Remembering Frank Burla, Broken Pipe; 1944-2021
By Rex Poggenpohl 10.30.2021
Chicago Heights, Illinois is a far south Italian suburb of Chicago on highway US 30 and was the birthplace of two of the greatest collectors of smoking pipes is the USA., Frank Burla and Chuck Rio. Chuck Rio was a notable briar pipe collector, specializing in Costello pipes, a leader n the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club (CPCC) and at the center of the American pipe collector community with his attendance at all of the major pipe shows. Frank Burla was a well known antique pipe collector, even internationally, and was the founder and promoter of the annual International Pipe and Tobacciana Show (the Chicago Show).
I met Frank Burla at my first pipe show. It was 1993 in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had just relocated back to Chicago after retirement and on my first revisit to the famous Iwan Ries & Co. pipe shop, a customer there mentioned the Indianapolis show. At that Show I met Frank and several other pipe collectors from the Chicago area. The following year they invited me to one of their irregular gatherings at a pipe shop in Schaumburg Mall in the western suburbs. After seeing them again at the 1994 Indianapolis show, the group, including me, started meeting more regularly, often in Frank’s basement pipe museum and Frank convinced me to attend a Davenport, Iowa pipe show with him that December. In 1995 this Chicago area group Incorporated the now famous Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club (CPCC) with Michael Reschke as President and Chuck Rio and Ed Lehman as officers. Frank soon retired from the FBI as a Special Agent, and as he had been promising the group, he started work on a Chicago area show that would have both antique pipe collectors (like himself) and the more general briar pipe collectors from across the country. He had previously organized a couple of small local pipe shows in the Chicago area for collectors friends in pipe shops where he displayed some of his antique meerschaum pipe collection along with several briar pipe guys. Frank regularly competed in auctions for antique pipes with two Chicago area Doctors who could often outbid him, but they eventually became friends and even traded pipes. After Stanley Levi turned over the famous Iwan Ries & Co. Smoke shop to his son Chuck, Stan sold much of his antique Meerschaum pipe collection that was a feature of the store and Frank was able to buy a few of those special pieces for his collection.
This first major pipe show of Frank’s was probably 60 tables in 1966 at the Clarion Hotel near O’Hare airport where an annual lighter show was held the same weekend. This pipe show was first sponsored by funds from a handful of members of the then small CPCC, and later it becoming an official and most important part of the Club. Frank then spent much of his free time each year organizing and promoting what has become the world famous annul “Chicago Show” with occasional help from a few of us that he anointed as a show Committee. Now being retired and wanting to promote his show, Frank started attending more regional shows around the country, where we would caravan in a couple of cars as a small devoted group of club members. Some years we would attend 6 or 7 other shows, including Richmond, Columbus, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Ft. Wayne, Nashville, and up to 3 shows each year at Rich Esserman’s New York show near the Newark airport.
With his effort and devotion, Frank’s Chicago show grew to over 325 tables, eventually held for many years at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, IL, a far western suburb of Chicago and it became the greatest pipe show on earth, with attendees from all over the globe. Because of my Architectural background I started doing the show layouts for Frank at his second show which was at the Ramada Inn in Harvey, IL., and I did the show layouts and table assignments from then until the last show in 2019.
At some point Frank had relocated his museum to a nearby two bedroom Condo in Naperville, IL that had been occupied by his late mother. In 1999 Frank and I were in his Condo museum thinking how to make the show bigger but not dominated by the commercial dealers now taking an interest in the show. I mentioned that I was planning an upcoming two week vacation in Europe and was visiting several pipemakers in Denmark because of my interest in hand made freehand pipes, and I could try to encourage them to attend. So, we put together a show flier that I handed out in Denmark during that trip. My first pipemaker stop on the trip was at Tom Eltang’s workshop north of Copenhagen, where a Per Billhall, a newly retired businessman and pipe collector was visiting Tom to make a deal to represent his pipes online. The three of us hit it off with Tom selling me a few of his used pipes, as I could not afford the new ones. Tom then accompanied me to three other pipemakers workshop to help introduce me and my talk about the show. Over the next 9 years with Frank’s enthusiastic encouragement, I made trips to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Japan to visit pipemakers in their workshops or to European smoking contests and promote the show, often with Tom, Per and Tonni Nielsen. Frank was very proud when we were able to host at the show famous pipemakers like Anne Julie, Jess Chonowitsch, Lars Ivarsson, Nanna Ivarsson, and Bo Nordh.
Because of family concerns for his health, Frank turned over the Show to his long standing show Committee and recent assistant Craig Cobine several years ago. At the same time he sold most of his antique pipe collection to a consortium of Chinese collectors for their new pipe museum near Bejing. This enabled him and wife Anne to relocate to a country club complex, south of Tampa, Florida, near his oldest daughter and grandkids. I was fortunate to visit Frank twice at his new Florida home and enjoy cigars in his Lanai overlooking the adjacent golf course while reminiscing about the early days of the Chicago show. But my real honor was knowing and working with Frank for many years on his greatest pipe show on earth.
Rex Poggenpohl Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club Nordic Pipe Club Pipe Club of Sweden Pipe Club of Hong Kong