By Steve Parsons Sept 1, 1997 - River Hills Traveler
The bowl on Mammy Yokum's glowed coal-red, just like her eyes, when Li'l Abner's manners didn't square. Popeye's spun between clenched teeth as he waylayed, arms flailing, into arch-enemies, Bluto and Brutus. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's jutted defiantly upward as he waded ashore at Luzon, fulfilling his promise to "return" and free the Filipino people from their Japanese captors. And both my Grandpa and Grandma Upchurches' moved to-and-fro (filled with homegrown tobacco), as they rocked and reflected on long-ago events from the front porch of their rural Ozarks Bollinger County home.
In 1890, famed British poet and writer, Rudyard Kipling, visited Missouri's Mark Twain at his Elmira, N.Y. summer domicile. Kipling complemented the Hannibal native on his epicurean tastes and continental style, but chided Twain for putting fine, Turkish tobacco into a lowly American corncob pipe. "Ah, yes," Twain replied, eyes twinkling, "I see your point. But the tobacco will not go to waste." Samuel Langhorn Clemens paused for effect, "this, sir, is not a corncob pipe. It is a 'Missouri Meerschaum.' " Twain made his statement to Kipling neither as a jest nor a retort. Simply a fact.
Meerschaum is German for "sea foam", a type of hard, white clay mined in Anatolia and northern Africa. The best Meerschaum far outprices the choicest briar root for pipe bowls. It is more porous, and thus better absorbs tar and juices. Much the same way a corn cob does.
At the turn of this century, a baker's-dozen manufacturers turned out countless thousands of corncob pipes in America. Most factories were located in Missouri's northern Ozarks. Today, only one exists in the entire world: Franklin County's Missouri Meerschaum Company; founded, 1869; patented, 1878; registered, 1883.
As legend has it, sometime during 1869, a local farmer came into woodworker, Henry Tibbe's Washington, Mo. shop with a rough-hewn corncob pipe. Could Tibbe, the farmer asked, bore out and true a few more on his lathe? Tibbe smiled, then agreed. A handful of corn cobs would be no problem. Tibbe modestly mentioned that while still in his native Holland, he and his craftsmen produced some of the finest furniture and spinning wheels in western Europe. But the fire which destroyed his business, also consumed his hometown of Enschede. So, in 1867, Tibbe brought his family to America. Tibbe, a typical Dutch gentleman, enjoyed his pipe and found the farmer's corncob creation to be cool drawing. But it was ugly and uncouth. And a bit too porous. So, he consulted with the local apothecary who was skilled in the art of mixing liquids and powders together. Within a short time, the druggist and furniture maker decided to concoct a thick slurry of plaster of Paris to dip the bowls in. Once dried and sealed, the bowls' exteriors were sanded smooth. Nearly overnight, the two men had produced the first Missouri Meerschaum and created an industry.
Tibbe then assembled several pipes of various bowl depths, sporting both wood and reed stems, and placed them at the front of his shop window. He priced the pipes at five cents each. They quickly sold out. He made more, and they too, were soon gone. Within a short time, Henry Tibbe was no longer a furniture maker, but a pipe manufacturer. His rapid success prompted him to relocate to a larger building, where a series of belts driven by a steam engine replaced the hand wheels which once turned the boring tools. Today's machines are more modern but not by much.
Despite his business acumen, Tibbe knew that he could not exploit all the potential markets for his product. So, he granted an exclusive nationwide dealership to the St. Louis firm of Hirschl & Bendheim. To their amazement, the owners of Hirschl & Bendheim were overwhelmed with orders. Less that two years into their distribution contract with Tibbe, the firm founded their own corncob pipe factory and were soon Missouri Meerschaum's strongest competitor. The upstart company's "Irvin S. Cobb" line cut deep inroads into Missouri Meerschaum's customer base. Hirschl & Bendheim boasted that their Cobb pipes were "Toasted and Broken In." And the company motto, "From Father to Son Since 1871," accompanied its trademark-letterhead for 120 years, until Hirschl & Bendheim folded, in 1991.
In the end, the cachet of the appellation, "Meerschaum," won out over all competitors. With the exception of styles, most corncob pipes were, and are, essentially the same. On occasion, some pipes, start to finish, take up to 50 steps to make. However, before any pipe comes from the cob, the cob must come from the corn. And what corn it once was. Only a special type of white kernel corn (the kind used to make taco and tortilla flour) can be used. As all corn ears tend to bend slightly toward the sun, selection of the perfect strain became ever more important. The minimum growing length for field corn is 70 days. But pipe cob corn, which once stood between 16 and 18 feet tall, a height then necessary to yield the foot-long cobs, takes three months. Now, through hybridization, a 10-foot stalk can produce equivalent-sized ears. A good cob will yield from two (for the still-in-demand "Mac's") to five pipe bowls. The seed is planted between 12 and 15 inches apart, (twice the norm for field corn), and rows run from 30 inches wide to 36 inches. That's because modern combines, which pick, de-husk, grind and shell, destroy pipe cob corn. Only pull-type pickers, which keep the ears intact, can be used. For the most part, (with the exception of a couple of third-world countries), such machines haven't been produced for half a century. Harvesting is yet another facet of Missouri Meerschaum's "antique" business. The company's fleet of pickers are of museum quality, by necessity. So, too, the factory's machinery which removes the husks and shells the corn. The pipe cobs, which are dried for two years in twin storerooms measuring approximately 100' by 45' each, are piled eight-feet deep. When demand outstrips production heat drying, nearly a lost art, can speed up the process to as short as two weeks. Once cured, the cobs are sent down a conveyor where they are gang sawed into predetermined lengths. A large, rotating barrel, with gaps between its longitudinal staves removes "hair" from the cobs. A similar drum fine-finishes the pine pipe stems. Lathes trim the outside of the bowls, while corers ream holes for the tamp and the draw. After being dipped, dried, sanded and stemmed, lacquered and sorted, most Missouri Meerschaums are placed on cards and priced at $3 to $30. Custom orders range on up.
Nevertheless, the term, "modern", for Missouri Meerschaum essentially means pre-TV. The company's labor force, near 100 at the turn of the century, now numbers in the mid-40s.
All Missouri Meerschaum corn is grown in bottom lands along the Missouri River near Washington.
The Tibbe family sold their enterprise to the Otto's, friends and acquaintances, in 1912. Steve Otto, the third generation of his line, relinquished control of Missouri Meerschaum in 1978 to a consortium of businessmen from St. Louis interested in keeping the Tibbe heritage alive.
Today, at peak, Missouri Meerschaum can produce 30,000 corncob pipes upon
demand every 24 hours. Although novelty American consumption garners much
of Missouri Meerschaum's sales, the bulk of corncob pipe production ends
up in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. Here burghers, too embarrassed to
sport all but the finest Meerschaums at work, readily light Missouri's "barnyard
briars" in the privacy of their own homes.
But to Presidents Hoover and Eisenhower, Missouri muralist Thomas Hart Benton, country-favorite Tennessee Ernie Ford, and fellow picker, Arthur Godfrey (to the extent that a ukulele can give soul to a New Yorker), the sweet draw of a Missouri Meerschaum temporarily banished the outside world. The heartland was a reality. Not just a pipe dream.
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