What the land gives us : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

What the land gives us

Relics of a bygone time inspire a new pipe company

by William C. Nelson

The small town of Painter, Virginia, is not the most accessible of destinations for the busy traveler. It’s located near the southern end of Accomack County on the Delmarva Peninsula, in a region known as Virginia’s Eastern Shore. East Coast motorists can spend a lifetime buzzing up and down the Interstate 95 corridor and scarcely know the Delmarva exists. The 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, leading to the Delmarva out of Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads, is an unreal experience for the uninitiated. (Prepare to squeeze juice from your steering wheel.) You’ve really got to want to go to Painter if you’re ever going to see it. Unless you’re a history buff who is into plantation houses, you’re probably not going to see a whole lot in Painter that will jog the memory.
corn2So it is that local families with longstanding ties to the land—or with productive day jobs, and preferably both—can count themselves blessed to be able to live well in a region so quiet and out of the way. Residents with a touch of entrepreneurial derring-do might even prosper in Painter. Brothers Robert (“Bob”) Carroll Savage, 46, and William (“Bill”) Edward Savage, 42, who grew up on family land just outside Painter, seem to have the spirit. They certainly have interesting ways of extracting good things from the land, with a gorgeous, colorful line of corncob pipes being just one example. Bob Savage co-owns Old Dominion Pipe Co. with brother Bill, and both eagerly tell all comers about their growing enterprise with the twinkle and smile of men who have discovered the very secret to contentment.
Even before he was a pipemaker, Bob was already a committed, self-employed businessman: co-owner with two partners of Affordable Septic Solutions, Inc., where he is company president. The firm specializes in soil testing, sewage-system design and construction, and it provides him and his partners a comfortable living. However, Bob says the real estate bust of 2008 did bring a slowdown in the company’s primary services of designing septic systems and ground testing. So he is always attuned to possibilities for augmenting his income, and for persons lucky enough to possess farmland and know-how, such possibilities can present themselves. “This is our family farm,” he says. “It was acquired by my father and uncle in 1969, but two years ago, we found out our ties to this land go way back. Turns out this was a plantation site that dates to 1662, a place that was owned by our eighth great-grandfather, a man named Richard Kellam.” Evidence of a nearly forgotten settlement has been revealing itself piece by piece in the fields the Savage family plants, in broken bits of pottery and utensils and metalwork, and in brick foundations that once supported living quarters—enough evidence that the brothers invited archeologists to investigate a dig site on the farm. “We are uncovering a lot of unique 17th century artifacts, including clay pipes,” says Bob.
These antiquarian objects began seeing the light of day at about the same time Bill, who is a corn1maintenance ranger with Kiptopeke State Park near the southern tip of the Delmarva, made a discovery that really helped kick off the pipe business. In 2007 Bill met a retired farmer in Accomack County who was raising a variety of heirloom Indian corn. “He was an old guy, basically limited to his garden, just trying to keep this line of corn going,” says Bob. “It was corn that his family had grown for generations, since at least the 1870s. Bill thought it was worth pursuing, so he got the guy to sell us a bushel of that corn, and we started planting it.”
Bill says he originally planted only about 50 rows of the corn, with the idea of creating decorative wreaths for the crafts market, but he soon found out he couldn’t compete with low-cost imported wreaths coming in from Mexico. Still, he made use of the corn. Being a chicken owner, he coarsely ground some of it to create a batch of chickenfeed. “And right away,” says Bill, “I noticed the sweet smell of it. The ground corn just had a unique, interesting aroma. So we decided to grind some of it more finely to make cornmeal, and we discovered that it made a very tasty cornbread. And that’s how Pungo Creek Mills was born, the last gristmill on Virginia’s Eastern Shore operating commercially.”
In early 2009 Bill was using a small-scale mill—it would only grind about 50 lbs. per hour, and Bill had to hand-sift every bit of it—but he found that sales were promising enough to warrant expansion of the business. He says, “So a friend of mine had a 1935 20-inch vertical stone mill which I bought, and by 2010 we had set up a better operation and started landing distributors: Whole Foods in Virginia Beach and Charlottesville, Stuckey’s and Monticello, to name a few.” The year 2010 also brought Pungo Creek Mills the distinguishing honor of winning the Diamond Award for Best New Food Product at the Virginia Food and Beverage Expo in Richmond. Pungo Creek Mills cornmeal was a proven taste sensation!

Old Dominion Virginia Planter corncob pipe

Old Dominion Virginia Planter corncob pipe

The brothers had the corn DNA-tested by Anson Mills and found that it can be traced back to the old Bloody Butcher variety that originated in the foothills of the Appalachians. Unfortunately, this delicious corn is a nightmare to handle with today’s mechanized implements. The stalks grow close to 12 feet tall and are so strong—and the ears are so big and long (typically, ears are a foot long)—that it is not possible to use modern equipment for harvesting. “We have to use an old antique harvester which does not shell the corn,” Bob says. “It just harvests the entire ear. Then we store the corn, still on the cob, in peanut trailers, which lets us run air through the corn 24/7 for two or three months to get the moisture out of it. Once we get the corn down to about 14 percent moisture, that’s when we shell it.” To do the shelling, Bill uses a 1960s-vintage Minneapolis-Moline sheller.

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Category: Editor's Desk, Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Spring 2015

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