Mules, corn cob pipes: Missouri legendary lore
Missouri’s mule and corn cob pipe. Cartoon published in the Chickasha, Oklahoma newspaper, Nov. 5, 1909. Newspapers.com
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Published in the Feb. 29, 2020 edition of the Hannibal Courier-Post
Will Potter, 27, lamented the loss of a mule on his father’s farm in Fabius Township, Marion County, Missouri, back in March of 1896. He found the lost mule behind a straw rick*. The animal had fallen into a rotten place in the straw, and had subsequently starved and fretted to death.
Mules were key to agricultural production back in Potter’s day. It would be nearly another decade before the early American two-cylinder tractors would begin to replace horse and mule power on Midwest farms.
A Fabius newspaper correspondent – pen name Dollie - described Potter’s plight in the March 26, 1896 edition of the Marion County Herald in Palmyra:
“Will has settled down to smoking his old corn cob pipe, boiling maple syrup and counts his mules three times a day, saying, ‘They that have must lose,’ and whistles with complacency, ‘Her bright smile haunts me still.’”
The first quote is Biblical. The second refers to a Civil War era Confederate song by W.T. Wrighton, with lyrics by J.E. Carpenter. The sheet music is contained in the Library of Congress’ “Songs of America,” Civil War Sheet Music Collection.
Will’s behavior was typical of the era’s mindset in Missouri: Smoking his corn-cob pipe while mourning the loss of his mule.
When thinking of a corn cob pipe, it’s easy to conjure up a mental image of Sam Clemens with a pipe between his pursed lips. World War II buffs may recall seeing pictures of Gen. Douglas MacArthur on duty with his corn cob pipe in hand. And who could forget “Popeye,” who has smoked a corn cob pipe since Elzie Crisler Segar brought him to life in print cartoons in 1929.
Early in the 20th Century, Missouri became the primary producer of corn cob pipes, and during World War I, they were shipped worldwide.
They are still manufactured today by the Missouri Meerschaum plant at Washington, Mo., which uses hybrid corn to shape pipes in several different styles. The company – under various owners - has been in business for more than 150 years.
In 1923, Tom Cavnar, sheriff of Oklahoma County, Okla., didn’t want the dozen deputies working for him looking like sissies. He equipped each man with a 4-inch leather cartridge belt and a pair of huge revolvers – one for each hip. In addition, he banned the use of cigarettes, instead equipping each of his deputies with a big, old-fashioned, Missouri-made, corn cob pipe.
The Moberly Monitor Index carried a story on March 27, 1923, quoting Cavnar: “And the first one of you I catch smoking a jelly bean cigarette must go. Cigarette smoking has become too sissy. My deputies must be gun-toting he-men, with a shooting iron on each hip and a corn cob pipe in each mouth.”
William W. Rucker was congressman from Keytesville, Missouri, in 1919, when the first world war was winding down. He refused to smoke anything besides a corn cob pipe. Because so many pipes were shipped to servicemen stationed overseas, there was a shortage at home.
Congressman Rucker’s plight was described in the Oct. 19, 1919, edition of the Moberly Monitor Index.
“The judge was compelled to hang on to the old one, and it has grown so strong that his colleagues have to put on gas masks when he comes around. He has promised to buy a new one as soon as the war is really over and his favorite Meerschaum comes back on the market at a price not to exceed ten cents.”
Representatives in Congress often promote their state’s products when visitor’s come to call. In 1940, while serving in Washington, D.C., Congressman Clarence Cannon was no different than the rest. He presented favored guests with corn cob pipes manufactured in his home state of Missouri.
The Moberly fire department was called to the home of George Ridgeway early in the afternoon of May 1, 1924, where smoke was reported in one of the rooms. After a careful search of the house, the firemen found the cause: John Thompson had placed his still-lit corn cob pipe in his coat pocket upon arrival at the Ridgeway home, and placed the coat on the back of a chair. The Moberly Monitor Index reported on the outcome:
“Damage: One coat pocket burned; one corn cob pipe slightly scorched.”
Mrs. Josie Stillwell of Moberly turned 100 in August 1966, and a celebration took place at the Pierce Rest Home in nearby Armstrong, Mo.
Mrs. Robert Bagby interviewed the centenarian for a story published in the Moberly Monitor Index. Mrs. Stillwell and her family came to Missouri in an oxen-pulled covered wagon when she was yet a girl, and she lived in Howard County for 33 years.
Noted in the interview: At 100, Mrs. Stillwell still smoked a corn cob pipe.
The Palmyra Spectator reprinted a story from the Indianapolis Journal on March 23, 1899, regarding the history of corn cob pipes. Henry Tibbe, a native of Holland, reportedly opened one of the first corn cob pipe factories in the United States, using Missouri-grown corn cobs which he purchased by the train car load. He selected large and woody cobs for the pipes, and sawed them to the needed size. The cobs were bored and turned, and Plaster of Paris was used to fill in the pores.
“They are then made smooth and sandpapered and given a coat of shellac, after which the pipes are turned over to girls who adjust the stems,” the 1899 newspaper article explained.
Most of the Missouri’s corn cob pipe factories were located in or near Washington, Mo.
The surviving company, Missouri Meerschaum, continues to make both simple and complex pipes in Franklin County, Missouri.
Straw rick: Straw, hay etc. stored in a stack for winter fodder, commonly protected with thatch.
Meerschaum: A soft white claylike material consisting of hydrated magnesium silicate, found chiefly in Turkey. A tobacco pipe with a bowl made from meerschaum.
Tom Cavnar, Capitol Hill Beacon, Oklahoma City, Okla., Aug 10. 1924. Newspapers.com
William W. Rucker, congressman, Missouri, 1921. Library of Congress
Douglas MacArthur Naval Historical Center, public domain, in Manilla 1945
Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com