The Missouri Meerschaum Co. began making corn cob pipes in 1869, just four years after the end of the Civil War.
This niche company in Washington, Missouri is the first and largest producer of corn on the cob pipes and, according to legend, may have invented them as well.
The company has most certainly patented its method of producing corn cob pipes. For over 150 years, it has used the same process to manufacture durable and quality corn cob pipes.
Over the years, with the changes in ownership, the development of hybrid corn, and the absorption of other corn cob pipe companies, the Missouri Meerschaum Co. has become the last corn cob pipe producer in the world.
It may come as a surprise, but the company still sells around 2,000 pipes a day. About 30% is exported to countries all over the world, including Germany, New Zealand, China, Indonesia and others.
“For all intents and purposes, we are currently the only corn cob pipe manufacturer in the world,” said Phil Morgan, Managing Director.
“We were the first, and now we are the last.”
The Missouri Meerschaum Co. harvests and grows its own special type of corn. Created with the help of MU researchers, the corn is bred to produce larger, more robust cobs.
Morgan took over as managing director 12 years ago, during a time of uncertainty for the company. A poor harvest had made many ears unsuitable for production.
The cobs were too short, too thin, hollow, or below company standards, Morgan said. So just as he started his job, he had to deal with a sudden shortage of corn on the cob.
“It was almost a five-year process to find out why the corn wasn’t good,” Morgan said. “Honestly, we didn’t know if we were going to be in business or not. “
During these five years, two varieties of corn which were normally present in the hybrid variety were regenerated and reintroduced. This restored the quality of the corn crop and enabled the company to prepare for a full harvest of cobs to be turned into pipes.
But the aftermath of this crisis continued; the ears must now dry for two years before they are ready to be formed into pipes.
The process begins with husking the corn in older machines, as newer machines are designed to break up the cobs rather than save them. The grain harvested during this husking process is used to make whiskey and bourbon at the Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven.
After the corn is shelled, the cobs are stored on the third floor of the plant for the two-year drying period. After that, they are cut and hollowed out to make the bowl of the pipe. Each spike has the potential to craft between one and three pipes, depending on the style of pipe and the spike itself.
Before the pipe is stamped, the cob is reinforced with Tibbe’s patented 1878 “plaster of paris” blend. This coats the cob and seals the outer pores, which explains the lifespan of corn cob pipes.
The entire construction process depends on the style of pipe being manufactured. Some machines can prepare a cob quickly and seamlessly, but some pipes need to be handcrafted on a lathe.
And with over 40 styles of pipes, the company has turned out to be more than just a pony.
“There is an endless variety of pipe tobacco and an almost endless variety of pipes available,” Morgan said.
Sales were good before the pandemic, Morgan said, but have since improved. Morgan attributed this to a robust website and the uniqueness of the product.
The main setback of the pandemic has been the lack of available workers.
“The sales are really good which means we need people to keep going,” Morgan said.
For the future, the company wants to develop luxury acrylic rods, Morgan said. Currently, many of its luxury pipes are based on stems imported from Italy, which has limited the number of pipes the company can produce.
Eli Krewson, director of the company’s museum, said the mission is to reshape the public’s notion of a corn cob pipe. The Missouri Meerschaum Co. produces affordable, handmade pipes that are easily comparable to their non-corn cousins, he said.
“A pipe will last as long as you take care of it,” Krewson said. “People don’t realize the quality of the corn cob pipes, and that’s something we’re trying to change. “