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A Key to History

A New Museum Recalls a Time When Key West Was Cigar Central
Ann Boese
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

It was a hot summer day in Key West when renowned local folk artist Mario Sanchez stormed into the William Wall cigar warehouse looking for Jose Duarte, an artist from Miami. The two argued in Spanish, their voices climbing with the steamy tropical temperatures, until the 80-something Sanchez challenged Duarte, 62, to a duel. "Choose your weapon!" he cried.

Duarte refused the deadly offer, but suggested a fist fight out on Mallory Dock. Fortunately, the gentlemen never came to blows. Sanchez stormed out. Duarte settled down behind his desk and drew a panetela slowly from his pocket. Examining it with a freshness as if he'd never before seen a cigar, he lit it, savoring the smoke as it mixed with adrenaline. The year was 1997.

The place was Cayo Hueso y Habana (Key West and Havana), a new museum being constructed in an 1879 tobacco warehouse. The rift was over Duarte's interpretation of Sanchez's woodcuts--a lifetime of work depicting the day-to-day life of Cubans who came here to make cigars, and stayed. Problem solved, Duarte returned to Miami and Sanchez's Cuban cigarworkers are now recreated in life size on the museum walls.

Such a confrontation could have taken place about a century earlier, at the height of Key West's domination of the production of hand-rolled clear Havana tobacco cigars. Back then, editors of competing tobacco industry journals also chose the duel as the sensible way to settle editorial differences. The passion for their business was in their blood. A passion that was--and remains--an intrinsic part of Key West's cigar legacy. A one-and-a-half-by-three-and-a-half-mile island at the tip of the Florida Keys (and the southernmost point of the continental United States), Key West markets itself as an upscale Caribbean resort, a place to relax beneath the coconut palms, listen to Jimmy Buffet and sip salty margaritas. Its distinctive architecture is largely preserved, trendy bath and clothing boutiques have hung their shingles, and its coral reef has become a national marine sanctuary.

Museums document the island's history of shipwrecking, fishing, diving for sponges and treasure salvaging. Fine gourmet restaurants line the streets of the Old Town section, and the Hard Rock Cafe has opened on Duval Street. Island festivals, such as Hemingway Days and Fantasy Fest draw tens of thousands. The curious sunset celebrations at Mallory Square nightly reassure the town's status as the Laid Back Capital of the Universe. And now, with new attractions like Cayo Hueso y Habana and the Key West Cigar Festival, Key West is finally blowing the dust off an unheralded chapter of its heritage--the cigar industry. Few realize that at the turn of the century, Key West was the nation's number one producer of clear Havana cigars, and that today the island is saturated with the descendants, remnants, landmarks and symbols of the industry. Between the onset of Cuba's Ten Years War, which began in 1868, and 1900, thousands of Cuban cigarworkers had crossed the Florida Straits to relocate on this tiny island. Only 90 miles from Havana, Key West was a place where they could escape Spanish rule and continue to roll the prized Vuelta Abajo tobacco that made Cuban cigars the best in the world. In little over 20 years the island had transformed itself from a fishing village to the primary producer of clear Havana cigars.

With Cuban workers rolling clear Havana tobacco in Key West, manufacturers were able to produce the best cigars at two-thirds the cost of production in Cuba. The workers were paid as much as $30 a week, and sent money to Cuba to support the revolution, which raged from 1878 to 1898. The Cuban revolutionary José Martí organized the collection of $20,000 to $30,000 a month to support the Cubans' fight against Spanish control.

Opportunities rose, and the people poured in. Key West's population grew from 700 in 1840 to more than 18,000 in 1890, with Cubans by far the cultural majority. Cigar factories in 1885 numbered 86, and 20 of those employed more than a hundred workers each, with the Eduardo Hildago Gato Cigar Factory leading the way with 500. By 1890 the number of factories had grown to almost 130 and cigar production had risen to 100 million. Today there are 28,000 year-round residents or Conchs (for a local mollusk), as natives and inhabitants of the Keys are known, and two million annual tourists. The Cuban influence remains strong, with Cuban-owned restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries open every day. The number of cigar shops has increased from two to nine in the past five years. Five sell house-brand cigars, hand-rolled in some cases by elderly Cubans who have come out of retirement to revive their craft, selecting and handling their tobacco and tools.

A consultant for Cayo Hueso y Habana, Loy Glenn Westfall, has spent the past 30 years researching and writing Florida's cigar history. Now in his 50s, he travels throughout the United States and Europe, speaking to aficionados about the roots of cigarmaking and, recently, the artistic and technical aspects of cigar labels.

But he spends as much time in Key West as possible, working on the museum and other cigar projects. Leaning back on the overstuffed white canvas couch in Tom Favelli's Key West Havana Cigar Co., he seems as comfortable in Key West as he might in his Tampa home. Surrounded by shelves displaying Key West cigar collectibles such as an Optima box and a rare tin from the E.H. Gato Cigar Factory, he relishes the mild, creamy flavor of an 1876 panetela, one of six house cigars rolled in the Dominican Republic. He pats his shirt pocket, which holds two Cuesta-Rey Aristocrat Churchills--his purchase for the weekend when he will meet and smoke casually with publishers of cigar books, financiers of Cayo Hueso y Habana and oral historians of the turn-of-the-century cigar-industry boom.

"I have had more fun in Key West, sitting around the Key West Havana Cigar shop, and talking to people that I never would have otherwise," says Westfall, explaining how the laid-back attitude of Key West makes his relentless search for local cigar information a joy. "I meet people from all over the world and all walks of life on this island."

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