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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With good homes, high wages and the freedom to support the revolution, the cigar artisans lived well. Their savvy unions secured substantial strength, and while many union workers in the North were huddled in deplorable tenement housing, Key West cigarworkers were enjoying paradise. Even their many strikes, which eventually helped snowball the decline of the cigar industry, reflected the luxury of their situation. In the strike of 1918, work stopped, as usual, until the union demands were met. The requests: no sweeping before 6 a.m., ice in the drinking water, and coal, not wood, fuel for winter heating.
They lived the island life, slowed by the heat and humidity, perfumed with the heady scents of frangipani and night-blooming jasmine --the floral essences associated with Cuban cigars--and painted with the burnt-orange canopy of a royal poincianna tree.
The Great Fire of 1886 temporarily halted all that. The flames, which ignited mysteriously in the San Carlos, spread quickly to the docks, where the Ybor Factory was reduced to ashes. At least 10 other cigar factories, the World Cigar Box Factory and a warehouse where all the imported tobacco was stored burned to the ground. Nearly 4,000 cigarworkers began instantly to rebuild, restoring Key West to the top of clear Havana production by 1890. But it was the beginning of the end. Business visionaries began to offer attractive inducements to Key West cigar manufacturers to relocate to Tampa. Vincente Martinez Ybor became the first major cigarmaker to make the move, and others soon followed. By 1900, only 44 cigar factories remained in Key West, and increased labor unrest compounded with hurricane damage in 1909, 1910 and 1919 all but stamped out the industry here.
It's doubtful Key West will ever regain its status as a major hub of cigar manufacturing. But the renewed interest in cigars has trickled down the Keys, and a phenomenal enthusiasm for preserving Key West cigar history is gaining momentum. Yesterday and today are coming magically together.
This is a place where a conversation with a cigar roller can point you to the island's special nooks and crannies. You might find yourself breakfasting on Cuban bread and butter and cafe con leche at one of dozens of Cuban coffee shops like La Dichosa Bakery or Sandy's Cafe, where locals gossip for hours in English and Spanish. Even the roosters and chickens that roam the neighborhoods are descendants of the Cuban fighting cocks that were once flung together in makeshift arenas for men's entertainment. For a cigar aficionado it's the perfect destination. KeyWest, Florida. The Cigar City. *
Ann Boese is a writer based in Key West, Florida.
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