Late last summer, Topper Cigar Company president Christopher Topper had a special reason to hand out product samples to his business associates and friends. On August 11, he and his wife Cathy had become first-time parents (of a son they named Curtis, after the infant's great-grandfather, an earlier Topper cigar manufacturer. Sadly, little Curtis was born several months after his paternal grandtather, former company president Frank Topper, had passed away, but his parents are hoping he'll someday carry on his ancestor's legacy by playing an important role in the now 101-year-old company.
"I'm the fourth generation of my family in the cigar business, and it would be great if my son were the fifth," says Topper. "There has to be lots of heritage and passion for doing this kind of work for a company to last that long." Topper Cigar, which is presently headquartered in Meriden, Connecticut, certainly has heritage and passion to spare. One of the oldest family-owned cigar makers in the United States, Topper joined forces with an even longer-established manufacturer, after phasing out the Topper handmade operation in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s. FX Smith's Sons, the company Frank Topper chose to produce his then-new machine-made line, was run by distant cousins and located just two blocks away, also in McSherrystown. "To keep up with demand when handmade production was falling off, my father opted for a working relationship with cousins who had already automated," explains Topper.
The Smith cigar dynasty extends back five generations - to 1863, the year the Civil War's infamous Battle of Gettysburg was fought, just a few miles from McSherrystown.
The fledgling cigar maker, based in nearby Irishtown, may have suffered hardships that summer, but Smith's business no doubt benefited from the overall demand created by the war. Smoking cigars had become de rigueur among soldiers and commanders on both sides of the conflict and, lacking access to Virginia tobacco, northerners began using Connecticut leaves as wrappers and imported tobacco in filler blends. After FX Smith moved his enterprise to McSherrystown in 1877, much of the tobacco used in production was grown right in the area. Altogether, about twenty cigar makers operated in the town that would become an American cigar-manufacturing center.
Topper Cigar joined them in 1896. Two years earlier, B.P. Topper of Maryland had moved to McSherrystown (population: 1,700) and served an apprenticeship before starting his own cigar business. Over time, he built a customer base not only in Pennsylvania, but also in New Jersey, Maryland, and Ohio. On the eve of the Depression, his son Curtis opened a new market in New England, where the popularity of Connecticut tobacco was reaching new highs. During the next 30 years, Curtis built Topper into one of New England's leading cigar brands, in part by handing out samples to everyone.
By the time Curtis' son Frank entered Topper's McSherrystown factory to learn the business in 1953, the art of handmaking cigars was dying off with the old-time hand-rollers. When Curt passed away in 1962, Frank returned to the company's Connecticut office, but managed to keep the Pennsylvania hand-rolling operation going until 1969. Mostly, though, he relied on his cousins, the Smiths, to help supply growing customer demand for Topper cigars. During the same period, the Cuban embargo forced Frank to develop new blends from South America to replace Havana filler tobacco.
While the upsurge in cigar smoking in the early '70s helped increase Topper's sales to nearly eight million cigars a year, the ('80s' anti-smoking movement leveled growth again. Even so, the company maintained its market share by producing a high-quality, all-natural cigar with no synthetic filler.
When the 1990s ushered in a nationwide craze for imported cigars, Topper delivered by offering handmade cigars from Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic - most with Connecticut binders and wrappers that make them similar to the cigars the company made from 1896 to 1969. "We were known for Our handmade cigars prior to 1969 - we'd always been associated with a quality product," is Topper's explanation for this natural transition into the import business.
To celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 1996, Topper introduced the Centennial, a premium cigar handmade in the Dominican Republic with 100% Dominican long filler and Connecticut seed wrapper grown in Ecuador. But even with the addition of its imported line, Topper is best known for good domestic cigars that still sell for less than a dollar.
This reputation for both quality and affordability has underpinned the company's remarkable longevity (Topper survived the dramatic drop in the number of U.S. cigar makers, from 5,000 in 1935 to about 150 in 1975). "Believe me, there were lean times when many factories got out of the business," says Chris Topper, who joined the company in 1994. "But the consistency of our product enabled us to survive and expand."
Indeed, Topper.'s domestic supplier - FX Smith's Sons, now under the leadership of President Craig Smith - is the only cigar factory left of all those that once operated in McSherrVstown. Tangible evidence of the Civil War's local impact also remains in the form of the area's summer tourist trade, including a realistic reenactment of the Gettysburg battle. "When all those reenactors come to Gettysburg, they buy their cigars here," Smith states proudly.