There are people in our hobby who may seem like ordinary folks but whose quiet contributions provide influential advancements. Joe Lankford was such an individual. He passed away on September 3, leaving behind many appreciative pipe smokers who will continue enjoying the pipe tobaccos that he originated for the Seattle Pipe Club, tobaccos like Plum Pudding and Mississippi River, two particular favorites among pipe smokers.
Joe started blending in the early '70s when he owned a tobacco shop in Dodge City, Kansas. A downturn in the economy made him leave that profession and he continued as a draftsman for the remainder of his professional career, though he never strayed from his love for tobacco and pipes.
Joe's collection of pipes was impressive. His tastes gravitated to Danish artisan pipes, and when I first met him at a Chicago pipe show in the mid- 2000s, I was stupefied to see some of what he brought with him to smoke. His was a non-imposing, soothing, almost Zen-like presence. We found ourselves standing next to each other looking at some pipes and we started talking. He looked like a typical working-class gent. He spoke quietly and we discussed our appreciation for Danish pipes. That's when he started showing me the pipes he'd brought to the show to smoke.
Ivarssons, Chonowitsches, Bo Nordhs, and S. Bangs galore, along with pipes from almost every other Danish artisan, any one of which I'd have traded the bulk of my collection for. He had a carry bag with about 30 pipes in it, and we found a corner to look at them. They were all shapes that I appreciated and I was impressed, not only by the pipes but by Joe's collecting philosophy: no matter how great a pipe looks, if it doesn't smoke just as well, he wouldn't keep it. Every pipe he had, some of them worth thousands of dollars, was a workhorse smoker for Joe. Beauty and craftsmanship were merely part of the necessary equation for him. Exemplary smoking properties were paramount.
"Everyone has layers," says Matt Guss, founder of the Seattle Pipe Club and close friend of Joe. "I look at people like an onion: you peel the layers and you get a little different picture as you go down. I've been very fortunate in being able to know Joe at one level, and then as we became close friends at a different level. He certainly became a celebrity in the pipe and tobacco world. Everyone who smokes Seattle Pipe Club tobaccos has their own relationship with Joe Lankford."
Matt and Joe met in 2002, in the early years of the Seattle club. "I had very limited knowledge about pipes and tobacco," says Matt. "My budget for pipes at that time was $5, because I looked at a pipe as just a piece of wood with two holes in it. Why would anybody pay more than that?" After meeting Joe Lankford, Matt's opinion changed.
For his first club meeting, Joe brought some of his collection of S. Bangs — about 25 of the 50 or so that he owned. "I remember my eyes rolling in my head," says Matt. "I was blown away by this new exposure to these beautiful works of smoking art, and meeting Joe, who from the first minute was and always would be a salt-of-the-earth kind of a character. He was not a stuffed shirt. He was not somebody that you would necessarily associate with high-grade pipe collecting. In fact, when I first met him, I thought he was a farmer."
Each pipe had a story and Joe told those stories as he showed his pipes. After a while Matt asked what pipes like these could cost and was stunned by the information that they were all valued over $1,000. "I just thought, this is incredible. Certainly more than $5. And what struck me was how each one of the pipes was well smoked, both a work of art and a smoking tool, and it had to be both for him in order for it to qualify. He smoked the hell out of any pipe that he owned. Joe told me that if a pipe doesn't smoke right, he's going to smoke it until it does. I used to say that Joe would smoke a pipe into submission."
At the time that Joe and Matt first met, Joe was known in a small circle of high-grade collectors and carvers but not much outside of that network. Joe was a private person who tended to avoid socializing. However, his love for pipes and tobaccos brought him out to club meetings and pipe shows.
The Seattle club soon learned that Joe not only knew about pipes, but that he experimented with his own tobacco blending. "He said that he had spent a great deal of time smoking individual source leaf components, by themselves, so that he could get an understanding of what the characteristics were for each — the smoking characteristics, the flavor profiles, the textures, everything about it them that he could understand." Joe had tried hundreds of different recipes and rejected them all, until he conceived Mississippi River.
"It was the first that met his standards," says Matt, who asked Joe how he developed the mixture. "He said, 'I'd been trying to come up with a blend for a long time, and they were abject failures.'" But one night he sat straight up in bed at 2:00 a.m. with an idea. He wrote it down and when he looked at his notes the next day, he said, "That looks like a good blend. This is the blend I'm going to make." He made it, and it was Mississippi River. "There was no modification," says Matt, who looked at Joe and said, "So it came to you in a dream?" "Yeah," said Joe, "I guess it did."
"I've never met anybody like him," says Matt. "I am so grateful that we became friends. Joe Lankford was unquestionably one of the most talented and humble and generous people I've ever met. He would bring this new blend, Mississippi River, to the pipe club and people would smoke it and they would say, 'Gosh, this is a wonderful tobacco. Do you think I could have a little of it?' And he'd say, 'Sure. I'm going to go home and I'm going to make you some.' And he would mix it up in his kitchen, take it to his garage, take it to a homemade press with bottle jacks and a special press case that he had fabricated at a metal shop, put it between two blocks of wood, press it, vacuum seal it after it had aged sufficiently, write the date on it, and bring it to another meeting and hand it off to the person who had asked for it. And they would say, "What do I owe you for that?" Joe would always respond, 'You don't owe me anything. It's a gift. Here you go.'"
The tobacco was popular with the club and more and more requests came Joe's way, and he fulfilled all of them, never accepting payment. Matt started thinking, "This is bullshit. People aren't deliberately taking advantage of Joe, but on the other hand, it seems like a big ask for somebody to make these tobaccos on their own, vacuum sealing them and doing all this work." So Matt proposed that the club have some tins made in one big batch for everyone interested.
"As a club project, we got everybody's orders together, and we got the tobacco mixed, and got it tinned, and it came back. Everyone got their tin of tobacco, so now my friend Joe doesn't have to go out in the garage and labor over mixing up tobaccos any more. Problem solved, everyone's happy. So we make a little special label for the tins, and I think, 'We've done a good deed. Everyone got their tobacco.' Next club meeting, somebody says, 'Gee, I didn't get any of this. I didn't hear about this order. I'd like to order some.' And I said, 'Dammit. This was a one and done. The whole idea behind this was to do it only once."
Russ Ouellette of Pipes and Cigars had blended the batch for the club, and he thought it would be appreciated by lots more people, so Pipes and Cigars, where Russ worked, started making and selling Mississippi River, soon followed by Plum Pudding and others. The Seattle Pipe Club blends were launched. They sold slowly at first, then sales picked up, and today Joe's skills as a blender are appreciated by thousands of enthusiasts.
Joe led by example, and Matt was convinced to try better pipes. Joe sold him one of his Bo Nordhs. Matt went from $5 estate eBay pipes to Bo Nordhs overnight, thanks to Joe.
Joe has said in interviews that when he creates a blend, it's done. There's no tweaking afterward, no modification, no refinement. Matt thought that Joe's skills with the blending table were similar to Beethoven's with music. "Beethoven was deaf, but through his skill as a musician and a composer, had a mental memory of all the notes, and he could compose and play while being completely deaf. That's the kind of command that a real artist has over his medium. Joe was that kind of artist; he had a wonderful understanding of the different tobacco types and how they would interplay in a blend. He could compose that blend in his own mind and on paper, and make it, and it would be exactly what he wanted."
Lars Ivarsson, Joe Lankford, and Nanna Ivarsson
Sykes Wilford, CEO here at Smokingpipes, met Joe around 2007 when Nanna Ivarsson was becoming more serious about fulltime pipe making. Joe was a fan of Nanna's work and considered it better than that of her father Lars or her grandfather Sixten. Joe said that she had the pedigree, the DNA, and the training, having worked with both. Joe and Sykes were each enthusiastic about Nanna's work. "We just hit it off," says Sykes. "We had dinner together with other folks. He had an impressive collection of Lars and Jess pipes when we started talking about Nanna. He was so unassuming about his collector status that it took me a while to realize that this guy A) knew what he was talking about and B) had an amazing collection. It took me a bit to realize that he was so seriously engaged with pipes." That was Joe. He was a quiet and reserved man with a keen understanding of pipes and tobaccos that people did not expect.
"About a month ago," says Matt, "I had a wonderful conversation with Joe. His health has been in decline for the last couple of years, and he's had more issues than anybody ever could or should have. He had brain surgery 15 years ago. Before the Las Vegas show, about five years ago, he fell in the middle of the night and broke his neck. Literally broke his neck. He's had heart problems. He's had all different kinds of issues. But whenever you talk to Joe, you've never talked to a more good- spirited, happy, fun person. You'd never knew anything else was going on.
"It wasn't until the end of the conversation that I said, 'Gosh, I hope you're well enough to come to the club picnic.' He said, 'I don't think so. I'm in a wheelchair.' We were talking for two hours and he never said a word about being wheelchair bound. If it was me, I'd have been complaining and feeling sorry for myself, and I would've let you know that right away. But for Joe, if I hadn't asked him, I never would have known. He was in the same good humor, he had that same infectious laugh that he always had, and we had a wonderful conversation. That says a lot about who Joe was as a person. He was alive and in the moment. No matter how bleak things were or how many health issues he had, you wouldn't know about it because it wasn't the most important things for Joe at that moment. The most important thing was him enjoying his life and spending that moment with you."
Matt adds, "I know that everyone dies, but I thought in Joe Lankford's case, there might be an exception."
Joe Lankford was a quiet and humble man, unassuming and generous and talented. His Seattle Pipe Club blends have brought satisfaction and peace to many pipe enthusiasts, and he advanced the high-grade collector community with his vast understanding of Danish pipes. He has left us those blends and the memories of his conversations and generosity, and we must now exist in a world without him, but at least we have Mississippi River. We have Deception Pass and Plum Pudding and Seattle Evening to smoke while remembering Joe, who with quiet grace made all of our lives better.