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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

(continued from page 2)

Perhaps most impressive is the complete collection of Key West cigar labels. Numbering near 500, the labels have been found all over the world--the most remote was found in the archives of a German lithography company. They will be published in Westfall's upcoming book, Advertisement Art Americana: Old World Printing for a New World Art. His latest passion, the labels have been exhibited in the United States and Europe and some are displayed in Cayo Hueso y Habana. "The art and the themes in these labels totally revolutionized the cigar industry," he says, indicating images of Cuban tobacco leaves, gorgeous Hispanic women, golden keys, islands and lighthouses.

Key West cigar tycoons had money and they spent it. Dropping as much as $5,000 to have a label designed in Germany was typical.

Epitomized by the D.H. Trujillo Factory's La Excellencia brand, Key West labels are categorized by their intricate lithography--label shad up to 25 colors--and gold or silver embossing. But it was the Spanish-sounding names of Key West cigars, says Westfall, that Northern manufacturers adopted to make an oft-times fraudulent link between domestic cigars and the elitism of the island's clear Havana cigars. "That's how we got brands like 'El Smoko' or 'La Zoos,' which was manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan," he says, clearly amused. "Or the domestic brand 'El Lando,' which portrays Columbus landing in the New World." In addition to being corny or grammatically incorrect--for example, calling their cigars "El Cubanos" as opposed to the correct "Los Cubanos"--some mainland manufacturers made no bones about profiting from copyright infringement.

The most glaring violations were the brand names and artwork pirated from the E.H. Gato Factory. Westfall says that, in separate instances, Gato's most popular brands, Mi Preferida and La Estrella, were suddenly in competition with the domestic rip-offs Mi Favorita and La Estella. Both bogus brands came with the suggestion that they were made in Key West. Lawsuits were settled in Gato's favor, and finally, in the 1880s, island manufacturers developed an official Key West cigar seal.

A comprehensive detailing of these and other stories makes great reading with a smooth Caribbean rum and a fine cigar to set the mood. Westfall has written a trilogy, which explores Florida's primary cigar-making locations--Key West, Tampa and the ghost town of Martí City. The first book (which is due out this fall) is a revised edition of Key West: Cigar City U.S.A., a fascinating source originally published in 1984, well before the cigar renaissance.

Closer to Havana than Miami, Key West appears almost to have been waiting for this revival. For decades the cigar factories have served as storage and moving-company warehouses. But they stand out architecturally as the stuff of a lost function, the physical basis for a former economy in a sea of Victorian guesthouses, restored eyebrow and shotgun houses, busy motels and hotels.

Armos de Oro Cigar Factory. Santaella Cigars. The E.H. Gato Factory. They beg to be noticed, once-prestigious giants that sheltered tons of Vuelta Abajo tobacco and hundreds of skilled Cuban rollers, sitting at long tables and concentrating simultaneously on cigars and the words of Cuban revolutionaries like José Martí. Martí delivered rousing speeches from such Key West locales as the balcony at La Terraza de Martí, now a restaurant and guesthouse commonly called La-Te-Da, and the San Carlos Institute, the cradle of Cuban independence, which has been recently restored and is open to the public.

Whether the ideals of their political heroes or a classic novel, the works read by the lectors were selected through a vote by the workers. They needed to keep abreast of what was happening in their homeland and how the money they sent to Cuba from Key West, where they made $20 to $40 a week, was helping to shake the oppressive Spanish government.

With business booming in Key West in the last decades of the nineteenth century, manufacturers were able to build grand homes, and several stand today in mint condition. Some cigarmakers built colonies, clusters of cottages near the factory, which workers rented or bought. The colonies are still identifiable today as Castillo City, Gatoville, Pohalski Village, Conchtown, Marrero Village, Los Pinos Village and the area surrounding the Seidenberg factory, where German emigré Samuel Seidenberg became the first cigar manufacturer in Key West (1867) and produced the popular La Rosa Espanola cigar; it soared quickly to the top of clear Havana production.

The houses have stood the test of time. Averaging only 825 square feet, a renovated cigarworker's house sells today for around $250,000, even with very small lots, according to Jim Blum, the broker and owner of the Real Estate Company of Key West Inc. Their value is in construction and materials. "The cottages were made from Dade County pine by ship's carpenters, who built with a tongue-and-groove technique," says Blum, who once owned a cigarworker's cottage. "They stay cool because they are typically raised off the ground, with crawl spaces for ventilation. They have hatches on the roof made from scuttles off old ships. You prop them open with a stick."

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