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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Versitile Corncob

When we did not have our rubber band guns handy and wanted to have a war (Richard and I grew up fighting and often not just pretend) corncobs were a favorite weapon.  They were light enough to just sting and not do any real damage like a rock would.  We often had a two-man corncob fight or we could have a dandy war when some of our cousins came over.
We would choose up sides, gather a supply of corncobs in our pockets, scatter out, then go looking for the “enemy” around the barn.  There was not much in the way of rules.  I do not recall that we had any scoring system.  We usually just fought until we got tired of it and went off looking for something else to do.
Of course, leave it to old Dick to figure out a way to cheat.  He often would have a secret supply of corncobs soaking somewhere in a bucket of water.  A dry corncob is light and inaccurate to throw but a wet cob is heavy and throws more like a rock.  You sure knew it when you got belted with one of those!  Naturally we would yell that he was not playing fair and sometimes when he resorted to his “secret weapon” we would get mad and start throwing rocks or else just walk away.  It was usually the latter because throwing rocks could result in a cross-country chase and it was often too hot for that unless you were headed for the creek and a swim.

Those plentiful corncobs were useful for a lot of things.  They made pretty good handles for either a file or a wood rasp and they could be used for a stopper in a water keg or a coal oil can.  They also could be made into dandy corncob pipes.  Fairly recently shelled corncobs were the best for a pipe and I always preferred the red ones.  It seemed that the outer part of the red ones was a bit harder and more durable than the white one and would not burn through so quick.
To make a pipe, you first cut a section of cob about two inches long.  Then, using the small bald of a pocketknife, it was necessary to hollow out the pith from the inside down to within about a quarter of an inch of the bottom.  Again using the small knife blade, a hole for the pipestem was drilled through the cob just above the bottom.

The pipestem was made from a section of grapevine six or seven inches long.  We used a straight section between leaf joints.  The vine has a small pith right down the middle.  We used a straight piece of bailing wire to drill out the pith to make a hole through the vine/pipestem.  The baling wire was heated ret hot over a candle flame or over a sort of burner that could be made from an old baking powder can with a hole cut in the lid.  We would fill it with coal oil and use a strip of gunny sack for a wick.  It gave a hotter flame than a candle.
General MacArthur with his famous corncob pipe. He was born next door in Arkansas

Our parents knew that we made and carried around corncob pipes for fun, but of course, it was stricktly forbidden to put tobacco into one.  Once in a while we might sneak a pipefull of Dad’s Prince Albert but there were a variety of other things we could smoke in a corncob pipe.  We sometimes used coffee grounds but they were quite acrid and did not taste very good.  There were various coarse weed seeds, some of which was called “Indian tobacco” but they had a pretty sharp taste, too.  The best thing was dried cornsilks.  Those cornsilks made pretty fair cigarettes, too, when we got a hold of a packet of cigarette papers from a sack of Bull Durham.  The dry cornsilks rolled into neat cigarettes.  They burned kind of like a dynamite fuse but we could get three or four good puffs before they burned our fingers.
We had to be very careful about smoking anything.  I do believe that Mother had the most sensitive nose in the county.  If we had been down behind the barn smoking cornsilks or something else even way off in the woods, no matter how carefully we chewed on a sassafras root or a willow twig, it seemed that Mother could smell smoke on your straw hat or your clothes almost as far as she could see you.  Sometimes we could make the excuse that we had built a campfire out in the woods, but she could often identify the kind of smoke.
Getting caught smoking was one of the offenses that could result in a good licking.  Mother, however, never administered corporal punishment.  That was reserved for Dad when he came in from the fields.  Most offenses such as smoking cornsilks were good for three or four swings of Dad’s razor strop or his belt.  That was not too bad as the strop or belt were wide enough to just sting a little without making welts.  Our backsides were pretty tough anyway.

In the little I inherited (other than stories) from my father there were two pipes, one of them corncob.  When I went to take a picture of it I could not find it, but I will keep searching because I know I laid hands on it six months ago.