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Cigar City USA

Having nearly forgotten its Cuban cigar-making roots, Key West, Florida has in recent years fully embraced its lost history, making cigars a central theme of its tourist destination efforts.

By Loy Glenn Westfall


It’s no coincidence that in Key West police officers dunk Cuban bread in café con leche. Since 1868, Cuban émigrés have enhanced the tropical Caribbean flavor of the Florida Keys. And it’s all thanks to a thriving cigar industry which evolved seemingly overnight on the tiny one by two mile island over 125 years ago.

During the past 50 years, Key West’s cigar legacy was shrouded from view as the city concentrated on establishing its reputation as a tourist destination. City Fathers did not realize that Key West’s Cuban legacy would appeal to a broad range of tourists, in spite of its close proximity to Havana—a popular destination prior to 1960. A veritable treasure trove of Cuban and cigar heritage was overlooked, in part, by an ill-fated stereotype that tobacco and Cuban history were not relevant to tourism. Fortunately, this negative attitude has fundamentally changed during the last decade, thanks, in part, to the efforts of a fourth generation Key West Cuban American, Fred Salinero.

In 1999, Salinero—a Key West cigar shop owner and entrepreneur—founded the annual Cuban American Heritage Festival as well as the Cuban American Heritage Foundation to record and preserve Key West’s Cuban cultural legacy. The results were nothing less than sensational. Annual lectures, parades, and cigar dinners opened the eyes of Key West Cubans and their descendents who previously discarded much of their Cuban American roots. From then on, they were suddenly jumping out of their “cultural closet.” This resurgence in Key West’s Cuban cultural legacy and appreciation of its cigar legacy continues to gain momentum every year, stimulating a renewed interest in Key West as the birthplace of the American Cigar industry.

The resurgence is evident in a number of ways. Cigar label art collectors will pay exorbitant prices for rare late nineteenth century Key West cigar label art. A cultural revival is apparent on the streets where numerous Cuban American landmark structures and cigar worker’s cottages have been tediously preserved. In addition, non-Key Westers have begun to take notice.

Just ask the Fuente family. On November 18th, 2006, Carlos Fuente Sr., Carlos “Carlito” Fuente Jr., and Cynthia Fuente-Suarez attended a banquet organized by the Cuban American Heritage Foundation to honor the 100th anniversary of their patriarchs’ arrival to Cayo Hueso. In 1906, Arturo Fuente Senior departed economic uncertainties in Cuba to join relatives who had earlier migrated to Key West. Arturo Fuente and his relatives lived a block away from the prominent community known as Gatoville and were employed at Eduardo Hidalgo Gato’s cigar factory. It was in Gatoville that Arturo Senior perfected techniques of quality cigar making later passed on to his descendents, masters of cigar making art who changed the very nature of the cigar industry in the twenty first century.

Recognition of Key West’s pivotal role in the evolution of the American cigar industry was recognized in the summer of 2006 when the Fuente and Newman Cigar Family Charitable Foundation held its annual meeting in Key West, a four-day tribute honoring its reputation as “Cigar City, U.S.A.” Activities highlighted historical cigar heritage while instilling members to support the numerous Cigar Family Charitable Foundation projects in the Dominican Republic.

The result of Key West’s Cuban heritage revival is nothing less than phenomenal, as Key West prepares the inevitable gateway to Cuba in the not too distant future. In Key West today, Cuban cultural legacies are as much a tourist attraction as the magnificent restaurants, architectural gems and sunny skies.

Cuban Turmoil Drives Emigrants North
Cuban influence in Key West first began on a massive scale in 1868 when the first war against Spanish authority created a mass exodus. When Cubans faced forced conscription into the Spanish army to fight against their countrymen, thousands of skilled cigar artisans and their families fled their homeland. On a single September day in 1869, over 2,000 Cubans lined the docks of Havana to flee their mother country. While some left for New York City or New Orleans, a majority boarded steamers for the 12-hour trip to a destination ninety miles to the north, a city Cubans called Cayo Hueso, today’s Key West.

Prior to 1868, Key West had less than 500 residents, noted primarily for acquiring wealth from shipwrecks, but a new form of wealth was about to arrive when Cuban émigrés, with talented cigar making skills, arrived by the thousands in the matter of a year or two.

The civil war against Spain failed by 1878, however it created a social upheaval in Key West as Cuban émigrés continued arriving intermittently for decades, virtually revolutionizing Key West’s social fabric and economy.

Once they arrived, conditions on the once sparsely populated isle were perfect for cigar making. Cuban tobacco was nearby and readily available, while the warm, humid climate—virtually the same as Cuba’s—was ideal for maintaining a pliable tobacco leaf. In contrast, Northern cigar factories were forced to install expensive humidifiers and temperature controls to keep leaves flexible. Seemingly overnight, the island was transformed into a wild, Wild West boom town, Cuban style.

Émigrés blended Cuban culture with American entrepreneurialism in Florida during the birth of the American industrial revolution. Ironically, one of the first mass produced items of the industrial age were hand made cigars, and those from Key West in particular held greatest prestige for smokers. During the industrial revolution that coincided with the Victorian Era, when cigars were a status symbol for all, regardless of their ethnicity or station in life.

Key West’s transformation could not have emerged if it were not for the cigar artisan émigrés and the arrival of manufacturers who relocated either from Cuba or New York. A new generation of far-sighted cigar entrepreneurs descended with the capital to invest in the new cigar frontier. Key West cigars—the all-Cuban leaf type were known as “Clear Havanas”—proved to be equal in quality to those imported from Cuba, and they were sold for nearly a third less than Havana cigars since they did not have to pay high import or export taxes. When Cuba’s second struggle for a “Cuba Libre” erupted in 1895, (becoming the 1898 Spanish American War), silhouettes of Florida’s cigar factories had become, to Cubans, the allegorical southern Statue of Liberty.

Success of Key West cigars was evidenced as early as 1872 when the prestigious New York City tobacco journal, The Tobacco Leaf, published an article stating that “the popularity of Key West cigars lay in the popular relish for genuine Havana cigars...equal in every respect to the finest cigars imported from Cuba.” The Tallahassee Sentinel and Key West Dispatch published running accounts of the new industry’s success, and by 1873, over 8,000 of Key West’s Cuban émigrés were producing 1.35 million cigars making a combined daily salary payment of $10,000 a day. Key West Custom House receipts went from a few thousand dollars in 1869 to over $222,371 by 1876.

By the 1880s visitors arriving by steamer to Key West’s docks looked over the city to see cigar factory rooftops resembling large business cards. They were painted with advertisements proudly listing brand names and boldly posted the prestigious address of New York distribution offices. Key West-Havana-New York shipping lines flourished, transporting Cuban tobacco leaf from Havana, cigar boxes from the North, and Key West cigars to New York distribution offices on Maiden Lane to national and worldwide markets.

During tobacco harvesting season in Cuba, Key West factory owners descended into Havana via steamers, usually checking into the prestigious Hotel Presidente before touring the Cuban countryside to acquire their coveted tobacco leaf. The more prominent Key West manufacturers owned their own tobacco fields while those not so fortunate visited gigantic tobacco warehouses, purchasing tobacco at auction which was shipped to their Key West factories. The New York-Key West-Havana route became even more active in the 1880s when railroads connected New York City to the northern Florida cities of Jacksonville, Cedar Key, and later Tampa Bay where passengers transferred to steamers departing to Key West or Havana.

Cigar Making’s Darker Side
But Key West’s success did not come without corruption. The meteoritic rise in its cigar sales created deceitful practices by unscrupulous manufacturers wishing to share in the profitable Key West trade. Cigars rolled from domestic tobacco in New York and Pennsylvania was often advertised as “genuine Key West Cuban cigars.” Attuned to this type of fraud, the ever powerful and influential The Tobacco Leaf published numerous exposés regarding these dishonest practices. Other devious practices included adopting Spanish sounding names for domestic tobacco cigar brands, such as “La Lande” instead of a grammatically correct “La Tierra.” Unfortunately, the common consensus was that the general public could be easily duped into believing that if a cigar had a Spanish-sounding brand name, it was an authentic Key West or Cuban cigar. (The “what do you want: good grammar or good taste?” cigarette promotion from of 1960s comes to mind.) One Philadelphia manufacturer boasted his cigars were authentic Cubans since they were rolled from domestic tobacco by Cuban artisans. Another reputedly asked his Cuban workers to speak loudly as visitors walked through the factory, giving the illusion that, since cigar makers spoke Spanish, their cigars would be excellent. If it’s true that imitation is a form of flattery, Key West manufacturers should have been honored!

Cayo Hueso was virtually an appendage of Cuba in “La Florida,” evident throughout the island. New cigar factory’s worker cottages and neighborhoods were constructed in previously unoccupied parts of the island, becoming known locally as Cuban colonies. Spanish language and music resonated through the streets while weekly Key West newspapers printed in Spanish were eagerly read to cigar artisans by lectors in the cigar factories. Coffee shops and restaurants offered a Cuban cuisine rivaling that of Havana. The impact of Cuban Americans can best be exemplified when, in 1876, Key West’s mayor, Carlos Manuel de Cepedes, spoke only Spanish.

The phenomenal growth of a new cigar production center enraged America’s tobacco king, James Buchanan Duke. He tried but failed to control the one aspect of the tobacco trade he did not monopolize, the Key West cigar industry. In the early 1890s, Duke opened the Blackwell’s Durham Tobacco Company, factory #20, in Key West, producing a cigar called “Marcello Key West.” Mysteriously, the factory closed shortly after opening, and then Duke had his cigar brand produced briefly by a Key West cigar artisan, Antonio de la Rosa. He even attempted to infiltrate Havana by purchasing a few cigar factories through agents, but the tobacco giant was unable to penetrate the profitable Key West Cuban cigar trade. His failure resulted, in part, from his inability to communicate in Spanish, but also because he could not understand the Cuban way of doing business. In addition, there was tremendous opposition from powerful Cuban trade unions in Key West. Duke’s wealth and power was insufficient to cross cultural boundaries in order to control the Key West cigar industry. That was accomplished by Spanish and Cuban cigar manufacturers and Spanish speaking managers acting as translators of Cuban business practices to non Spanish speaking manufacturers from the North.

Culture Rises from Cuban Cigarmaking
Throughout the Cuban American experience, émigrés maintained their cultural identities, language, and respect for the elderly in spite of the fact they were located in the heartland of Dixie. Cuban émigrés supported health and social organizations originating from Cuba, financed by deducting a few cents from each worker’s weekly paycheck. While workers in Havana often lived in over-crowded tenement houses, conditions were better and less expensive in Key West. Theater, dances, music, and the Cuban mentality made Key West a home away from home, with the added luxury of not having to deal with Spanish political control.

To assure an ample supply of laborers, cigar manufacturers constructed homes adjacent to factories, wooden framed structures built from termite-proof Dade County pine with high ceilings for ventilation. They were elevated off the ground, allowing air to flow under the houses where roosters and hens lived and were part of the family, raised for eggs or meat or were trained for cock fights. Although small by today’s standards, these cottages were far superior to living conditions in Havana, certainly far superior to deplorable tenement houses in Northern cities. Many times a cigar artisan would change jobs to another factory simply to have a newer house to live in. These homes were offered for inexpensive rent or with the option to purchase at a reasonable price to maintain a stable work force.

One of the most historical areas of Key West was a cigar community called Gatoville, the first successful industrial cigar community in the United States near the eastern side of the island, along Whitehead Street. Gatoville was representative of Key West’s Cuban “colonies” where émigrés resided alongside cigar factories. It was established in 1876 as a suburb of Key West by exiled cigar maker Eduardo Hidalgo Gato who originally fled Cuba in 1869 to New York City. Employed as a cigar roller, he accumulated sufficient capital to relocate to Key West in 1876 and build not only a factory of his own but a thriving industrial community which offered worker cottages, a streetcar line, a hospital, and even baseball teams. Sr. Gato generously contributed to José Martí’s revolutionary party and also encouraged private enterprise, giving rise to grocery stores, pharmacies, dry goods stores, sandwich shops, even small mom-and-pop cigar shops, all owned by private émigrés. The concept of company towns, so common throughout the United States, never existed in Key West, whose “colonies” were operated as private enterprises, representing entrepreneurialism at its best. Gato represented a cross-cultural businessman: he understood the importance of maintaining personal ties to his workers while assisting them in the development of their community. He adopted entrepreneurialism of American business ingenuity to market and distribute cigars while considered a Patron by residents of his successful industrial neighborhood.

In the late 1890s, Key West was populated by Cubans of all colors living and working harmoniously while residing in the heartland of Dixie and a segregated South. It was a city with a unique cultural kaleidoscope. Other Cuban émigré towns later emerged in Tampa’s Ybor City, West Tampa, St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Marti City, and other small towns throughout Florida—all copying Key West as their prototype. By 1900, nearly 30 percent of Florida’s entire population was Cuban émigrés who adopted and expanded upon the American Dream.

Today, it takes only an educated eye to spot Cuba’s legacy in Key West. Street vendors along Duval Street often pawn off what they call Cuban cigars rolled from domestic tobacco but made by Cubans. While the historical deception in cigar sales continues, Cuban cigar heritage abounds. What were once cigar factories, tobacco warehouses, or social clubs are now restaurants. Condominiums, businesses, government offices, and numerous prominent manufacturers’ homes are elegant guest houses. Club San Carlos, the first social organization transported from Cuba in 1871, still functions as a center for cultural events on Duval Street, while The Cuban Club, originally constructed in 1910 to adjoin the cigar factory of Cayatano Soria, is now the Cuban Club Condominiums. A popular Key West hotel and entertainment center, La Ti Da (La Tereza de Martí), was once the palatial residence of a cigar manufacturer, now a historical landmark. In 1891, Cuban patriot José Martí spoke from its second floor balcony to Cuban cigar workers, calling for the establishment of a “Cuba Libre.”

When you visit Key West, smoke a cigar while watching the sunset at Mallory Square. Tour Key West’s famous graveyard, with the remains of Cuban cigar workers, manufacturers, and soldiers who lost their lives aboard the battleship Maine. And don’t forget to look at cigar workers’ cottages along the streets. They are yet another Cuban American heritage about to unfold before your eyes. And make this tour while smoking your favorite cigar to make it a memorable time you will not soon forget. You will see why Key West has been, and always will be, the home of the American cigar industry. It is indeed, Cigar City, U.S.A.


SMOKE - Fall, 2007


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