Pipe Travels- The Missouri Meerschaum Factory

Outside the Factory

I don’t have it written down anywhere yet, but in my head I have a bucket list of places I’d like to visit that are pipe related in some way, be it a tobacco shop or a place I associate with pipes. One of these days I’ll get around to writing it down, and maybe even make an entry about it, but for now, know that one does exist up in my noggin. I’ve managed to scratch a few places off that list, like Peterson’s of Dublin and Uhle’s up in Milwaukee. After my trip back to Peterson’s, I didn’t think I’d actually have the opportunity to scratch another location off my list this year, but sometimes fate throws me a bone.

With Peterson’s scratched off my list for the past few years, the number one spot has been taken up by Washington, Missouri, the home base for the Missouri Meerschaum factory. It should come as no surprise to anyone that reads this blog or follows my Instagram that I’m a corncob pipe fanatic. More often than not, you’ll see a picture of me enjoying one of my trusty cobs. Heck, I’m even a proud, patch-carrying member of Cob Nation #cobstrong.

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to check out the place where my favorite corn based pipes are carved, but I feared I’d never have the chance. Even though I live only one state away from Missouri, it’s a five-hour trip just to get there. It’s close enough that a trip is possible; yet far enough that convincing my wife to take the trip would be a fool’s errand. While the odds were stacked against me, I never gave up hope that once day I’d find an excuse to make my dream come true.

I never gave up that hope because Missouri and I go back, way back. For me, it’s a second home, as I spent five years of my life living in the Ozarks while at college. I met my wife in Missouri, and made my best friends there. However, all of this was before I smoked a pipe. See, smoking was forbidden at my seminary, so even owning a pipe would have been out of the question. In the five years I lived in the state, I never once even considered owning a corncob pipe. Yet cobs are everywhere in Missouri, from gas station shelves to hanging from the jaws of the hillbillies seen on highway billboards. I promised myself if I ever had the chance to go back to Missouri, I’d smoke a cob and make up for lost time. Thankfully, I finally had that chance this past November.

A college friend of mine announced that she was getting married, and asked my wife to be her maid of honor. My wife immediately accepted, and we learned the wedding would take place in Kansas City, Missouri. Finally, I had the chance I was looking for, so now all I had to do was convince my wife to make a small, minor detour.

I made my case to my wife about a month ago, asking if it was possible for us to stop in Washington during the drive. She wasn’t opposed to the idea until we checked Google maps for a possible route. Unfortunately, Washington was a bit out of the way from the fastest route, and the stop would add about three hours to our drive. My wife didn’t think that it was wise to make the stop, so for the moment it looked like my dream would have to remain just that. Being so close and yet so far, I half contemplated taking part of a day to make the trip while she worked on wedding stuff, but even that seemed unlikely.

Then, a few days before the trip, my wife surprised me with some good news. Apparently she had a change of heart, as she booked a hotel about a half hour away from Washington for the drive down to Kansas City. She would stay at the hotel for the morning and get some work done while I went off on my merry way to Washington. I thanked her, and promised I’d handle most of the driving for the trip, which I think is a fair trade.

A few days later, we drove down from Chicago to the outskirts of St. Louis to spend the night, listening to music from our college years out of nostalgia. Along the way, my wife asked me what part excited me the most about my upcoming trip to Missouri Meerschaum. There was only one answer, “Everything,” I said with a smirk. My wife laughed and said, “I should’ve known.” I gave her my real answer after that. Honestly, I was excited about finally seeing this mythical place with my own eyes. This place wasn’t just where my favorite corncobs were made, but it’s also a place of historical importance. Corncobs are total classic Americana, and I couldn’t wait to get the full experience.

The next morning, I felt right back at home during my solo drive to Washington. The winding and hilly back roads brought me back to my college days when my friends and I would escape from the city limits of Springfield after classes. This route snaked through small country towns, abandoned farm buildings, and rusted out vehicles decaying alongside the road. In some ways, it’s sad to see these languishing parts of America’s heartland, but at the same time, it reminds me of happy times travelling around as a young adult. Had I not been under a time crunch, I would’ve loved to just aimlessly drive and soak in all Missouri had to offer.

After travelling these old roads for roughly forty minutes, I crossed a long bridge that led into the first real city that I had encountered since leaving St. Louis. Washington, Missouri gives a wonderful first impression, as it’s quite a nice small town. It’s big enough to make a day visit, but doesn’t suffer from the congestion of a larger city like Kansas City, St. Louis, or even Springfield. There are plenty of restaurants and small shops for a visitor to walk around and explore, perfect for a spouse that would die from boredom following their pipe smoking significant other around.

The Missouri Meerschaum factory sits at the edge of downtown Washington, across from the great Missouri River. Between the factory and the river is the old Missouri Union Train Station, which has now been repurposed into multiple little shops. The current working station is only a stones throw away, but I couldn’t help but look around the retired station and admire the place while snapping a few pictures. The adventurer in me wanted to hop up on the old platform and wander about, but I didn’t exactly feel like chatting with the local law enforcement officers and be escorted out of town. What can I say? I’m not much of a rule breaker, which is probably why I’m not an urban explorer.

I took a walk around the Missouri Meerschaum factory building for a few moments, taking a good look at the place and getting a feel for my surroundings. Even from standing outside the place, I could smell the varnish used to seal the corncob pipes once they’ve been made, and I could hear the machines hard at work cranking out pipes to put out for the market. An official city plaque had been placed at the corner of the building, explaining the historical significance of the factory. Even though we live in a society that despises our hobby, it’s nice to see Washington honor the Missouri Meerschaum factory in this fashion.

I walked around the corner and made my way up to the factory’s retail store and museum. Stepping inside the shop honestly feels like turning the clock back in time to a different era, when pipes were commonplace and a respected business. According to Missouri Meerschaum’s site, their building dates back to the 1880’s, and that’s easily apparent within moments of being in the place. There’s not much in the room that’s all that modern, other than the register and TV. The old hardwood floor creaks with every step you make, which just sets the mood for the place like a saloon in a western. In the middle of the room sat three wooden rocking chairs, and it took every ounce of willpower not to sit in one and break out a cob and tin and have a smoke. Sadly, smoking isn’t allowed in the shop, otherwise I could see myself staying there for a long time, happily puffing away without a care in the world.

The retail store and museum is in an “L” shaped room, with the retail shop in the front section, and the museum taking up the back portion. The entire space is filled with items from the factory’s past, celebrating all things corn and corncob pipe. There’s even a large wooden corncob with “Welcome” carved into the piece, which I absolutely love, though some might find it corny *Insert Rimshot.

Immediately to my left sat a wall of corncob pipes, all styles and shapes represented for sale. As a corncob fanatic, I was in heaven. I’ve been to Missouri Meerschaum’s table at the Chicago Pipe Show, and while they always bring plenty of their stock, even that can’t hold a corn kernel to their inventory at the retail shop. The shop also boasts an impressive selection of pipe tobacco tins and jars. I expected to find Missouri Meerschaum’s pipe tobacco line to be there, but that’s just a small sample of their selection. Companies like Cornell & Diehl, MacBaren, G.L. Pease, Lane, Sutliff, Seattle Pipe Club, and others all sat on rows of shelves, with sample tins available for sniffing for every blend. A cabinet next to the shelves held multiple tobacco jars of bulk tobacco, giving the shopper a multitude of choices to mull over while they shopped.

The Retail Shop

Before I had much of a chance to look around, an employee stepped out from the office in the back and welcomed me to the shop. He asked me if he could be of assistance, but hey, I’m TheBadgerPiper, I’m what you call an expert. I have to give props to the guy, though, as he gave me space to shop around without hovering, and only pointed out merchandise around the shop when he thought it would be of interest. We even had a nice conversation about our favorite pipe tobacco tins. I welcomed the interruption to chat about good tobacco, considering how rare it is to find other pipe smokers.

Once the employee left me to my own devices, I immediately descended upon the corncob pipes. I felt like a kid in a candy store with all the choices in front of me and eagerly searched through the shelves for the right cobs. As much as I appreciate Missouri Meerschaum’s online store, there’s nothing like having the pipes in front of you instead of a picture and written out dimension measurements. You can pick up any cob you want, give it a thorough glance over, and decide if it’s up to snuff.

I told myself not to go wild in buying cobs, but when you have the entire line at your fingertips, restraint is the last thing on your mind. One of my goals is to one day collect one of every style of cob available and review them all for this blog, but now was not the time to make that happen. After all, I had to go back to my wife at the hotel, and the last thing I wanted to do was explain why I spent that much money on corncob pipes. I didn’t like the idea of spending a night or two sleeping on a hotel room floor.

Before the trip, I made a mental list of the cobs I was the most interested in purchasing. At the very top of that list was the Corndog, a bulldog style corncob specially made in honor of Missouri Meerschaum’s 150th year of operation. The corndog used to be part of Missouri Meerschaum’s standard line, but the shape had long been out of production. Missouri Meerschaum only made a certain amount of these 150th Anniversary corndogs, so if you missed it, you’re out of luck. Previously, I had the chance to buy one at the Chicago Pipe Show, but passed on it in favor of other pipes. With the cob no longer listed on their site, I knew if I didn’t find one at the retail shop, then I was out of luck for good. Thankfully, fate smiled upon me that day, as the shop had two corndogs left for purchase, perhaps the very last two corndogs in the wild. I snatched one for myself and left the last one for the next lucky individual hoping to buy one.

Besides the corndog, I picked up three other cobs— a Cobbit Shire pipe, a bent Emerald pipe, and the Briar Patch Forum Bing. While I’m not the biggest fan of churchwarden pipes, Dave from the Maple City Pipe Cast network told me the Cobbit Shire is his all-time favorite pipe. With that kind of praise, I had to give it a try. Plus, who doesn’t want a LOTR style cob? The Emerald was another cob I almost purchased at the Chicago Pipe Show. The bent version reminds me of a larger Charles Towne cob, not just from the acrylic stem, but in size as well. As for the Bing, it’s a style that’s unusual for a cob, and a briar Bing is near the top of my list of pipes I’d like to own. 

The retail shop also has gift sets of cobs you can buy, with two matching themed cobs in a bent and straight shape. They’re neat gifts to buy for the cob fan in your life, but I didn’t need one myself. I will say, the Let Freedom Ring set looks sharp, and I had to think about it for a moment. It comes with a straight 5th Avenue and a bent Rob Roy cob in a dark yellow stain and rugged finish. If you’re looking for a set to purchase, I’d suggest giving this one a chance.

With my cobs selected, it was time to check the pipe tobacco. This turned out to be a much more difficult task than I expected. When I made the trip, I figured I’d pick up one of the Missouri Meerschaum branded pipe tobacco pouches and call it a day. My plans quickly fell by the wayside as I discovered the sheer quantity of tobacco tins available for purchase. By buying a few tins at the retail store, I could pick up a few new blends I was interested in without having to deal with the postal service.

Here’s a little secret for all you blog readers, since I like you all— the retail shop has some hard to find tobacco that you can’t find on the usual sites. While scouring through their stock, I found tins for C&D’s The Haunting, as well as some of their small batch artisan blends like Sun Bear. The pipe websites like to post these new blends while I’m at work, so by the time I hear about them; they’re usually sold out. It’s not just C&D, either. They had MacBaren Old Dark Fired Plug in stock, too, and that sold out just as fast.

Because the retail store had open tins for all their stock, I took the opportunity to go up to all the tins I haven’t tried, popped the tin open, and took a sniff. Even if I couldn’t buy every tin I was interested in, I could at least smell them and make a note to buy them later. Maybe one day science will create a computer that offers the option for smell-o-vision, but until then, this was my only chance to sample all these blends.

In the end, I decided not to buy any of their small batch tobacco. Instead, I picked up two C&D blends—their Christmas blend of Corn Cob Pipe and a Button Nose, and Redburn. Corn Cob and a Button Nose has been on my “to try” list for some time, so I wasn’t going to let it pass me by this time, especially with it in front of me. I also went with Redburn, as it reminded me of both Blockade Runner and Black Frigate, two Navy blends that are mainstays in my weekly blends. I might’ve passed on Redburn while ordering online, but thanks to being able to smell a sample of it; I knew it was a winner. Just goes to show you that while online ordering is great, there are advantages to going to an actual tobacconist to see what they have. Otherwise, I might’ve missed out on a great blend.

The retail shop has more than just cobs and tobacco for sale. In addition to normal pipe shop items like pipe tools, rubber bits, and wind caps, there’s a wide variety of Missouri Meerschaum themed merchandise available. You can show the world your cob pride with coffee mugs, shot glasses, duck callers, patches, t-shirts, hoodies, bandanas, baseball hats, posters, and postcards. I was highly impressed with the ceramic coffee mugs, as they put most of the coffee mugs I own at home to shame. I had a hard time putting it back, but cobs were my priority. You can find all of these items on their web store, though, and would make for a great stocking stuffer, along with a cob of course. I did end up adding in a postcard and poster, as both were a buck each, and make for great souvenirs for the pipe corner in my basement.

After purchasing cobs and tobacco at the counter, it was time to move into the museum portion of the shop. The museum isn’t all that big, but there’s enough cool memorabilia to justify a visit. Before I began, there was a guestbook sitting by one of the display cabinets, surrounded by leaflets for pipe clubs and local areas of interest. The guestbook had signatures of visitors from all around the world, and I enjoyed reading all the places people hailed from that stopped by the shop. Of course, I had to make my mark and sign the guestbook, providing proof that I made my visit. If you stop at the store, you’ll find my signature in there somewhere. 

The museum consisted of a few different display cabinets spread out in the larger part of the back of the room. Every shelf had at least two or three antique cobs sitting around, many of them being shapes that were out of production. The cabinets by the guest book detailed the history of the Missouri Meerschaum factory, and corncob pipes in general. The top shelf told the story of Henry Tibbe and how he carved his first corncob pipe in the 1800’s. From one simple pipe, Tibbe built an empire that’s still going strong today. The shelf had a lot of information and photos showing the progression of the company, including how they were responsible for bringing electricity to Washington, MO. As someone that only knew a fraction of Tibbe’s story, I found it fascinating how important the factory and Tibbe family was in the history of Washington.

The shelf below had letters from important people who wrote to the Missouri Meerschaum Company. Most of the letters came from politicians, who thanked the company for sending them a package of corncob pipes. One politician in particular wrote to thank them, saying that while he didn’t smoke a pipe, another gentleman in his office was making good use of the cobs. Overall, none of the letters were earthshattering, but I found it interesting.

The centerpiece letter came from General Douglas MacArthur himself, thanking the company for sending him one of the famous cobs that now bears his name. Considering that General MacArthur is one of the most iconic corncob pipe smokers in history, it only makes sense that the company would devote part of their museum to the famous General. Next to the General’s letter proudly sat a 5-Star General cob, a shape that’s still in production today. One interesting factoid I learned at the museum involved one of MacArthur’s peculiar quirks that he’d do with each of his cobs. Whenever General MacArthur broke in a new 5-Star cob, he would take his lighter and burn a ring in the middle of the shank of his cob. All MacArthur cobs in production today come with that ring pre-burnt into the shank in honor of the General’s unique habit.

The middle section of the museum focused on corncob pipes in popular culture. There were comic books featuring Popeye and Frosty the Snowman, the two biggest corncob pipe smokers in fiction today. Everyone’s favorite cob smoking sailor man even had a wooden statue of himself on one of the shelves, with a little cob sticking out of his mouth.  MacArthur and Mark Twain also had small sections devoted to them here, as both are well known for their love of cobs. Besides some old advertisements for the Missouri Meerschaum Company, they also displayed some older shapes devoted to specific people, such as the Ty Cobb cob, as well as a cob in honor of Popeye’s hometown of Chester, Illinois. Seeing these old cobs in person was a real treat, and makes me wish the Missouri Meerschaum Company would consider doing some small runs of these forgotten shapes. With the success of the corndog, one can hope that Missouri Meerschaum will surprise their fans with another old shape making a comeback. I, for one, would be at the front of the line for one of those Ty Cobb pipes.

The last cabinet section was devoted to the history of the tobacco pipe. A row of pipes was laid out, with an information card describing each pipe and their place in history. The pipes started with stone pipes, moving onto clays, and briars, and everything in-between. The display was a nice primer for visitors who might not be as familiar with the history of pipes, as well as many examples of each kind of pipe.

The St. Louis Worlds Fair Corncob Pipe Displays from 1904

Perhaps the coolest part of the whole museum had to be the memorabilia and historical items scattered throughout the room. At the top of the room above the first display cabinet sat two dusty old art pieces, two boards covered from top to bottom in corncob pipes, each with their own unique pattern. To a normal passer-by, these two dusty displays might not seem worthy of any real significance, perhaps a curiosity at best. However, these aren’t just for some art project to decorate the museum. The Missouri Meerschaum Company created these displays all the way back for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and are over 115 years old. It’s amazing that these two historically significant art pieces have are still hanging up in the museum and weren’t lost to time.

In the back corner of the room sat what I like to call the Corncob Throne. The throne consisted of a wooden chair, with tons of corncob pipes with amber stems sticking out on top of the back. The chair reminded me of the Iron Throne, seen in HBO’s The Game of Thrones, but with a focus on pipes rather than swords. I imagine any pipe smoker out there would love to have a chair like this in their smoking spot. I mean, come on, it’s a chair decorated with corncob pipes! Despite being a huge corncob pipe fan, I didn’t myself worthy of having such an honor. I’ve seen enough Indiana Jones films to know what happens when you presume you deserve something. Knowing my luck, I’d probably dissolve into pipe ash and corn kernels. This is a seat worthy for someone like Aristocob, not some simple blogger such as myself.

The Cob Throne

Once I finished up at the museum, it was time to wrap up my visit. So after one more look around the place, I stepped outside and headed out to my car. However, I wasn’t quite ready to head back to my hotel room, and I wanted to look around Washington a bit more. So I loaded up my 150th Anniversary Corndog cob with a codger blend— Lane’s Ready Rubbed, fired up the bowl with my pipe lighter, and took a stroll down the sloping Missouri streets surrounding the factory.

I took in the scenery while puffing my new cob and thought how fortunate the Missouri Meerschaum Factory was to be located in such a wonderful small town. Sitting on the banks of the mighty Missouri river, built atop the soil of America’s heartland, the very DNA of the Missouri Meerschaum factory is as Americana as they come. It’s true that Washington doesn’t have the same draw as St. Louis or Kansas City, but it provides more of a picturesque and idyllic setting to spend a day away from the madness of the crowds. 

As the tobacco burned low in my cob, and I leaned next to that old, out-of-commission train station, I found it hard to leave this quaint, yet welcoming city. While my visit had unfortunately come to an end, I dearly hoped that one day I could return and make another visit to the Missouri Meerschaum factory. And if you ever find yourself driving through the “Show Me” state and have some spare time, I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than in Washington, MO.

Until next time, you’ll find me here, breaking in my new cobs. Happy puffing, my friends,

-TheBadgerPiper

~\U~\U~\U~\U~\U

*On a side note, if you do go to the Missouri Meerschaum factory, I highly suggest you use the bathroom beforehand, or save it until after. The retail store and museum doesn’t have a bathroom available for customers, so you’ll have to walk two blocks away to the public market. Kinda annoying, but at least there’s a public restroom close by. Be warned.