Singing the praises of an American icon in the pipe world
How did it come to this? I stand in awe of all the collected pipe stuff amassed in my cave. Not so much the pipe collection itself—at least not in terms of sheer numbers. I’ve got a couple of S. Bangs and a couple of BBBs and two precious Dunhill billiards that smoke like a dream, and an old Charatan Supreme that merits praise, and assorted other treasures. My sole Viggo Nielsen contends for top spot in any beauty contest.
The collection in regular rotation amounts to 24 pipes on a two-tier rack; and there are maybe a dozen other worthies tucked away in desk drawers here and there in the house, and in my car … and in various jacket pockets. You know how it is. But I am confident that having kept my total pipe count under 40 keeps me within the confines of the sane, for I have seen the astounding pipe stockpiles of some of you dyed-in-the-wool nuts out there.
Rather, it is more my tobacco stash that has grown out of all bounds of the reasonable, and prompts friends to ask me what the heck I am doing. By the time you read this page I will have turned 61 years old, so I’ll surely never live long enough to smoke all of the wondrous blends stashed away in my cabinets. And I keep buying! How to account for it? Who or what takes the blame for starting me down this road to happy obsessive compulsion?
Well, I can tell you to a certainty what did it. I am holding it in my left hand right now, and typing with my right. A particular corn cob pipe is the culprit, a pipe I bought in 1977 in a tourist gift shop in the Painted Desert of Arizona. It’s hard to believe I still have that pipe after 42 years, let alone that it still smokes perfectly. I am smoking a bowl of Stokkebye Luxury Bullseye Flake in it as I write this column. Indeed, this old cob is still one of the best smokers in my collection, as it has always been.
Granted, I don’t smoke it very often anymore. It’s a pipe that is downright precious to me now, and I don’t ever want to see it burn out. But I must say, even today it is showing no signs of distress. This is one well-crafted pipe.
I’ve no idea who made it. The shank used to bear a “Painted Desert” stamp, but that faded away decades ago. Could it be a Missouri Meerschaum? Maybe. All I know for sure is that the construction is very substantial: There is a metallic band reinforcing the thick shank, and every component of the pipe has the heavy-duty look and feel of an object that was made to last. This pipe has never given me the least bit of trouble, and so it takes the prize for best “pipe value” I have ever seen or heard of, for I am sure I paid almost nothing for it way back when.
I left that shop in Arizona with this pipe and a sleeve of pipe cleaners and a pack of—what else?—John Middleton Cherry Blend. (No tamper yet. I still had much to learn.) It didn’t take me long to discover Prince Albert, and then Sir Walter Raleigh, and I was off on a lifelong journey of pipe explorations.
My second pipe purchase was a Comoy Monogram, and things progressed from there. But I dare say I would never have discovered fine briars had this corn cob not caught my eye that day in Arizona and played its unique role in confirming me as a pipe smoker. I wish I could somehow meet the person who made it, for a great deal of what has happened in my life turned on that craftsman’s singular act of creation that landed in my possession.
It gets me wondering: How many other pipe hobbyists got their start with a cob, and how many tobacconists today might not be giving corn cobs their due respect? After all, what a worthy and prototypically American thing the corn cob pipe is!
In 2015 Seamus McGraw wrote in the New York Times that a corn cob pipe “is fundamentally democratic in the most Jeffersonian sense” because it is “an agricultural product—no, an agricultural byproduct ….” Even more evocatively, McGraw added: “The act of smoking any pipe is the act of tending something. The act of smoking a corncob pipe is the act of tending something that is of the land, tied to a set of values, of practices, a kind of thought process that’s worth preserving.” To me—and, it seems, to McGraw as well—a corn cob pipe is a deserving source of pride for the American nation. Puffing on a cob connects us to the memories and legacies of General Douglas MacArthur, Mark Twain, Norman Rockwell—even Frosty the Snowman and Popeye! I might just start belting out “The Stars and Stripes Forever” if I go on this way.
Joe Kimbrough, store manager at The Briary in Homewood, Alabama, says his shop sells about seven corn cobs, on average, each week. “In fact, we just sold one about 10 minutes ago,” he reported. Kimbrough summed up his take on cobs by agreeing that the low cost is perhaps a corn cob’s biggest selling point. That, and the excellent taste they deliver without need of break-in, doubtless accounts for their nearly universal representation in pipe shops. Kimbrough adds, “Corn cobs are good for mowing the lawn or hunting and fishing—environments where you wouldn’t necessarily want to risk carrying an expensive briar.” And he points out another factor that can be easy to overlook: “Corn cobs are excellent for sampling different tobaccos. Because a corn cob doesn’t build cake, you can use one to experience the original flavors of a tobacco even if the pipe has previously been used for other blends,” Kimbrough says. “A lot of pipe guys keep a corn cob in their pouch for just that reason.”
The main company making corn cobs today, a firm that has achieved something like market saturation, is Missouri Meerschaum out of Washington, Missouri. They are marketing dozens of styles in corn cob pipes, and even their priciest models are affordable for most anyone. Another company of which I am aware—the Old Dominion Pipe Company on Virginia’s Eastern Shore—is making pipes with locally grown corn cobs featuring an old-school bamboo-reed stem, which has gotten them some attention from show-business prop specialists looking for traditional pipes for historical productions. American cob-making and -smoking is evidently in good hands.
There’s no more buyer-friendly way to beguile a pipe newcomer with the habits of “tending” a smoldering pipe than starting him off with an affordable American classic. Keep selling those cobs!