Pipe dreams

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

For the past 150 years, the Missouri Meerschaum Company has manufactured pipes fit for authors and artists, presidents and generals. Among those of note are American novelist Mark Twain, famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, President Herbert Hoover and General Douglas MacArthur.

Corn cob pipes were emblematic of the times. Men smoked them in drawing rooms and women adorned their hats with them. Rockwell depicted soldiers, businessmen and sailors with a corn cob pipe in many of his works created for the Saturday Evening Post. Through the generations, the corn cob pipe was an affordable option for the everyman.

“It’s one of the reasons for their popularity,” said Phil Morgan, general manager of Missouri Meerschaum, which has been anchored in downtown Washington, Mo., since 1869.

The company’s storied history is another.

“This company is old,” Marketing Director Dan Nemets said. “It will be 150 years old in 2019. And we’ve been continuously operating out of this building in this space for 135 years exclusively making corn cob pipes. That’s a rarity within itself.”

Famous foundings

As the story goes, a local farmer whittled a pipe from a corn cob in 1869, and he liked it so much he asked Henry Tibbe, a Dutch immigrant woodworker, to make one for him on his lathe. The farmer was happy with the result, so Tibbe started selling the pipes in his woodworking shop.

From there, the Tibbe family began to build a corn cob empire. At 5 cents each, the pipes were accessible.

“The Tibbe family didn’t invent the corn cob pipe,” Nemets said, “but they did commercialize it. They would send out Anton Tibbe, Henry’s son, as an agent on behalf of the company and maybe adver­tise occasionally in trade journals. That’s basically all they could do.”

The Missouri Meershaum’s showroom, store and museum are housed in the same building as the factory. Inside the showroom, Nemets points to two massive wooden panels embellished with hun­dreds, if not thousands, of pipes, hanging above a glass case.

“Anton would send these panels off to exhibition, as they called them back then,” Nemets said. “We now know those exhibitions to be the world’s fair. These are the only ones we ever got back. Anton is also responsible for bringing running water, electricity and the first telephone to Washington.”

By 1925, more corn cob pipe shops sprang up in Franklin County, but the first and largest, the Missouri Meerschaum Company, is the only one left. Remnant stems and bowls of previous competitors are stored on part of the third floor of the company’s expansive building.

Currently, Missouri Meerschaum pro­duces roughly 600,000 to 700,000 pipes a year with 33 employees constructing approximately 3,000 pipes per day.

“In what I call the pipe-smoking heyday, in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and even into the ’50s, we had 125 employees and were shipping 25 million pipes per year,” Morgan said.

This type of pipe is so named because traditionally it was coated in “meer­schaum,” a white clay-like substance native to the country of Turkey. Often ornately carved, an original meerschaum pipe typi­cally costs between $200 to $300.

The Missouri Meerschaum Company mimics that look by using Henry Tibbe’s patented process, even though his patent expired long ago. A nice solid cob, lathe and plaster of Paris achieve an appearance similar to the high-end meerschaum.

“Henry Tibbe liked the look of the traditional meerschaum pipe and believed the corn cob to smoke cooler than a wood pipe, much like the original,” Morgan said. “So he got with friend who was a local pharmacist and chemist. They devised the plaster of Paris method. In 1907, the company was renamed from H. Tibbe & Son Co. to the Missouri Meerschaum Pipe Company.”

Forgotten Formula

Corn cobs produced by farmers today ar­en’t suited for pipes, but in the 1800s, field corn was much different, Morgan said.

“At that time, field corn was bigger,” he said. “The kernels were smaller, but the cobs were great for pipes. When Tibbe started, he would just buy the corn from local farmers.”

A century of hybridization, however, created corn with larger kernels and smaller cobs. In the 1950s, the Otto family, who purchased the com­pany from the Tibbes, started working with the University of Missouri to develop a corn hybrid with a bigger cob.

“We have two families to primarily thank for the success of the company,” Nemets said. “The Tibbe family for developing many of the man­ufacturing processes, and the Otto family for cultivating the corn hybrid with the university.”

To make pipes, the cob needs to be at least an inch and a half in diameter. On the cob, the corn kernels are nearly white.

“The white corn produces a cob that is denser,” Morgan said. “The middle is known as the pith, and that gets drilled out, but it’s the woody ring around it we really care about. Once the cob dries out, that ring becomes literally as hard as wood, and that’s why we can make a pipe out of it.”

Missouri Meerschaum’s seed comes from four heritage corn varieties, Morgan added.

“They cross two, cross the other two, and then cross those,” he explained.

About 10 years ago, the company nearly lost this recipe when two of the varieties were inadvertently left out of the breeding process for several years.

“We had some bad years,” said Christina Lehr, finishing room supervisor, a 26-year em­ployee. She and her husband, Dave, both work for the com­pany. “Some of the cobs were small or soft and odd shaped and we weren’t sure why.”

Fortunately, a professor who worked on the project in the ’50s wrote a chapter called “Pipe Corn” in one of his books charting the hybrids.

“That’s how we found out what was wrong with our hybrid,” Morgan said. “At that time, we had to go back to the university and ask them if they still had any of the miss­ing seeds. Luckily they did, but we basically had to start from scratch.”

CRD Advisors, an Iowa-based company that special­izes in maize product devel­opment and breeding, now maintains the Missouri Meer­schaum’s hybrid seed. It’s an exceptional task, growing corn from 50-plus years ago with what amounted to a handful of seeds, but CRD Advisors was able to do it.

“That saved us,” Lehr said.

Pipe production

Because the pipe company could no longer buy corn directly from farmers, it needed to grow its own. For a while, Missouri Meerschaum con­tracted with farmers to grow the specialty corn, but in the 1980s, current owners Michael Lecht­enberg, Robert Moore and Larry Horton decided to purchase acreage next to the nearby Missouri River. The company owns 150 acres and rents land from local farmers to adhere to standard rotation practices. MFA affiliate Cooperative As­sociation No. 2 in Washington fertilizes the corn fields for the pipe company.

Using New Idea pickers from the late 1980s and early ’90s, field supervisor Dave Lehr and employee Rex Miller harvested 270 acres of corn in 2017.

“This year we’re harvesting 170 acres, and we’re hoping we’ll have enough that we can rotate everything back into soybeans next year,” Morgan said.

Once harvested, the corn goes to a corn crib outside of town where it is stored until it is shelled. To remove the kernels without damaging the cob, employees use a converted walnut huller combined with parts from another old picker. What they shell amounts to about 1,500 bushels of grain per month.

“This is probably the only one in the world be­cause we invented it ourselves,” Dave Lehr said. “We’ve manipulated the cage of this old black walnut sheller, replacing the tire straps with chains. With this, we’re able to separate the cob from the grain, and then we’ll sell the grain. It’s not the fastest process, but it’s our process.”

The company has plans to modernize the pro­cess by adding a stationary combine.

“We’ll have to manipulate that a little bit, too, by removing the chopper and spreader, opening up the throat and adding a couple hoppers,” Lehr said.

From the corn crib, the cobs are moved to the main factory and stored on the third floor to harden. There, cobs piled more than halfway to the ceiling will cure for at least two years. Below is the rumble of machinery that has been ser­viced and rebuilt through the decades. There’s no replacing the custom tools specifically engineered for this job.

“So much of what we do is the way we did it years ago,” Morgan said.

Once dried and hardened, the cobs travel to the second floor down an elevator installed in the 1890s. Next, they are cut into two-inch sections by a piece of machinery Morgan calls a “gang saw”—a machine of their own design that uses four saw blades to cut the cob into the desired length.

“A lot of the machines we have are ones we made,” Morgan said. “This isn’t a machine you can just go buy somewhere. We have to put it together, so that means it has to be tweaked every once and awhile.”

For larger pipes, cobs are sawed at each end and hand-turned on a lathe.

“It seems like there’s more demand for some of the larger pipes right now,” Phil said. “What style we make at any given time all just depends on the cob and our demand for a particular product.”

After the cob is sectioned, the bowl is bored, and the pipe is sanded and smoothed. The pipe may then be finished with plaster of Paris and set aside to dry.

A stem hole is drilled and the top and bottom of the bowl are ground until level. The stems are adhered, and the pipe may receive an additional coat of lacquer. In the final steps, filters are insert­ed, mouthpieces are attached, and the pipes are packaged for sale.

Boxes wait to be shipped next to the building’s loadout dock. Their destinations are handwrit­ten in permanent marker—Spain, Russia, Czech Republic, Italy and Denmark.

“We sell all over the world to about 70 different countries,” Morgan said. “I would say about 30 percent of what we make is exported. We have wholesale items we sell to distributors and both physical and online retailers. Since we’re still relatively small, we try to market everywhere we can.”

Competition for the corn cob pipe

While the Missouri Meerschaum Company was once the world’s only manufacturer of corn cob pipes, China has recently entered the market­place.

“Several years ago, a delegation from China came for a tour to see how we do things,” Morgan said. “Now they make pipes, but it’s our corn that makes the pipe, and it doesn’t grow the same there.”

To reproduce the pipe’s quality, the seed profile and environment would need to be replicated exactly. While the Chinese pipes have popped up in the United States, the Missouri Meerschaum Company has always been known for quality and affordability.

“I think the neat thing is our pipes cost $12 on average,” Nemets said. “A lot of our customers appreciate the fact that all of our pipes are grown and sourced here.”

Over a century later

Back in the museum, Nemets reaches for the “MacArthur Natural Straight Corn Cob Pipe.” Above the display is a photo of the famed general looking off camera, with a large corn cob pipe hanging from his lips.

“MacArthur actually came to us to have this pipe made,” Dan commented. “There’s a story about him going ashore in the Philippines during WWII with a corn cob pipe in his mouth.”

Customers mill about the small shop examining both the products and the history. Two college-age students come in to purchase a pipe for one of their fathers. A local man stopped in because he’d never been before. Another couple marvel over the Tibbe family’s accomplishments while passing through on a long weekend.

It’s the history that attracts both employees and customers to the company, Morgan said.

“I attribute the longevity and success of the company to the uniqueness of the product and the dedication of the people who have worked here,” he said. “We were the first to commercialize the corn cob pipe and for all intents and purposes, we’re the last. Through the years, people have come and gone, but there have always been those who want to keep it operating—people who view it not just as a job but as dedication to a prod­uct that has now superseded any one person’s lifetime.”

The Missouri Meerschaum is located at 400 West Front Street in Washington, Mo. For more infor­mation, visit its website at corncobpipe.com.

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