A Key to History
A New Museum Recalls a Time When Key West Was Cigar Central
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97
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Madonna, Sylvester Stallone and other celebrities have smoked cigars in Key West. But the most interesting people, Westfall contends, are from Key West. One such person, retired cigar roller Perucho Sanchez (artist Mario's brother), sits beside him, taking refuge in the cool, aromatic shop. With the detached observance that comes from living more than 90 years on an island where spontaneity and predictability have happily wedded, Sanchez watches customers peruse the cigars. It's a parade: an OpusX-smoking construction worker, overdressed tourists, an exotic young woman covered in Maori-type tattoos. Sanchez seems mildly amused.
But he dismisses with a shake of his sun-spotted hand the idea of discussing his tenure at the E.H. Gato Cigar Factory, a huge white icebox-cake building that stands empty and veined with purple morning-glory vines a couple blocks away. "I rolled a hundred cigars a day there," Sanchez finally says, adding that he has small hands and never particularly cared for rolling cigars. But it's with sparkle, a passion in his ancient eye that he elaborates on his father's career as a lector. "He was an educated man," he says. The occupation put his father at the pinnacle of the cigarworkers' hierarchy. "He was paid well because he read books and Cuban newspapers to the cigar rollers."
It is a memory his brother carved in wood in his 1963 piece, "The Reader and the Cigar Makers." A blown-up version covers a wall at Cayo Hueso y Habana.
Key West native Freddie Salinero has been dedicated to preserving the island's cigar history since he was a boy, when he became enchanted by his grandfather's stories. The family left Cuba for Key West to benefit from the cigar economy, and after working in the factories, Salinero's grandfather opened El Anon, a corner ice-cream parlor that catered largely to the Cuban crowd. "I became passionate about preserving the Key West cigar heritage when I realized that cigars were the whole reason that I'm here," says Salinero, 50, who has invested in Cayo Hueso y Habana, and will sell mango, papaya and other island-fruit ice cream there, using his grandfather's recipes. There will also be a restaurant at the museum. (Other financial backers of Cayo Hueso y Habana include Ed Swift, the project's primary investor, and Mary Perkins, the creative director who has organized the museum's exhibits.)
Salinero regularly indulges in an OpusX or a cigar rolled by hand by his aunt, who works at the Rodriguez Factory in Key West. A successful contractor, he rebuilt the first and most active cigarworkers' social club, which burned in 1983. The Sociedad Cuba, or Cuban Club, was founded by cigarworkers in 1900 and offered education, medical care and recreation for the better part of this century. Bannisters, columns and other architectural details salvaged from the fire were replaced in their original locations.
Sitting in one of the Cuban rocking chair reproductions on the Cuban Club porch overlooking Duval Street, it's easy to imagine the Latin music, tapping heels and laughter from the dances that were held every weekend well into the 1970s.
Salinero, who remembers the dances as well as the intense games of dominoes and pool, also restored the lodge of the Orden de Los Caballeros de la Luz (Order of the Gentlemen of the Light), a cigarworkers' organization, whose 2,000 members sent money to Cuba to support the late-nineteenth-century revolution. In the lodge foyer, which serves as a check-in for the Cuban Club--now a collection of upscale vacation suites--he exhibits hundreds of collectibles. A deck of Cuban playing cards, a Cortez cigar poker-chip tray emblazoned with the slogan "For Men With Brains," a Key Westers brand cigar box, an antique press, photos, stuffed fighting roosters and a family tree that starts in Cuba and ends, for now, in Key West with Salinero and his wife.
Family and friends, a human need for connections, Westfall concludes, is the bottom line in the revival of cigar popularity. "In our technological age," he says, "cigars are an excuse to be friendly. Suddenly a cigar is something you can talk about--whether you smoke or not. You feel at ease, nostalgic. You can talk about the cigar bands you got married with when you were a kid, or a cigar box where you put your treasures." And people are happy to share what they hold dear to their hearts.
Salinero has benefited from the generosity. "Wright Langley, a local historian, brought me the incorporation papers for the Cuban Club, and I saw my grandfather's signature," he says, admitting that only after he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and untold time did he realize the extent of his family involvement in the club. This summer, at the grand opening of Key West's Planet Hollywood, actor and cigar manufacturer Jim Belushi offered Salinero a sample of his newest blend and made arrangements to talk later about the industry. "The only reason we talked was because of the cigars," says the Conch.
Through the common language of cigars, Westfall, Salinero and others have accumulated an astonishing collection of Key West cigar artifacts. It has come in bits and pieces, a box donated by a local woman, an original La Estrella poster purchased for $4,600 in California, a Park & Tilford tin found in a Virginia barn.
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