelley Thomas’ kitchen.
Vendors also sold all kinds of wares.
Interested buyers could purchase everything from arts and crafts to items you’d be more likely to find in a flea market.
And, of course, brooms.
Broomcorn has been a fundamental part of Arcola’s history and tradition since the latter part of the 19th century. First introduced to the country by Benjamin Franklin, according to an exhibit in the Broom tent that also featured broom assembly demonstrations and the sale of brooms of every imaginable size and color, the corn is distinctive for a couple of reasons.
It doesn’t have standard kernels and thus isn’t good to eat.
It’s also very hard to harvest.
Cecil Osborn, a retiree from Mattoon, remembers harvesting the crop more than a half century ago with his father, grandfather and five uncles.
“They were long days,” said Osborn, sitting on a bale of hay while waiting for the parade. “It was hard work.”
Arcolans for generations threw themselves into that difficult labor.
From the 1880s to the 1950s, in fact, the town was known as the “Broom Corn Capital” of the world.
Over time, the planting of broomcorn in Arcola itself has diminished, but the Lemond factory where the material is produced has continued
A growing Mexican population
And, also over time, the ethnic background of those doing the work has changed.
For at least the past 20 years, Mexican workers have come north to carry out the arduous task of cutting, laying out and preparing the plants that can grow as high as 12 to 14 feet.
It is true that there are some Tejanos, like Irazema Galyiz of Farr, Texas, and families from places in Southern Mexico like Chiapas
But the majority of the town’s Mexican residents hail from Cadereyta Jiménez in the state of Nuevo León.
That’s because broomcorn grows there, too, said Cristobal Gonzalez, who has lived in the town for 20 years. As a result, the workers who came north already had experience with the crop.
“Everyone already knows what to do,” he said.
After arriving, Gonzalez explained, some workers branch into other jobs in the area.
He stood at the corner of the main street, next to a stand sponsored by St. John the Baptist church.
Volunteers in light blue t-shirts grilled tortillas and beef that they topped with onions and lime. The sounds of Norteno music blended with the sizzling on the grill as families sat at tables in the shade.
The church has a mass in Spanish every three weeks, Gonzalez said. He said the town’s non-Latino members have been very welcoming to the growing community.
Their presence was not only discernible in the festival’s only Latino-owned stand.
It could also be seen in Arcola’s marching band, which had Latino students playing all types of instruments, and on the stand that carried the youth football team.
The percentage of Hispanic students in the town’s two schools has doubled from 19 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2011, according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card.
In all, the number of Latinos increased from 527 in 2000 to 870 a decade later, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage of Latinos in the town rose from 20 percent to 30 percent during that time.
A number of the players’ families come from Mexico.
Johnny Garza, a stocky 12-year-old who plays guard, is one of them.
Walking down the street with seventh and eighth grade teammates, he said the kids from different backgrounds get along well.
“We all help each other out,” Garza said.
Football is another of the town’s storied traditions.
With 660 victories since 1894, the town’s high school team is tied for fifth in the state with archrival Tuscola. Dubbed the “Cola Wars,” their battles are the stuff of legend.
Under Hall of Fame coach Steve Thomas, the team competed for the state title five times, winning three.
A desire exists among some in the Latino community to establish a high school soccer team.
Gonzalez said there are about 20 men’s teams in the town that form an outdoor summer league. A number of teams play indoors in the winter.
The school board took a vote in 2007 to establish a soccer team, but, the motion was defeated by a five to two margin. Minutes from that meeting cited the potential impact on the football program.
Mark Thomas said finances had a lot to do with the decision. The town had had a referendum shortly before the vote to keep the schools open, he said, and adding another sport would have been quite expensive.
In June, the town looked into setting up a cooperative arrangement with neighboring Arthur. Caitlin, a community about 60 miles northeast of Arcola, has made a similar arrangement.
Gonzalez also said thus far the burgeoning community has not engaged much in the town’s political life, but affirmed that he and others like it there a lot.
The chopper started its descent back to the green spot from which we had left. I grabbed the bar for just a minute when the angle seemed particularly steep.
We landed and got out, ready to meet our colleague Pam and her husband Dean to grab some food before heading back for home.
Click here to watch the video.