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All ears: Washington, Mo., company celebrates 150 years of making corncob pipes

All ears: Washington, Mo., company celebrates 150 years of making corncob pipes
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Inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory

Josh Smith operates a lathe as part of the process of making a corncob pipe at the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

WASHINGTON, Mo. • It started 150 years ago as a furniture maker’s favor for a farmer. And the company that favor created is still going strong.

Not bad for a business built on corncobs.

Since 1869, the Missouri Meerschaum Co. in Washington, Mo., has been making corncob pipes — in the same place, by the same process, by many of the same families.

In its century and a half of continuous operation, Missouri Meerschaum has turned out “literally hundreds of millions of corncob pipes.”

“That’s a lot of corn and a lot of pipes,” said Phil Morgan, the company’s general manager.

And every one of those pipes was made in the original, three-story brick factory just across West Front Street from the Missouri River.

To celebrate its anniversary, the company is hosting a party Friday and Saturday. Along with food, drink and music, tours of the factory — usually not open to the public — will be conducted from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. both days for those 10 and older.

Table legs to tobacco

Henry Tibbe was a Dutch immigrant who by 1869 had made his way to Washington and owned a small woodworking shop where he made furniture.

Knowing that Tibbe’s shop had a wood borer, essential for making furniture legs among other things, a farmer friend came and asked for some help.

The farmer, John Scharnke, “handed him some corncobs and asked if he could bore some out and make pipes out of them,” said Marc Houseman, director of the Washington Historical Society Museum.

Not that using a cob to smoke tobacco was new, as Native Americans had been doing it for centuries. But Tibbe brought craftsmanship and mechanical skill to the process.

Soon, word of Tibbe’s creation got around. He quit making furniture and a new business was born: H. Tibbe & Son Co., a name that stood until it was changed to the current moniker in 1907.

Tibbe called his pipes “Missouri meerschaums,” to link them with the standard, and far costlier, meerschaum pipes made from a soft, porous mineral around the Black Sea. (“Meerschaum” is German for “sea foam.”)

The enterprise really took off about 10 years later, when Tibbe came up with a finishing process, which he patented, that made the pipes look sharper, Morgan said.

Over the years, the company expanded to take up the entire block along West Front, about 52,000 square feet. One addition was designed by famed Union Station architect Theodore Link.

Missouri Meerschaum Company historic photo

Oldest part of current Missouri Meerschaum Company building built in 1883. Picture is from 1887. Photo courtesy of Missouri Meerschaum Company.

Houseman said Tibbe’s success inspired other locals, some former employees, to open their own corncob pipe businesses.

So by the early 1900s, the Washington area had become the “Corn Cob Pipe Capital of the World.” At least 10 other corncob pipe companies have operated over the years in the Washington/Franklin County area, Houseman said. In the early 1910s, five were open at the same time.

Missouri Meerschaum’s biggest competitor over the years was Herschl & Bendheim, which operated a pipe factory in Washington from 1904 until 1978, Houseman said.

Stalking business

The corn grown for the pipes is not the same as customers see at the market, Morgan said. It is a hybrid created from four corn varieties, first developed in the early 1900s and since unchanged.

“We want a big, fat cob for making the bowl, and that means smaller kernels,” he said.

The company grows the corn on a 150-acre plot of land near Marthasville in Warren County, in the once-upon-a-time town of Peers. “You definitely need to be from around here to know about Peers,” Morgan said.

The unused kernels are not wasted. They’re turned into feed, and some are used by Pinckney Bend Distillery, a craft distillery in nearby New Haven.

Inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory

Piles of corncobs in storage for potential use inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

The cobs are brought to the factory warehouse, where they are stored to dry for two years. After drying, the best-looking cobs are moved to the factory floor, where the dusty air carries a hint of sweetness that is created when the cobs are cut into sections.

The sections are drilled out to create the bowl, then shipped over to the sander to remove burrs and bumps.

After all that, a light coating of plaster and then lacquer are applied. This coating process was what Tibbe patented back in the early days of the company, Morgan said.

From there, they are drilled again to make holes for the stems, which are usually made of white birch or maple wood.

Morgan said that after 10 years running the place, he still is impressed by the care and skill employed by the workers. “There’s a littler bit of artistry in every step,” he said.

Family factor

The company employs about 35 people, and a cat.

Craig Haddox is part of that factory family, and can’t imagine doing anything else.

“Been here altogether about 25 years. My grandma worked here too, so I guess it’s in my blood,” said Haddox, who like his colleagues seems unaware of the cob shavings that stick to arms and beards.

His job puts him in front of a whirring sanding machine that spins cob sections, already cut and bored. He smoothly feeds bowl after bowl onto a spindle until it reaches the right shape.

He mused only briefly, and never stopped sanding, when asked what he likes about his job.

“It’s fun, making pipes out of corncobs. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “And being part of a 150-year tradition, I like that.”

Inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory

Frank Gudermuth levels the bowl of a corncob pipe with a sander inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

Ardell Brown has been at the factory for 30 years and now carries the title of plant manager. She’s even designed a few pipe shapes in her time, and even smoked one “once or twice.”

“I started working here just because I needed a job,” she said, adding that her sister worked there at the time. “I planned to work here for 30 days, just until I figured out what I wanted to do.”

“And now I know,” she said. “I want to retire.”

Inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory

Cobb (also spelled Cob by some employees), the resident cat of the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory, as seen on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

Another family member is an orange tabby named “Cobb.”

Morgan brought the cat to work some years ago after it showed up at his house, which already had cats on the premise.

“Cobb gets along with dogs and people, but not other cats,” Morgan said. “So I brought him in to keep mice and squirrels out of the office.”

Asked if that was a problem, Morgan stated the overlooked obvious: “When you work next to a warehouse full of corn and cobs, you’re going to have mice and squirrels.”

Prominent puffers

To many, mentioning a corncob pipe prompts a follow-up “and a button nose …”

“Sure, Frosty the Snowman would be the most famous corncob pipe smoker; then Popeye,” Morgan said.

But there have been human celebrities who have embraced the company’s products.

MacArthur pipe

A giant corncob pipe became the trademark of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his World War II Pacific campaigns. Here he's shown in Manila in 1945. 

The most conspicuously famous customer was flamboyant World War II commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The outsized pipe clenched between MacArthur’s teeth in so many photographs indeed came from Missouri Meerschaum.

“First of all, Gen. John J. Pershing (also a Missourian) smoked our pipes, and he was the one who turned MacArthur on to pipe smoking,” Morgan said.

Morgan said MacArthur’s famous pipe was a “Grandpa” model, modified by the general himself.

“He contacted the company and asked that the stem be raised on the bowl, so that it wasn’t so deep,” Morgan said. The company now sells several versions of the “MacArthur.”

Missouri Meerschaum Company historic photo

Workman smoking a corncob pipe circa 1910. Photo courtesy of Missouri Meerschaum Company.

The company proudly displays a letter that MacArthur wrote in 1959 to company vice president Carl J. Otto:

“Thank you so much for sending me the pipes,” MacArthur wrote. “With the passage of time I find each year brings increased enjoyment and satisfaction from my corncob pipe.”

But the most famous person to smoke their pipes, Morgan said, arguably is the most famous Missourian.

“Mark Twain smoked Missouri Meerschaum pipes. He didn’t mention it in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ who both smoked corncobs” in the books.

“But Twain did mention the company in several essays and articles that he wrote,” Morgan said.

Other famous puffers of the company’s pipes were artists Norman Rockwell and Thomas Hart Benton. President Lyndon B. Johnson also smoked one at times, “when he was a U.S. senator,” Morgan said.

Business briefing

These days, most pipes sell in the $5-$15 range. MacArthurs go for close to $20 and some freehand carved models get as much as $35.

Morgan said a corncob pipe will last for years, just as long as a standard briar pipe, “provided you take care of it and keep it dry.”

Admittedly, pipes have became less popular since World War II, though you would never know that by looking at the 50 or more pipes cluttered on Morgan’s desk that he smokes in rotation.

Inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory

Karen Ray puts the finishing touches on a corncob pipe inside the Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

“Now, we make about 600,000-700,000 pipes a year,” he said, down substantially from the 20 million or so it made in the years before World War II.

One growth area for corncob pipes is what could be called the “hipster market,” Morgan said. “We are seeing interest in the 20-to-35 male demographic.”

Another strong sector is the overseas markets, which make up about 30 percent of the company’s sales.

“Scandinavian countries are very big still with pipe smoking,” Morgan said. “Germany is also strong, and interest is growing in Asian countries, especially Japan.

“Thank God for online sales,” Morgan added.

Standing in the factory, surrounded by classic architecture and mounds of cobs, Morgan said the company could easily survive in a smaller space.

“But the only thing that’s ever been done in this building for 150 years is making pipes,” he said.

“We’d lose something if we ever walked out of here.”

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