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This is not a pipe…

Tags: pipe laurel

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

Photo above: Early model of laurel pipe ‘Spartan’ from D&P Pipe Works. Manufactured 1942-43.

…at least, it’s not the classic briarwood Pipe that American pipe smokers up till 1940 had come to expect.

But then the war hit. And just that fast the supply of imported briarwood from the Mediterranean countries shut off like a spigot. Furthermore, “American manufacturers found themselves in a difficult plight even before Pearl Harbor because of lack of shipping space with which to import Algerian briar,” reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Since last December 7, the only available raw material is from stocks on hand.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA.,4203336">1

US pipe manufacturers were thrown into a panic.

West coast pipe makers turned to manzanita, plentiful in the Pacific Northwest. Too expensive to ship to east coast pipe makers though, especially during wartime. Pearwood? Maple? Ash? Good choices, sure, but curing times were too long to quickly fill the gap.

Mountain Laurel and rhododendron burls, however, can be cured to acceptable pipe market standards in a handful of months.

Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee were brimming with head-high laurel slicks and dense tangles of rhododendrons, ripe for the picking. And so the northern pipe makers came, and set up shop.

Man digging rhododendron burls in Carter County, TN, July 1941.
Man digging rhododendron burls in Carter County, TN, July 1941.

In 1940, what did NC’s Sparta, Boone, Brevard and Hendersonville all have in common? Close proximity to commercially harvestable laurel patches, plus easy access to major Norfolk & Western railroad connections north. Eastern Tennessee lines were too far west of the best patches, and so pipe manufacturers favored building their burl processing facilities on the North Carolina side in order to both easily collect raw burls, and to ship product out.

“Mr. David P. Lavietes and son, Paul, of New York City, have closed a deal for the lease with option to buy, of the Woodcraft Novelty Company of this city,” announced the Watauga Democrat [Boone NC] in September of 1940, “and are using the plant for the manufacture of native briarwood smoking pipe blocks, to fill the need in the industry brought about by the war.”Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">2 They hired 5 men to saw up the raw burl blocks brought in by local farmers, and shipped the blocks to NYC for finishing. 

Rudolph Hirsch of Reiss Premier Company of New York and New Jersey, with 2 partners, was close behind. In October he set up the Transylvania Pipe company in Brevard, employing 15 men, and relying not on locals to procure his laurel roots, but hiring ‘several large crews’ in-house. Hirsch was already known in the industry for his production of the Kaywoodie brand pipe.Asheville Citizen-Times, Asheville, NC.">3

Men sawing rhododendron burls at Roan Mountain for pipe stems, July 1941.
Men sawing rhododendron burls at Roan Mountain for pipe stems, July 1941.

Not everyone was thrilled by the new industry coming into town. “I saw a report the other day of a proposed new industry for this mountain district that will use thousands of laurel and rhododendron roots a year to make Kawoody pipes,” began Ralph C. Erskine in a July 1940 letter to the editor of the Tryon Daily Bulletin.Tryon Daily Bulletin, Tryon, NC.">4 “The notice described a trip by a Mr. Hirsch, I believe, in his private plane, going to the Marion district on a survey. The fact that it takes a hundred years or so to grow the roots is, I suppose, a matter of small moment in the eyes of many people in comparison with the dollars coming into the district. And of course a new industry satisfies our American passion to bring big business to our small communities.

“In Massachusetts and Connecticut they have strict laws to protect this asset of beauty for coming generations. Knowing our mountain people as I do, and their lack of comprehension of values, I can see them working for about 50¢ a day, stripping our mountains of an asset that now draws thousands of people to our State each year and that contributes the crowning glory of all our forest growth.”

A mere 6 months after David Lavietes set up shop in Boone, his D&P Pipe Works was shipping a record breaking 39,600 burl blocks to pipe manufacturers outside the state. “The capacity of the plant must be practically doubled to meet orders now on hand, and new machinery for expansion is now en route from New York,” swooned the Watauga Democrat.Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">5 “The local plant is now producing 7,500 blocks per day, and many of the manufacturers are demanding the product even before the drying process is completely finished. Thirty-nine men are now employed at good wages working in two eight-hour shifts.”

Blocks sorted and graded at a Burnsville, NC pipe factory in December 1944. The best blocks make up into the most expensive pipes.
Blocks sorted and graded at a Burnsville, NC pipe factory in December 1944. The best blocks make up into the most expensive pipes.

D&P quickly emerged as the regional leader in burl block production, thanks to Lavietes’ patented method of curing the blocks. First the factory boiled the raw blocks in water 6 to 10 hours to remove saps and oils, and then transferred the still wet blocks to another boiling water bath, this time with a 10-25% boric acid solution, and boiling for an additional 14-20 hours.Process of curing brier for pipe manufacture (Patent No. 2,367,360). U.S. Patent and Trade Office.">6 The blocks were heat dried slowly for 8 weeks to finish, getting them to market faster than competitors.

The regional sawmill influx continued. “No fewer than ten plants for sawing rhododendron and laurel burls have been set up in this area and are now producing pipe blocks for finishing at factories in the east,” reported the Elizabethton Star by early 1942.Elizabethton Star, Elizabethon, TN.">7

Highland Briars Inc, of Franklin, founded in 1942, combined D&P’s method of purchasing burls from farmers with Transylvania Pipes’ use of employees to dig the roots. By 1946 they employed 100-125 people, and were turning out 40-50 gross of pipes a week. In March they were planning for a $50,000 plant expansion.Asheville Citizen-Times.">8 In the Asheville Citizen Times Marion Pierce, plant manager, responded to the concerns of environmentalists over laurel habitat degradation: “It is only necessary to dig up those bushes that have burls,” he explained. “Since the proportion of the shrubs that have burls is very small, the beauty of the mountainsides are unmarred.”

Tracy Mincer, a pipemaker out of Indianapolis, imported Carolina laurel burls to make his “Caroleer” pipe. Here’s a portion of a 1944 ad highlighting the connection.
Tracy Mincer, a pipemaker out of Indianapolis, imported Carolina laurel burls to make his “Caroleer” pipe. Here’s a portion of a 1944 ad highlighting the connection.

By January 1942 D&P retooled in order to produce finished pipes locally rather than merely shipping raw burl blocks to other manufacturers. The equipment they purchased from the Benjamin Briar Pipe Company of NYC also allowed them to up production to 200 gross per week.Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">9

D&P’s first local pipe, the Spartan, was made from 1942 until at least 1945. The majority of them were produced for distribution to U.S. troops overseas, but some were available domestically as well. The stem was made from maple, and although the bowls were stamped “GENUINE BRIAR”, that’s obviously not true.Bullets, Sawdust, and Rhododendrons: The Story of the D&P Spartan. Rebornpipes.">10

In fact, the British Briar Pipe Importers Association wasted no time pressuring the Federal Trade Commission to preclude the use of the word ‘briar’ in marking domestically produced smoking pipe blocks.Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">11 But the saber rattling didn’t result in any lawsuits. “Mr. Lavietes this week has received letters from James A. Horton, of the FTC, Rep. R.L. Doughton, and Sen. J.W. Bailey, refuting the contention of the importers, and stating that no decision has been made,” said the Watauga Democrat on January 14, 1943.Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">12 

Sometime around mid-1943 the design of the Spartan was changed. The new version was slightly less utilitarian and added a few aesthetic curves to the back of the bowl.Bullets, Sawdust, and Rhododendrons: The Story of the D&P Spartan.">13And, tellingly, the ‘Genuine Briar’ stamp had been removed.

Sometime around mid-1943 the design of the Spartan was changed.
Sometime around mid-1943 the design of the Spartan was changed.

In August of 1943 the U.S. Tobacco Journal reported European briar wood importation would likely begin up again: “The Office of Economic Warfare sent cables to North Africa last week, calling for shipment to this country of 2,705 bales of Algerian briarwood. Prospects are for early shipment of this cargo, but no expected arrival date has been announced.”Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">14 The NC laurel pipe companies had had no competition from imported briarwood since 1941, but the landscape was starting to shift.

That competitive threat was masked, though, by other factors: “The Department of Conservation and Development says the current cigarette shortage has boomed the pipe industry like nobody’s business,” noted the Charlotte Observer in early December 1944.The Charlotte Observer, Charlotte, NC.">15

It seemed like the boom would go on forever. D&P had opened a large finishing plant near Sparta back in March 1944, “and approximately 75 gross, or over 10,000 ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Spartan’ pipes are now being made every week. A total of 65 men are employed at the plant, and when additional machinery is installed, production will be doubled and at least 150 persons employed.”Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">16

In September 1945 D&P quietly announced that it was converting its pipe sales from war orders to the domestic grades of smoking pipes.Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">17 In doing so, the company understood that it would have to make the Spartan pipe’s styling more sophisticated than the utilitarian design it had been producing mainly for the military.  The new look was more traditional, but still rather roughly shaped. The paneled bowl received a few more angles, the shank was further extended, and the maple stem was replaced with one of vulcanite.

A late Spartan pipe (1944-45).
A late Spartan pipe (1944-45).

The domestic market, though, had a built-in prejudice towards briar wood pipes. “To combat the competition of imported briar and imported pipes, D&P will keep Mr. Lavietes in NY most of the time,” stated the Watauga Democrat on October 25, 1945.Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">18 Simultaneously, Paul Lavietes, the “P” of “D&P,” decided after getting out of service not to be involved with the NC operations, but returned instead to New York to work with his brother Henry on the Van Roy line of pipes (which had no connection to the laurel root pipe brands).Watauga Democrat, Boone, NC.">19

A D&P ad from February 1946 was starting to sound just a bit defensive: “a continued market for laurel burls is assured,” it crowed.Bring us your burls [ad].">20

But by early August it was clear there were problems. “Imported briarwood is flooding the market,” stated David Lavietes in a public notice. “D&P Pipe Works will discontinue operations in Boone on August 31, 1946.”D&P Pipe Works will discontinue operations in Boone [public notice].">21 The Sparta operation remained open.

A November 7, 1946 another public notice from Lavietes stated: “Demand is down. The imported briar is back in over-supply quantity.” The firm had changed its name to Sparta Pipes, Inc. It was still actively buying laurel root burls.Important Notice! Sparta Pipes, Inc. [Public notice].">22

But less than 3 months later, in early February 1947 the firm declared: ‘We will discontinue buying laurel burls’ after February 22 1947.Notice! We will discontinue the buying [public notice].">23 And that was it. D&P disappears from the newspapers permanently after that. Sparta Pipes (and later Sparta Industries) continued on, but put its attention on briar wood pipes solely.

D&P Pipe Works changed names to Sparta Pipes, Inc. and moved Boone operations to this building in Sparta, NC.
D&P Pipe Works changed names to Sparta Pipes, Inc. and moved Boone operations to this building in Sparta, NC.

And the laurel pipe industry as a whole? Same pattern as with the D&P trajectory. Articles about the laurel pipe only reappear decades later in nostalgic backward looking pieces.

What happened? Why the sudden plummet? Was it solely the re-importation of European briar wood that sunk the industry?

“Mountain laurel was placed into production so fast (because of the sudden stoppage in briar supply) that it was not cured properly,” suggests blogger Steve Laug over at Reborn Pipes,Bullets, Sawdust, and Rhododendrons: The Story of the D&P Spartan.">24 “which led to pipe smokers having problems with the pipes made from these woods. Therefore, the pipe smoking community of that day wished only for the imported briar after the war.”

Pipe maker Robert Perkins has a darker theory to put forward:Eavesdropping on a Conversation on Manzanita and Mountain Laurel Pipes – Robert Perkins & Mike Leverette. Rebornpipes.">25 “Mountain laurel contains a powerful neurotoxin that, when ingested, causes convulsions, paralysis, and death within a matter of about six hours.

“And somewhere along the way — I’m guessing way too late in the game for some — folks using mountain laurel as a substitute for Mediterranean briar figured this out.

‘I’m just gonna bet money that people started getting sick, maybe even dying: people growing and harvesting mountain laurel, people in pipe factories breathing all that mountain laurel dust, and possibly even folks who smoked those mountain laurel pipes, later on down the line.”

And in the case of D&P specifically, their fireproofing technique called for boiling the burls in a boric acid solution. “Boric acid is not safe for humans,” states MedicineNet.Is boric acid safe for humans? MedicineNet.">26 “Chronic poisoning occurs when individuals are repeatedly exposed to boric acid. In the past, a diluted boric acid solution was used to clean and dress wounds. Individuals repeatedly exposed to the dilute boric acid eventually developed boric acid poisoning.”

It was only a matter of time before this whole corner of the industry collapsed.

More articles on the tobacco industry:

Light up a Spud!(Opens in a new browser tab)

The origin of the phrase Duke’s Mixture(Opens in a new browser tab)

We called ourselves barn massagers, walldogs or barn lizards(Opens in a new browser tab)

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