October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
In our August/September, 1980, issue, Joseph Kastner gave us the story of a great American native—corn. Now, Laurent E. Beaucage of Lewiston, Maine, reminds us of a charming by-product—the corncob pipe, another American native:
“The corncob pipe is a product which has spread throughout the world. Durable, inexpensive, sweet-smoking, the pipe typifies American homespun utility. In the marketplace, it competes successfully with the most lavish pipes carved from the most ancient burlwoods. It was smoked in peace by President Herbert Hoover (who always insisted on paying for any pipes sent to him as gifts), and in war by General Douglas MacArthur, whose ever-present pipe boosted the corncob’s status a hundredfold.
“The pipe was first developed and marketed commercially by Henry Tibbe, a Dutch wheelwright who came to America with his wife and eight-year-old son Anton in 1867. They settled in Washington, Missouri, where Tibbe immediately set up shop making spinning wheels and furniture. He was at work in his shop one day in 1872, so the legend goes, when in walked a local farmer, John Schranke. Producing a bagful of corncobs, Schranke asked if pipes could be shaped from them on a lathe. He showed Tibbe a few whittled cobs as models; Tibbe tried it out, found the idea workable, and Schranke walked away with a. bunch of newfangled pipes. Tibbe made a few more pipes from leftover cobs and hung them in his shop window. Pedestrians spotted them, bought them, and smoked them contentedly around town. Soon Tibbe was employed full-time manufacturing what he called ‘Missouri Meerschaum Pipes.’
“The business prospered and expanded. In 1878 Anton Tibbe joined his father as full partner; steam engines were installed to drive the lathes; the original rough-looking pipes were improved by coating them with plaster of Paris, then sanding the surface and painting it with shellac; sales spilled out of Missouri and the Ozarks into the Mississippi River towns and finally to the East. In 1891 Anton supervised the construction of Washington’s first electric power plant, used to electrify both the Meerschaum plant’s assembly lines and the town’s street lights. Next, in the same building, he set up a small telephone exchange that served the company, the town, and eventually the countryside. And by the time of his death in 1896, Henry Tibbe had become the region’s leading citizen, contributing generously to a local church and leaving money to build the Deaconess Hospital in St. Louis.
“In 1950, Dr. Marcus Zuber, an expert corn geneticist, developed a new hybrid corn called Pipe Corn No. 14, which provided a sweeter, denser, and larger cob. Today, local farmers grow more than four thousand acres of this special strain annually—and Washington remains the sole supplier of corncob pipes, shipping some 10,000,000 a year all over the world.”