RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Amazing but true, Popeye and Frosty the Snowman have something in common with General Douglas MacArthur and Mark Twain. They're all known for smoking a corn cob pipe. Corn cob pipes have made a comeback in recent years, welcomed news for the last company in the U.S. mass producing them. It's located in Washington, Missouri, about an hour west of St. Louis.
Still, as St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann reports, last summer's brutal heat and drought have been a big challenge.
RACHEL LIPPMANN, BYLINE: Walk into the sprawling brick building that houses the Missouri Meerschaum Company, and you get the sense that not much has changed since the 1880s. Sure, there's electricity now and running water. But when it comes to making the pipes that made the company famous, the process is pretty much the same. And that's just how general manager Phil Morgan likes it.
PHIL MORGAN: We like the heritage nature, the authentic nature of our pipe. You know, we like the - it's a natural product.
LIPPMANN: So this buzzing sound emanating from the second floor of his 133-year-old factory makes him cringe.
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MORGAN: And I'd love for this - for it to be dead quiet up here. And the only thing to hear, a few squirrels running around.
LIPPMANN: Mounds of cobs are scattered across the wood floor of this unheated space, waiting to be cut into pieces, shaped into pipes of all sizes, coated in plaster, and shipped all over the world. In an ideal situation, this room would be full of cobs and they would sit for two years, drying naturally. So corn grown in 2012 wouldn't become pipes until 2014.
But the buzzing from the propane heater is helping these cobs dry more quickly. Though the weather was fine in 2010 and 2011, the cobs that grew were of poor quality. Morgan needed a good 2012 growing season to replenish his company's supply.
MORGAN: We had the seed we needed. But it was really warm in the spring, planted it early, the corn looked fantastic, and then the drought hit. Our field is irrigated so it wasn't just the drought, it was the heat. Corn does not like heat.
LIPPMANN: That 2012 crop produced just a third of the cobs needed. With inventory already low, there wasn't time for them to dry naturally. So that means firing up the propane. In addition, Morgan had to temporarily stop offering bigger pipes. And total sales, which had been rising in recent years, dropped.
MORGAN: It isn't just from a sales standpoint and a profitability standpoint. It's just what it does to your psyche. I mean, when you start thinking that hey, oh my God, are we going to have to quit making pipes for some period of time.
LIPPMANN: But cob smokers are loyal customers. And if recent sales at John Dengler Tobacconist in St. Charles are any indication, business will continue to be brisk. Owner Larry Muench sells about 700 Missouri Meerschaums a year.
LARRY MUENCH: It always starts in the end of August, September, when the college kids come in town. And I always start them off with a corn cob. Why should then spend 30, 40, 50 bucks and find out they don't like it. So I tell the kids if they buy a corn cob and they don't like it, just wait for winter and put it in the snowman's mouth.
LIPPMANN: The most popular Missouri Meerschaum pipe will set you back less than $10 and they're widely available at drug stores.
Nostalgia seems to be part of the attraction, too. Newly minted pipe smoker Jeff Bennett purchased his first Missouri Meerschaum at the factory in Washington, Missouri. The price was appealing, but Bennett says he liked the vibe of a corn cob pipe, too.
JEFF BENNETT: You know, you see pictures of old guys smoking corn cob pipes on their porch out on the homestead. So I would guess I was kind of attracted to that.
LIPPMANN: Bennett says he'll be a continuing corn cob pipe customer. And that's sure to please Phil Morgan. He hopes to ship 800,000 pipes this year and one million within a few more - that is, if Mother Nature lets him grow the cobs he needs to keep up with demand.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Lippmann in St. Louis.
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