Proper respect for a product made in the USA — in Willits! — was conferred by the Los Angeles Times October 30. Given the popularity of the 51-year-old device, reporter Adam Tschorn was amazed that he was breaking the story.
“If you invent something that becomes known as the Swiss Army knife of pot pipes,” he wrote, “a virtually indestructible, highly designed 4 ounces of brass called the Proto Pipe that sells more than 1.5 million units to generations of stoners, you’d expect the world to beat a path to your door.” But no journalist had, so Tschorn “made the trek to the town of about 4,900 that’s three hours north of San Francisco — a pilgrimage, really.... to shake the hand of the man behind this practically perfect pot pipe.”
Tschorn describes his object of worship: “Not so much a pipe as a smoking gadget... that’s somehow futuristic and old-school all at once. The bowl, which is hand-drilled out of solid brass, has a permanent five-hole screen and a teardrop-shaped lid that swivels closed to snuff a lit bowl and keep the contents secure. A 2-inch brass tube does double duty; the open end is the mouth of a stash pod that holds five bowls of herb, and the closed end is a bowl tamper. A notch in the lip of the pod allows it to twist-connect to the side of the bowl, where it’s held in place by a slender poker.
“The poker plays multiple roles too. Its ultra-hard steel tip can be used to clean the permanent screen and push the resin trap out of the bottom of the bowl for a deep cleaning. The other end is designed to clean the pipe stem.”
The reporter reiterates his amazement: ”Why, with an origin story forged in the crucible of this country’s counterculture and 51 years in business (almost unheard of in the modern cannabis space), do so few people know about the Proto Pipe and its creator, Phil Jergenson?”
And again, after noting that Cheech and Chong and High Times magazine are known to “today’s cannabis community... the Proto Pipe is decidedly not, which I found confounding... until I trekked to Willits and sat down with Jergenson and his brother Richard (the company historian and archivist) at the latter’s Cannabis Culture Museum and Archive.”
In 1968 Phil Jergensen was living in Denver and had recently started smoking marijuana. He soon saw the need for a device you could keep in your pocket while at work. As reported by Tschorn, “The self-taught machinist started tinkering, and about a year — and half a dozen iterations — later, he had the Contrivance, a forerunner of today’s Proto Pipe, and in 1970 he moved to San Francisco.” Brother Richard followed a year later. “There were challenges scaling up, day jobs to be worked and knockoffs to sabotage. In June 1972, the brothers took a gamble that changed everything. They scrounged together $120 and placed a 2-inch by one-column advertisement in then-5-year-old, San Francisco-based magazine Rolling Stone. A few months later, Phil was off working on a carpentry gig in Southern California when he got a phone call informing him that his post office box was stuffed with orders. Within a year, sales were brisk enough that Phil and Richard felt they could focus on their pipe dream.
“Thanks to more ads in counterculture magazines, artwork by underground comics artist Larry Todd (best known for his Dr. Atomic character) and a retail presence in record shops and waterbed stores, the brand thrived.” Until the Just Say No era.
The Jergensens sold the company in ‘87 and made their livings in other ways for almost 30 years. In 2015 Phil, at the urging of his friend Beth Bair, began manufacturing a product called the Mendo Pipe that has a few extra features and requires less frequent cleaning. Bair handled the business side of things so that Phil could concentrate on pipe production. In 2018 the Jergensens reacquired the Proto Pipe brand and renamed the Mendo Pipe, which is now the “Proto Rocket.”
“They are still in rebuilding mode,” according to the Times. “The output of the Willits factory, once as high as 200 pipes a day, is in the 15- to 30-pipe range. ‘Our goal is to get it to 100,’ Phil said.
Tschorn doesn’t explicitly resolve the question posed in his lede: How does a widely used, widely admired, made-in-the-USA product get ignored by the media for half a century?
The answer, I think, is that the corporate media long ago stopped seeking out the news and began relying on press releases from publicists. The Jergensens were true hippies with modest commercial ambitions and high production values. They didn’t send out “media advisories.” They didn’t even have an online presence until November 2020, when Rona Jergenson, Phil’s daughter, built out their website, protopipellc.com. It was through the site that Tschorn of the Times finally found them. (He’d had his story in mind for several years.) Thanks to the site, Phil says, “We went from being exclusively wholesale to now most of our sales are retail.”
‘Truly Handmade Products’
Just before the pandemic hit last February I’d met the Jergensons at the Cannabis Culture Museum in Willits. This is a post-Times update from Richard, minus my obvious questions:
“The first morning the digital version came out we got so much traffic our website crashed. We let people know that due to increased demand it would be three weeks from the time they put their order in until they got their pipe.
“We have a relationship with a mill in the Bay Area that specializes in extrusions of different metals. Our metal of choice is brass. We use several shapes — round for the Proto Rocket, which is our ‘better mousetrap.’ The classic pipe is made from a rectangular extrusion. We make it round on one end and flat on the other. Making a Proto Pipe involves a series of 80 operations — boring, milling, shaping. We keep perforating the metal. We are holy men and women — we drill holes all day. Tolerances have to be very tight. We have rejects — not every pipe we make is good enough to go out the door. These are truly handmade products.
“We’re a tight crew of six — three men and three women... The youngest is 40ish, the oldest is Phil, who’s 73. Pay is $15 to $19. It’s probable that we’ll have to bring on more help but we do like the small size. It’s just a nice, complementary group. There’s room for everybody, everybody knows what to do, gets along real good, the chemistry is real good… In the first incarnation of the business back in the ‘70s and ‘80s during the holiday season we would go up to 12 or 15 people.
“It’s skilled labor. We teach machining skills. You can get hurt if you don’t know how to use the drilling machines, milling machines, turret lathes, buffing equipment, sanding equipment. The Times also sent three videographers who shot a lot of video showing the production process. The reporter is developing a podcast and one will focus on the Proto Pipe.
“Unfortunately, if you go online you’ll see many knock-offs from cheap-labor sources. We hold three patents and we own the trademark but for years they weren’t enforced as these imitations were showing up left and right. We’re in touch with an attorney who would be more than happy to do it, but it would take a lot of money. So now we’re just going straight ahead and not looking over our shoulders.”