Washington, Missouri has long been known as the "Corn Cob Pipe Capital of the World." It was the Missouri Meerschaum Company, still the world's oldest and largest manufacturer of the cool, sweet-smelling corn cob pipes, that began the tradition for which Washington became famous.
In 1869 Henry Tibbe, a Dutch immigrant woodworker, first began production of the corn cob pipe. Legend has it that a local farmer whittled a pipe out of corn cob and liked it so much he asked Henry Tibbe to try turning some on his lathe. The farmer was well-pleased with his pipes so Henry made a few more and put them for sale in his shop. They proved to be such a fast selling item that soon Tibbe spent more time making pipes for his customers than working with wood. Soon Tibbe went into full time production of corn cob pipes. In 1907, the H. Tibbe & Son Co. became the Missouri Meerschaum Company.
The word Meerschaum is taken from a German word that means "sea foam". It is a Turkish clay used in high grade pipes. Tibbe likened his light, porous pipes and their cool smoke to that of the more expensive meerschaum pipes and coined the name "Missouri Meerschaum" for his pipes. Tibbe and a chemist friend devised an innovative system of applying a plaster-based substance to the outside of the corn cob bowls. In 1878, Tibbe patented this process.
A nationwide distribution system was established for the sale of his pipes. Other pipe firms also developed; by 1925 there were as many as a dozen corn cob pipe companies in Franklin County, most of them in Washington. Today, Missouri Meerschaum stands alone as the first and only surviving piece of the living history. These gentle pipes are smoked and loved all over the world as well as being used as souvenirs, often imprinted with the name of the city, business or event.
The factory is located on the corner of Front and Cedar streets overlooking the Missouri River and one block from the Amtrak station. The three story brick building that houses the factory dates to the 1880's. A corn cob pipe museum is located next to the ofice, accessible from Cedar Street. About 40 employees work Monday through Friday year round to make the nearly 3500 pipes per day that are shipped to every U.S. state and several foreign countries.
A corn cob pipe can't be made without first growing the corn. When the company began production in the 1860's the by-product of any field corn was usable raw material for the making of corn cob pipes. However, over the years through hybridization, the corn has been modified to produce smaller cobs. It was up to the corn cob pipe industry to develop a corn that produced a bigger cob. This job was given to the University of Missouri, who perfected the corn seed that is used today. Missouri Meerschaum owns about 150 acres that is used for growing corn. Sometimes additional acreage is contracted with local farmers.
After the corn is harvested, it is stored in outdoor bins until it can be shelled. The corn shelling is done with a vintage sheller, as the new equipment is designed to break up the cobs. The cobs are stored in the third floor of the factory for two years. Aging makes the cobs harder and dryer.
Production begins when the cobs are loaded into the chutes that carry them to the lowest level of the factory where they are sawed into pipe lengths and sorted by size. The size determines which type of pipe it will become. After being turned, the tobacco hole is bored in the bowl. Some of the better pipes are bored all the way through and a wood plug is inserted into the bottom of the bowl. Then the cobs go to one of several turning machines. Each machine produces a different shape. A few of the better pipes such as the Macs and the Wanghee are hand turned on a lathe. This requires some craftmanship skills. The next step is "filling" which is the applying of plaster of Paris to the surface of the bowl. The bowls are allowed to dry for a day before the next process, which is "white scouring" or sanding of the bowl to make it smooth. Bowls that will be used for the less expensive pipes are varnished in a concrete mixer and spread out on wire racks to dry. The better pipe bowls are placed on spindles that rotate through a spray booth where they are coated with lacquer. After the bowls dry, the assembly begins. The wood stems are printed with ink so they appear to be cob. A metal ferrule is hammered onto the stem. The stem is glued and tapped into the bowl. The bowls are patched around the stem and any small irregularities in the cob are patched. Then the pipes are ready for packaging and shipping to all parts of the world.