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A Key to History

A New Museum Recalls a Time When Key West Was Cigar Central
| By Ann Boese | From 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."

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.

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."

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.