Cobs are king : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Cobs are king

Missouri Meerschaum is iconically all-American

By H. Lee Murphy

Those stark wire service photos of Gen. Douglas MacArthur trudging ashore in the Philippines during World War II, aviator sunglasses perched above an enormous corn cob pipe, were an essential spark in igniting a rise in pipe smoking and the success of the Missouri Meerschaum Co. in the years that followed. But the carefully staged moment almost didn’t happen, and who knows how American pipe-making might have been different as a result?

As Philip Morgan, the general manager of Missouri Meerschaum, recounts it, the publicity-conscious MacArthur was hoping sometime in the 1930s to find a distinctive look that would make him recognizable to millions of Americans on the pages of magazines like Life and Look. A cigarette smoker, he chose an extra-long holder that people would always remember. Then the country elected a president, Franklin Roosevelt, who beat MacArthur to the punch with a jauntily perched long cigarette holder of his own.
MacArthur had an aide who happened to have grown up in Union, Mo., just a few miles south of the country’s corn-cob pipe capital of Washington, Mo. The aide put the general in touch with Missouri Meerschaum, the largest of a dozen or so pipemakers in the area, which agreed to fashion a customized creation. MacArthur drew the outline of a supersized pipe—a corn cob on steroids, with an enormous 5-inch-deep bowl and long reed stem—that forever became his trademark. For Missouri Meerschaum today, nearly 50 years after the general’s death, the design continues to be one of its best-sellers.

The MacArthur-style pipes, in fact, are made on some of the same lathes and drill presses, dating from the 1920s, that shaped the general’s originals. And they’re made in the same dusty old red-brick factory along the banks of the Missouri River that has housed the company since Mark Twain (another Missouri Meerschaum customer when he wasn’t smoking Petersons) was penning The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the 1870s. Even the corn shelling is done on an antique John Deere machine dating to the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression.

Much has changed, however, in the world of smoking around Missouri Meerschaum, which nearly went out of business a couple of years ago in the middle of the recession as sales volumes plummeted. At its peak sometime in the 1940s, Missouri Meerschaum produced 25 million pipes a year, and its three-story factory employed a workforce of 125. This year the company will produce about 700,000 pipes, retailing between $5 and $10 in most places, with a workforce of 35, who have been asked to accept shortened four-day weeks recently as demand has fallen off.

The company faces plenty of challenges. Anti-smoking campaigns have helped persuade some big retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens, which were key accounts at one time, to drop the line. A modern era of urban and suburban smokers is far more likely to light up briar pipes these days. Meanwhile, recent corn harvests, plagued by hot weather and poor yields, have been so bad that Missouri Meerschaum’s inventory of blank cobs has fallen to near-historic lows. Even if demand were to reignite tomorrow, G.M. Morgan admits, the company would be unable to ramp up production by much.

“When I started here in 2009, our sales hit a low point of 600,000 pipes for the year,” Morgan, an accountant from outside the pipe industry recruited to run daily operations, says. “Much lower than that, and we would not still be here today. It’s been a rough time.”

And yet Morgan, who is 60, is working feverishly to reverse the long decline. For the first time in years, the company is displaying its products at all the tobacco industry’s top trade shows. It’s also hired a marketing firm from nearby St. Louis and started advertising for the first time in two decades, with regular promotions appearing in trade journals such as Tobacco Outlet Business and Tobacco Retailer. Morgan is traveling constantly, calling on accounts personally and beating the drums for corn cobs again.

Still, the company’s future is precarious. Gross sales this year will total less than $3 million, up a bit from the 2011 total. There is constant pressure to keep prices under the $10 ceiling, a great challenge considering the handwork that goes into each pipe. Not least, competition from China has cropped up, often undercutting Missouri Meerschaum’s prices by half. The knockoffs are fashioned from soft cobs that burn out early, though many unwitting consumers don’t notice.

What helps keep the company going is a rising consumer admiration for all things made in the United States. “This is a genuine American product. Both corn and tobacco are native to the Americas,” points out Morgan. “You can’t get more authentic than a corn-cob pipe. That image is resonating with consumers right now.”

Missouri Meerschaum was founded in Washington, located about an hour’s drive west of St. Louis, in 1869 by a Dutch immigrant, Henry Tibbe, who was a master wood turner. Farmers and trappers of the era asked him to begin fashioning the plentiful corn cobs in the region into pipes. They were also smoking pipes made from the wood of cherry trees and river birch, but it was corn cobs that proved to be the most resilient. The corn cobs were so neutral and cool-smoking, in fact, that they reminded Tibbe of the meerschaum clay that pipemakers in Turkey were using. His company, originally called H. Tibbe & Son, officially became the Missouri Meerschaum Co. in 1907.

Ownership changed hands in 1912 when Edmund Henry Otto took over; his family was to run the company for more than 50 years. The business was sold in the late 1970s, and then again a few years later. In 1988 a trio of investors—Michael Lechtenberg, Robert Moore and Larry Horton—took it over, and they’ve remained the owners ever since. All are in their 60s and 70s and, oddly, are rarely involved in the business. Lechtenberg carries the title of president but does not live in the area and, as Morgan explains it, “lets us run the company ourselves. I talk to him perhaps twice a year.”

Read the rest of the story in the pages of P&T magazine or in the online digital edition.

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Category: Pipe Articles, Winter 2013

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