While pipe shows have been curtailed for the last year and probably well into the next, they will return, and perhaps none is more anticipated than the Chicagoland International Pipe and Tobacciana Show. The largest show in pipe history, Chicago has brought hundreds of pipe makers, tobacco blenders, cigar smokers, accessory makers, and pipe enthusiasts together, hundreds at a time gathering from around the world to congregate in the Chicago area for one glorious weekend (some stay a week), and it's all thanks to the efforts of the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club (CPCC).
There were pipe clubs previous to the Chicago club, of course. Pipe Lovers magazine, a monthly published in the 1940s, printed information about active pipe clubs from around the country, and Chicago itself had pipe meetings of various groups previous to the CPCC, but none that would stimulate a global impact on the world of pipes.
Chicago is and has been home to many great pipe shops: Iwan Ries, UpDown, Cellini, Larson's — and in the 1970s, shops like these began attracting people who wanted to enjoy some pipe-enthusiast social time.
It makes sense. There are lots of pipe smokers who can talk about pipes all day, as you know if you've been to any pipe show. I've personally participated in conversations lasting all night at pipe shows, or multiple nights, and I'm not particularly talkative. I've witnessed the surprise at how the night has disappeared and the realization that a pipe show must now be navigated on only two hours of sleep. Time evaporates in these settings. They're social events first and pipe venues second.
Time evaporates in these settings. They're social events first and pipe venues second.
People from all professions, religions, personality type, and every other category of existence can become infatuated with pipe smoking and find themselves with an appetite for both tobacco and tobacco talk. These Chicagoans were seeing other pipe smokers in the shops and enjoying occasional discussions of pipes and pipe tobacco, and like any of us would, they wanted more. A few decided to get together for organized meetings where more enthusiasts could congregate simultaneously.
Early Chicago Pipe Groups
There were two groups of pipe smokers in Chicago by the late '70s, one on the South Side and one on the North Side. Another group formed at the UpDown tobacco shop downtown, but it was the North- and South-side groups who started meeting together in the '80s and merged into the CPCC in the early 1990s. Mike Reschke was the first president of the club and remained so, except for one year, until his passing in 2016. His Parker pipe collection was award winning and vast, and he served as the assistant show director for the Chicago pipe show for its first 21 years.
Before that, though, in the 1980s, a few smaller shows met a few times, including the Briar Pipe Show, directed by Dennis Di Piazza, and the Antique Pipe Show, directed by Frank Burla, who would later become director and full-time promoter of the Chicagoland show. Frank worked for the FBI in 1983 when he emptied the ground floor of his home and hosted the first Antique Pipe Show there, including armed guards because the combined value of all the pipes displayed was astronomical.
Hotels that would permit smoking were difficult to find
The two shows were held together in 1986 and in 1988. In 1999, the shows merged, the combined event held at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois, where many later shows would be held. The show didn't last, though. Frank had to curtail his involvement at his doctor's insistence. The stress and time invested in his FBI career, combined with almost equally full-time work for the show, injured his health. "You finish one show," says Frank, "and the next day you're already working on the following two years' shows." No one else could invest the time necessary, and several years passed without a show.
But after Frank retired in 1994, and his doctor said it was okay, he became show director for the CPCC, and the first show was planned for 1996. They needed some funds to get things going; Frank said they'd need $1,000, and 10 members contributed $100 each. If you're ever curious about who started the Chicago show, here they are: Bill Amato, Frank Burla, John Golderg, Ed Lehman, John Loring, Judd Perlson, Michael Reschke, Chuck Rio, Herm Schobel, and Al Smith. These are the people who have earned our gratitude for funding a pipe show that would become singularly successful.
By "successful," I don't mean in an economic sense. It would develop into a multi-level event lasting a week and providing food, seminars, and other functions making the show attractive not only to pipe enthusiasts, but to their families.
The Modern Chicago Show Starts
The first CPCC show was at the Clarion Quality Inn in Rosemont, outside of Chicago, in 1996. They found this venue thanks to another group of collectors, the National Pocket Lighter Society. Obviously, there was a connection, and the Lighter Society arranged for them to share their show space for that first show. The combination was intuitive and fun for everybody.
However, the Clarion would not sign a contract for the pipe smokers to return, citing the expense of fumigating the ballroom after the pipe show. They needed a new place, and as any pipe show organizer will readily volunteer, that is a tough job. Hotels that would permit smoking were difficult to find, and at that time, pipe shows were smoking events. It was a prerequisite of that time, before we were ushered outside and into tents or onto patios to endure whatever weather conditions prevail.
The show moved to the Ramada Inn, in Harvey, Illinois, in 1997, and stayed there for three years. That '97 show was my first Chicago show. It wasn't as big as it later became, but it was already larger than other shows; attendance was great, famous pipe makers were starting to attend, and there were unbelievable pipes, so many pipes, pipes from all over and of stupefying quality. It was the Walt Disney World of pipes and every bit as invigorating as Splash Mountain. I don't know what the afterlife may be, not having visited recently, but any paradise for pipe smokers will include unlimited access to the Chicago pipe show.
I'd never seen such rare pipes of such artistic vision before, and my pipe collection was much improved — in direct proportion to the depreciation of my bank account. That's when I started telling my wife that no pipe costs more than $10. She didn't fall for that, but supported my hobby and asked for no details, and I soothed my conscience by presenting her with a brand new vacuum cleaner. She didn't like it as much as I hoped. For that, I blame the 1997 Chicago show.
The Show Expands
Shane Ireland, Werner Mummert, and Tom Eltang
World-class pipe makers started attending the show because the Chicago club pursued them. Frank was promoting the show full time now, as well as arranging the thousands of details concomitant with such an extravaganza, and he was calling people in every country: tobacco manufacturers, pipe factories and makers, accessory makers, cigar people. "I'd be on the phone as late as 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.," says Frank. "I was involved in making air reservations for people, getting invitations approved by the state department for certain countries that had to be invited in certain ways, things like that."
Rex Poggenpohl of the Chicago club was instrumental in recruiting pipe makers. He volunteered to travel to Europe at his own expense to talk with pipe people about coming to the show. He attended a smoking contest where he met Tom Eltang, and also Per Billhal, who built an early website promoting and selling the work of artisan pipe makers. Both would begin attending.
The global impact of the show was profoundly reinforced when Smokingpipes sponsored the attendance of Japanese pipemakers Smio Satou and Tokutomi in 2003, and later Kei-ichi Gotoh. The show began looking like the Academy Awards of pipe making. It was joked that if the Chicago show were to be nuked, it would set artisan pipe making back 50 years.
The show began looking like the Academy Awards of pipe making
The show outgrew the Ramada, moving to the Indian Lakes Hotel in Bloomingdale in 2001. It was nicer than the previous venue, which had required police to keep the parking lots clear of unauthorized, unsavory individuals for the duration of the show. However, the Bloomingdale location lasted only that one year, pricing itself beyond reach afterward.
The Return to Pheasant Run
That's when the Pheasant Run Resort, where that first show was held, contacted them. In the hotel business, evidently, one monitors various events of one's competitors, and Pheasant Run liked the numbers of people that the pipe show attracted, offering the CPCC a years-long guarantee.
The show has continued its growth over the years, and with large shows come logistical requirements. "You've got to worry about the security," says Frank. "As you know, at Pheasant Run we had the St. Charles Police; they turned it into a substation because we had so many police officers working there."
The Chicago show also arranges events for those who would prefer not occupying all of their time with pipes. They are most often the wives of attendees and exhibitors. "That's what made the show a bigger success than anybody expected, and it was due to a talk I had with my father many years earlier. He said, 'If you're going to do something, do something not only for the guy who's the collector, but for his wife so she feels like she wants to come, because she also controls the purse strings and decides who goes where.' So, that's why we started activities for the women."
There has been an annual women's luncheon provided, for example. "We also had the Friday night free dinner,"says Frank. "And the Saturday night dinner. We had bus tours taking folks to shopping malls and other areas. The wives loved all that."
Smoking at the Show
The Chicago event really runs through the entire week leading up to the weekend exhibition, with enthusiasts flying in from around the world to socialize and swap with other enthusiasts. The pipe-making workshop has been taught by prominent pipe makers, providing a course in the craft for a limited number of registrants. In addition, several seminars at each show offer expert insight into a variety of pipe topics.
A tent at the show is necessary since indoor smoking has been disallowed. It's an enormous amenity the size of a circus tent, with wood floors, abundant seating, food and drink access during reasonable hours, heating, and dozens of large round tables with chairs comfortably saturated with the hundreds of hours of conversations held at them.
The tent is also where the United States Slow Smoke Championship is held, traditionally on each show's Sunday. Sometimes additional events are held inside, such as tobacco blending contests. Brian Levine has hosted his PipesMagazine.com Radio Show from the Chicago tent. And it's open all day and all night for having a comfortable smoke whenever wanted.
The Chicago show is big enough to merit a pre show. While the exhibition is held over the weekend (traditionally the first weekend in May), exhibitor space is also made available in the tent on Friday, with half-tables provided on a first come basis and with no fee. It's a great appetizer for the show, and exhibitors unable to have a table at the show can still display.
Frank Burla has retired from directing the show, and Craig Cobine, who has donated thousands of hours of his time to the show over the years, now fills that role, and has for the past handful of years. He's a remarkable man, soft spoken and keenly intelligent, friendly and interesting, and with a sharp eye for pipes.
All pipe shows have enormous merit, of course, each with its own personality and each requiring a huge expenditure of time and expense for the club holding it. Many prefer smaller shows, because it's impossible to see everything at a show that's as large as Chicago's, and every show is more than worth attending. Yet for the widest variety of companionship and conversation, products and events, Chicago certainly excels. It's unlikely that we'll see the Chicago show return this year, but with its history and momentum, its popularity and its breadth of experiences for every attendee, it will be back, because the show goes on.