The Missouri Meerschaum Corn Cob Pipe Company is smoking. The only one of its kind left in the world, this small company manufactures corncob pipes, but with a twist: the only possible way to produce the pipes is by using vintage corn harvesting machinery.
Located on the Missouri riverfront in the small town of Washington, Mo., the three-story brick building houses 50 employees working through the week, year around. Production is close to 5,000 pipes per day, to be shipped to retailers across the world. Mike Lechtenberg, co-owner of the factory, says that the company caters to a worldwide market (except in China, by personal choice). Individual brokers, who usually sell 14 to 200 items, along with the Missouri pipes, are but a small piece of the pie. The company sells to chain stores around the world, including Walgreen's and Rite Aid. These humble pipes can be found at your local grocery store, and at one of the most exclusive pipe shops in Vienna.
When he bought into the company several years ago, Mike, of Lawrence, Kan., took a look around at the competition. At that time, three other companies in the United States manufactured corncob pipes. Now, the Missouri Meerschaum Company stands alone. The decline, he says, is due to a shrinking number of distributors. 'If you're selling something on commission, are you going to be interested in selling something where you only earn a dollar?' he asks. 'Probably not. You're going to go for the more expensive items.'
However, because scarcity causes demand, business is booming for this small Missouri company.
The process of making a corncob pipe is more complicated than you might think. First, there is the question of the corn.
'We use mostly white corn.' Mike says. 'It's a premium corn that goes mostly to make taco shells, and that sort of thing.' In the past, the company paid farmers to raise corn for them, but recently they have begun to grow their own, on 150-acres close to the company building. The reason? In part, because genetically-engineered corn has taken over the market.
Mike outlines what is usually thought of as progress. 'It used to be that the corn stalks were 12 to 15 feet high, and the output was 8,000 - 10,000 per acre. Now, the stalks are taller, and the output is more like 20,000 - 30,000 per acre. We've had to re-engineer our crops to get back to the old corn. We've gotten the stalks down to eight or nine feet tall, and the cob is much harder, which is what we want.'
However, he admits, shrinking down the stalk lowered the position of the ears, which means they don't get as much sun. But it's a problem they live with. 'They used to toss the corn, still on the cobs, to the farm animals - pigs, horses, and so on. They would eat everything but that cob, because it was so hard. That's the kind of cob we need.' The harder cob is partly due to a lower moisture content, which becomes important when the corn is picked. If the moisture is too high, the corn molds on the cob, and ruins the harvest. 'It doesn't affect the cob,' Mike says wryly. 'But it sure makes a mess.' It also ruins the kernals the company sells to vendors. The company experiments with crossing and breeding its own corn. Ed Murphy, the company's general manager, is in charge of that operation.
'We've got our first shot at a two-way cross this spring. We'll see how it goes,' he says happily. The cross pollination is time-consuming, requiring small tassel bags to be tied on certain rows of corn by hand. They also use a de-tasseling machine, where two men stand on a platform, one working on each side. The work is stressful, as it must all be completed before the silk pops out of the cob, leaving a time span of four to seven days to complete the 'de-tasseling.'
Once the corn is ready for harvesting, the picker is brought out of storage. Missouri Meerschaum is down to one manufacturer for their pickers. The corn picker they use must leave the corn on the cob - the modern, strip-the-corn-and-break-up-the-cob-type won't work. 'Modern pickers chew up the cob after they've stripped the corn, and the cob gets spit out in little chunks onto the ground. That won't work for us, because the corn is the byproduct for us - it's the cob we want,' Mike explains.
The picker that fits his specifications is a New Idea 800 C with a four-row head, which New Idea stopped producing in the early 1980s. According to Ed Murphy, the machines were intended for seed corn companies and popcorn companies. Each of these, for separate reasons, have gone to different harvesting methods, leaving no market for the New Idea picker. 'We're one of the last companies left to use them,' Ed says.
After the corncobs have been picked, they go into outdoor bins for storage until they are shelled. The shelling is another process utilizing older machinery.
'Our sheller is a kind of home-made job,' Ed chuckles. 'The feeder is from a John Deere sheller. It can take in eight ears at once, and I believe it is 60 to 75 years old.' The sheller has wheels with spikes protruding at different depths. These spikes shell the corn off of the cob. There's only one problem: it's pretty tough on the corn.
'We have a hard time selling food-grade corn,' Ed laments. 'There's a good premium for white corn, but they are picky about the number of split and broken kernels. Mostly we just sell it for livestock feed.'
The sheller was originally belt-driven but has been converted at some point early in its history. Missouri Meerschaum has had to come up with some innovations for parts as well. Parts are no longer available from the manufacturer, a problem most rusty-iron restorers are familiar with. The company used to have five or six shellers in various states of disrepair, but over the years, they've been stripped of every useful part. Finally, Missouri Meerschaum had its own castings made, so that they could have a forge make their own rolling wheels. 'Every couple of years, we just go down and have some made up,' Mike laughs.
The sheller also once sat on nice steel wheels, but those eventually gave way to a wooden cart, for ease of hauling. This conversion was made before the company started growing its own corn. With the wagon, the machine could be hauled field-side to make the farmer's job easier. 'It sure looked nicer when it was on those wheels,' Mike says, a little ruefully.
After the corn is stripped, the cobs need to dry, or 'mature,' as Mike says. This happens in the company building, where the cobs dry in large bins on the third floor. The maturing process takes one or two years, depending on the moisture content of the cobs. 'They start out at 18 or 19 percent moisture,' Mike explains. 'We like to take it down to around seven or eight percent. If it gets too low, like four percent, when you cut it into chunks, they just absorb the moisture in the air, and pop, they're back up to eight or nine percent.' At one point several years ago, Missouri Meerschuam was so pressed for corncobs that they tried drying the cobs artificially.
'That was interesting,' Mike laughs. 'No one had ever had to do that before, so we just had to experiment.' He remains non-committal on the end results.
Once the cobs are hardened, they go through a saw that chops them to several different lengths. The cobs need to be an assortment of sizes from small to large, for different style pipes. Once cut, the tobacco holes are drilled. Some of the higher-line pipes have a hole bored all the way through, and wooden lugs are inserted in the ends. From there, the cobs go into several different turning machines that trim the outside into five or six octagon and hexagon shapes. (A few pipes are turned on a lathe by hand.) After the pipes are designed and shaped, the pipe-stem hole is drilled, and from there, it's off to the plaster shop.
Each pipe-to-be is put on a spinning machine, and receives a coating of plaster of paris on the inside and outside of the bowl, creating a smooth, fire-proof surface. 'That's actually how the company got its name,' Mike explains. In 1869, a Dutch immigrant, Henry Tibbe, began making corncob pipes in his wood shop. The clay he used on the bowls was similar to the Turkish 'meerschaum' (meaning 'sea foam' in German) used in more expensive pipes, but was lighter and more porous. Henry coined the name 'Missouri Meerschaum' for his clay, patented the process by which applied his plaster-like substance to the pipe bowls, and the H. Tibbe & Son Company was born. Eventually, the name changed to the Missouri Meerschaum Company.
After the plaster has been sanded, the standard bowls get a coat of varnish from an unusual piece of machinery: a cement mixer. 'You put the pipes in, and pour in about 3/4 of a gallon of clear varnish, and tumble it around.' Mike explains proudly. 'The pipes get a nice coat of varnish, and you take them out and let them dry.' The better pipes are rotated through a spraying booth where they receive their coating of lacquer.
The pipe stems are the next step, and they come from all over the world. Mostly, Missouri Meerschaum uses dowels, purchased from eastern vendors, who drill the different size dowels and ship them to the Missouri company. 'The dowel companies are based back East because a long time ago, when they used water power, the companies set up along the river banks there. Now, they've converted of course, but the companies stayed where they were,' Mike says. 'We also import some bamboo from the Philippines.' All the pipe stems are printed with ink so that they appear to be made of cob.
The last steps are fitting a molded mouthpiece (the ferrule) on the end of the pipe stem; patching any irregularities on the outside of the cob; and placing labels on the finished pipes.
At the end of the day, when all is said and done, the 132-plus-year-old company is still going strong. The battles with the 'progress' of corn have been overcome; the universal red tape battles have quieted for the moment. According to Ed Murphy, there's one reason for the success of Missouri Meerschaum.
'The key is the same-core business. Some companies branch out into different things, get spread out. We've stayed the same, and we're in our 132nd year.'
Ed Murphy can be contacted at the Missouri Meerschaum Pipe Company, 400 W. Front St., Washington, MO 63090; (800)-888-2109.