McClelland Tobacco Co.

History of McClelland Tobacco Company

by Mary McNiel, from 1997, and quoted on


To tell the true, full history of McClelland, I have to go back 30 years to 1967 when I married a pipe smoker named Carl R. Ehwa, Jr.. In 1969, he decided his interest in pipes and tobaccos was strong enough that he wanted to make it his career. He went to work for Fred Diebel, then and probably now Kansas City's premier tobacconist.

With that, we embarked upon the study of pipes and the study of tobaccos. We spent a great deal of time with Carl's grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. W.C. McClelland. The blending bar was not yet a fixture in most tobacco shops then, so the tobaccos we would take home to the McClellands to examine with a magnifying glass and tweezers were the tinned tobaccos from around the world that could be found on the Diebel shelves.

Carl called leaf dealers for examples of leaf to work with and we learned as much as we could about grades and types. Carl developed several blends for Diebel and Fred was so impressed that he built a small factory with Carl in charge.

We were building quite a body of knowledge with the research we had done and Carl decided it might make a really nice book so, in 1971, we took every spare moment we had for the writing of The Book of Pipes and Tobaccos, which was published by Random House/Ridge Press in 1974.

We traveled throughout the Southeast going to auctions and touring factories. We visited pipemakers too, such as Paul Fisher in his New York City meerschaum studio.

By 1977, Carl wanted to create his own factory and the opportunity presented itself. So he and I and Carl's best friend since age 5, Bob Berish, Jr., established McClelland Tobacco Company in the basement of Carl's grandfather's home. We named the company for Dr. McClelland, a truly wonderful gentleman, very generous and very kind. He did not live to see the first sale but he was very much involved in all the preparations of our debut before his death at age 87.


Many people have asked how a land-locked company in the heart of America came up with a whale for an emblem. Well, it was Carl's idea to use it for the company but it came from a story in my family. My father came to America in 1915 at the age of 17. He was a poor farm boy who was on the adventure of his life. No English, $10 in his pocket.

Scared. The trip took a long time. Three months. At one point out in mid-ocean they saw whales, a pod of whales very near the ship. My father thought that was the most beautiful thing he'd every seen. Totally unexpected. Sudden. It changed his whole attitude from one of fear to one of eager anticipation of the next wondrous and beautiful thing awaiting him in America.

And so Carl said, that's what we need. an emblem that will give us courage and one that will represent the beauty of what we are trying to do and one that will also be recognized for its rarity because the leaf we use is the best and it isn't that plentiful.

And we didn't think about it then but I've thought since that the whale is endangered and certainly in the anti-smoking high-tax climate that we live in we feel endangered all the time.


We began with the original ten tobaccos, the five Matured Virginias in the brown-label tins and the five Oriental (or English) Mixtures in the green-label tins.

In the beginning we used a paper overwrap and a hot wax seal. The paper overwrap was intended to show our commitment to tradition in our products and also to hide the fact that we didn't have a way to open the can without a can opener. We wanted to stick with American-made cans to be sure of our supply but our options were somewhat limited. So much in America is geared to the large buyer. As a small company, we have to work with what's available. It was the early 80s before we found a pop-top lid that would work for us.

Then we expanded our line with private-label bulk blends that were designed to be used by the pipe shops on the blending bars. We began with Matured Virginias and Oriental Mixtures (those using the Greek and Turkish tobaccos) and then expanded into aromatics.


We do a great amount of research at McClelland but of a very low-tech nature. It's all based on taste. We test new leaf. We modify our processes. Tobacco is a crop. It changes all the time and we have to change with it in order to create blends that remain essentially the same from year to year. We taste our way along.

More History

Back to the history. Until 1980, it had been just the three partners: Carl, Bob and I. Then Bob, who made the most wonderful pastries on earth, decided he wanted to be a baker and had an opportunity with an uncle, so he left and Mike McNiel came to work with us. He had worked with Carl in the Diebel factory early on and felt every bit as strongly about making his career in tobacco as Carl. Things went along smoothly. The company was growing. Then in 1982, we had a devastating loss. Carl had taken up weight lifting and he was working out when I heard a weird thud. I found him collapsed and unconscious. I called the ambulance and the fire department. Mike and even his parents came over to help. It was a burst aneurysm at the base of the brain. Carl was 36 years old. He never did come back to us. He survived but he wasn't the same person. He wasn't interested in tobacco anymore or cooking or photography or gardening. I can't describe it or explain it even today. He just slipped into another world filled with imaginary characters.

It was a very difficult time and a real test for everyone at McClelland. Luckily we had good systems in place as a result of my years at Yellow Freight system in management development where we were taught that managers should know each other's jobs so that in the event that something happened to someone the business could go on.

There were five of us by then. I think the most important one of the group was Marv Novy, our sales manager. He's 80 now and was older than the rest of us then and provided an anchor and stability and a shoulder to lean on in those terrible times. Our lawyer, who is the secretary of our little corporation, was and is a wonderful asset. He made me seek help so I could deal with the situation. With everybody's loyal support and dedication, we survived.

The factory took over the house - the McClelland house. It was easier financially to move us out than it. Then in 1985 the insurance company came to learn that it was insuring a factory rather than a residence and suggested in rather strong terms that we move it.

Since then we have been in a 100-year-old building in midtown Kansas City in what is known as the art district. We have learned that the second floor of our building where the offices are located was a speakeasy during the 1920s. That seems rather appropriate. Here we are engaged in a business that so many people would like to prohibit and we're doing it in a building where they defied prohibition so long ago. When we moved into this building, it seemed huge. Our little operation didn't take up much space at all. But now we're just bursting at the seams. We expect to move to a larger facility within the next year, or we may build on. We're not sure.

Things went along relatively uneventfully. We kept doing research - new products - more employees. Then I think it was in 1989 that we met Barry Levin who had some very definite ideas about pipe tobacco. As those of you who knew him are aware, Barry was a powerhouse of persuasion. He would talk to Mike everyday about blends he'd like to see - reincarnations of old products that are no more. He sent us 20 - 30 - 40 year old tins that he purchased along with his estate pipes and he would say to Mike, "Match that if you can!" Well, it was a wonderful challenge and a lot of fun.

That's the thing about a company the size of McClelland. We have at most, in our busiest months, no more than 10 people. It's a nice little family. We have fun developing new formulas. We all have our own pipes and we gather for tastings. When it's raw leaf we're tasting-which we have to do sometimes - that's a sacrificial ceremony dubbed "the sacrifice of the tongue". We really enjoy working with tobacco and making it release its flavors.

We developed a number of blends as a result of Barry Levin's requests. It was the beginning of the creation of a whole range of special blends that we tin exclusively for sale under other labels. With Barry we developed a number of products that we like very much. We were so proud of them that we let him sell them under our Personal Reserve label. We had used that label since the beginning but in a very small way - special products for individuals, good friends. Nothing major. Nothing really commercial.

When Barry died, Kathy tried but then realized she didn't want to deal with the business anymore so she asked us to take them back and keep selling them and maybe keep Barry's memory alive in that way.

The Personal Reserve blends and the Craftsbury blends are those we did under the prodding of Barry Levin.

The next development was the cigar blends. Dominican Glory and Dominican Glory Maduro. That was in the early 1990s. The cigar craze piqued our curiosity. That was leaf we hadn't even thought about using, so we began working with it. It's very difficult. It has entirely different moisture holding characteristics from the other leaf we use. It was really a challenge to create blends that would work in the pipe.

Then in 1992, in honor of our 15th anniversary, we developed Christmas Cheer. We intended it as a one- time deal but it was so popular that we realized it could be a continuing project. We skipped 1993 because we were not prepared. We had not found the special leaf and set it aside in time. But we've had a special Christmas Cheer every year since.

In 1993 Mike McNiel and I were married. A great deal of the time in our lives is taken up with making tobaccos but we enjoy it. I think what we've found in our own little way is a means to recreate that sensation my father had at sea back in 1915 when he derived such strength from seeing those whales. In this high-tech, rush-rush steamroller age, our work with tobacco enables us to capture the wonder of the natural world and make it our own.


The latest development at McClelland was the creation of our Ballena Suprema cigars, which are made for us in Honduras and Mexico.

This project came about as the result of our investigations in cigar leaf for the Dominican Glory blends. We worked for two years to come up with the blends which are mild, due to the Connecticut shade wrapper, and yet full flavored.

The Hondurans, in the Danif Collection with the red bands, are milder because of the Dominican leaf in the filler, which has a nutty character, somewhat Burley-like. The Mexican cigars, in the San Andres Collection with the teal bands, are fuller flavored because of the San Andres leaf, which has a wonderful flavor curve similar in some respects to a Matured Virginia.


We are always experimenting and we have several projects in the works but nothing is far enough along to discuss. In whatever we do, it is our intention to maintain our standard of excellence. The one constant in our growing operation is quality. It was our desire to produce tobaccos of the highest quality that brought us into this business in the first place 20 years ago, and we believe it has been our steadfast adherence to strict standards that has enabled us to prosper thus far.

The End of McClelland

The following is from Chuck Stanion's excellent article on

Four decades is a long run. It was time to close McClelland's doors for several reasons, including the fact that the McNiels are well into retirement age, new regulations of unknown specific character in the near future, Mike's issues with his back ("I gotta start taking better care of myself") and the changes in availability of the tobacco leaf required by McClelland's proprietary, old world processes.

"We depended on the old ways," says Mike. "But those ways are gone." When subsidies to tobacco farmers stopped, so did the smaller farmers who harvested tobacco by hand, going through the fields several times and picking only those leaves at perfect ripeness. Now harvesting machines do that work. Tobacco auctions stopped in 2000, after the Master Tobacco Settlement made them obsolete. Tobacco became more standardized, with the subtle differences once available no longer taken into full account, differences that McClelland required for maintaining the smoking characteristics that built its reputation.

The McNiels decided to disband the company rather than sell it, primarily because no one else could do things the way they do in a normal business environment. Even should they spend six months training new owners, McClelland could never be the same, and for them, the reputation of the McClelland name is more important than money.

The future will be much different for the McNiels. Mary, who did the artwork for many of the company's tins, including the Frog Morton series, may be attending the Kansas City Art Institute in the very near future. And Mike, who loves "the so-called lower animals," will be working at the Kansas City Zoo. "It's one of my favorite places on Earth," he says. "I called them up and said, 'I'm going to work for you, and I'm going to pay you $10 an hour for the privilege.'" They accepted. It's hard to say no to Mike McNiel.

Pipe smokers the world over owe a great deal to McClelland. It's a company that forged new dimensions in pipe tobacco, and provided untold hours of contentment for pipesmokers of the past two generations. We are fortunate indeed that Mike and Mary McNiel applied their substantial talents to developing tobacco products unlike those ever seen before. We at wish to thank them for their decades of service to the hobby, and I'd like to add my personal thanks, not only for the fine tobaccos, but for the friendship of two wonderfully engaging people. Others around the world share these sentiments, I'm sure. We will all miss McClelland.

Sysops Note: AMEN, Chuck! Thankfully, we have many great tobaccos to try. Will they replace our favorite McClelland blends? Nope! But we're bound to find some new favorites...