Phil Morgan delights in showing visitors around the oldest corn cob pipe factory in the world — the 150-year-old Missouri Meerschaum Company in Washington, Missouri.
“I mean, it's a corn cob pipe, so it’s definitely a fun business to be part of,’’ said Morgan, the company’s general manager.
The factory is still housed in its original red-brick hulk of a building sprawled along Front Street, above the Missouri River. It produces about 700,000 corn cob pipes a year — “handcrafted and made in the USA” — and ships them to customers across the United States and 70 countries.
One of the oldest manufacturers in the state, Missouri Meerschaum will mark its sesquicentennial April 12-13 by inviting the public to tour the factory.
Visitors will see a process that has changed little with the passage of time, even as the company adapted to newfangled inventions like electricity and the internet, Morgan said.
The First — And The Last
Founder Henry Tibbe started the company in 1869, four years after the Civil War ended. Tibbe was a Dutch immigrant who owned a woodworking shop in Washington. According to company legend, a farmer who had whittled a pipe out of a corn cob asked Tibbe to try making one on his lathe. Tibbe eventually began selling so many pipes he decided to open a factory.
His success spawned competitors. For a time in the early 1900s, there were about a dozen plants manufacturing corn cob pipes around Washington, making the Franklin County community the “corn cob pipe capital of the world.”
The unique industry provided a much-needed economic boost for the region after the Civil War, Morgan said.
“Here’s a new business that starts up and flourishes and employs a lot of people — and supported the farmers in the area,” he said.
Morgan, who has run the factory for 10 years, is well-versed in company history.
Before World War II, 125 people worked at Missouri Meerschaum, producing 20 million pipes a year, Morgan said. That was before tobacco companies began promoting cigarettes in the 1950s — and before the U.S. surgeon general’s landmark warning about the dangers of smoking in 1964.
The company’s anniversary slogan is “150 years and still smokin'.” But fewer people are smoking tobacco and buying pipes these days.
These days, Missouri Meerschaum proudly boasts that it’s the first, last and oldest corn cob pipe factory, having outlived its competitors by decades.
Morgan credits the company’s staying power to the fact that it was first on the scene and made a name for itself. And the company’s ownership, which has changed through the years, has always been good at marketing itself.
Missouri Meerschaum now employs 35 people and produces more than 30 styles of corn cob pipes, ranging from miniature novelties that sell for a few dollars to high-end pipes that sell for upwards of $30. A pipe called “The Legend,’’ which sells for under $10, is its bestseller because it’s sold nationally by a national drugstore chain.
Pipe smokers buy corn cob pipes today for the same reasons they bought them a century ago, Morgan said. They are “sweet smoking” and inexpensive, compared to wooden pipes. That doesn’t mean they’re simple to make.
“And that’s what people don’t realize,’’ Morgan said. “They think you take a cob, cut it in half, drill a hole, stick something in it and you’re done. To make a good-smoking corn cob pipe, there are a lot of processes and a lot of artistry that’s involved, too.”
“Handcrafted In The USA Since 1869”
The factory’s production room is a loud workspace, as decades-old machinery buzzes and clatters and knocks. The equipment is still state-of-the-art — because the art hasn’t changed since the 1930s.
The plant has no robots. It’s a hands-on operation, with workers operating the equipment: a saw that slices dried cobs into chunks; a drill that hollows out the tobacco chamber. Cobs are coated with plaster of Paris, the same as they were 100 years ago. That process inspired the Meerschaum name because the plaster gives the cobs the look of expensive pipes made from Turkish stones called meerschaums, Morgan said.
On a recent morning, Joshua Smith worked at a lathe, shaping chunks of cobs into the bowls of pipes. A little American flag attached to his machine fluttered above sparks and corn cob dust — as he made a product that’s marketed as “Handcrafted in U.S.A. since 1869.”
Smith, 26, has worked at the plant for two years, and he likes the atmosphere.
“I didn’t think I’d be sticking with it for this long,’’ he said. “It’s good people. It’s kind of like an art. And I like doing that.’’
Making a corn cob pipe takes several days from start to finish, because the bowls must dry after they’ve been sanded and dunked in plaster or lacquered. Workers in the plant’s finishing room assemble the pipes, adding the stems and labels and sealing gaps.
Plant manager Ardell Brown said she often gets questioning looks from people who live around Washington who don’t know that the factory is still running.
“You would be surprised at how many people don’t realize that we’re still making as many pipes as we have been,’’ said Brown, who has worked at the factory for 30 years.
“We’re plannin’ on being here for a long time,’’ she added.
The Pipe The General Smoked
The historic factory was built in sections, starting in 1884, and expanded as business grew.
The company wouldn’t consider moving, even though its space has now outgrown the working areas of the plant, Morgan said.
“We would lose so much of the heritage and the charm if we moved out of this building,’’ he said.
And the factory won’t stop making the oversized corn cob pipes that Gen. Douglas MacArthur made famous during the Second World War. The general smoked Meerschaums, and the company has a letter from him to prove it.
Missouri Meerschaum embraces the past.
Visitors to a small museum and factory store are welcomed with fiddle music playing from a smart speaker. They can sit a spell in wooden rockers or browse exhibits of old company ledgers and photographs or admire a display of Meerschaum pipes that was shown at the 1904 World’s Fair. There’s an assortment of factory-fresh corn cob pipes for sale and “authentic’’ corn cob back scratchers in patriotic colors.
“There's a lot of uses for corn cobs, and one of them is a back scratcher,’’ Morgan said, smiling. “And they really do work. I use them myself. However, I would definitely say you need to keep your shirt on while you're using it.’’
Morgan is well aware of the hillbilly stereotypes some folks attach to corn cob pipes.
“It's such a simple product made from a renewable resource that was enjoyed by people in the 1800s and is still enjoyed by people,’’ he said. “It is one of those products that just has lent itself to longevity.’’
The company no longer buys corn from farmers because modern hybrids don’t have cobs thick enough for pipes, Morgan said. Instead, the company hires a local farmer to plant “pipe corn'' on farmland just across the Missouri River from the plant. It’s a white hybrid corn developed by the University of Missouri to produce cobs that are big and tough. The cobs must dry for two years to become hard enough to make pipes.
The company doesn’t need to plant this spring because the harvest in 2017 was so plentiful it has built an inventory of cobs. Morgan said. And that’s a good thing, because the rising Missouri could flood the fields this year.
Fred Isensee, 69, of St. Louis recently stopped by the museum shop to buy a limited-edition pipe that Meerschaum made for St. Patrick’s Day. He’s a fan of the pipes because, he said, they smoke well and are inexpensive. He planned to come back for the plant’s sesquicentennial celebration in April to tour the factory’s production area, which is normally closed to the public.
“There’s quite a history with Missouri Meerschaum and what the company is doing,’’ Isensee said. “I’m looking forward to the anniversary.”
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard