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Key West: Cigar Manufacturing

Key West: The Old and the New


New-comers are prone to imagine that all enterprise in a community dates from their arrival, and that until they came, there was no development. They learn better in time, perhaps.

The cigar industry of Key West dates back to 1831, when Mr. William H. Wall established a factory for the manufacture of cigars. His advertisement, which appeared in the Key West Gazette, stated that "he imports the very best tobacco from Havana." This factory employed about fifty workmen. It was located on Front, between Duval and Fitzpatrick streets, and was destroyed in the fire of 1859.

Estava & Williams, in 1837 and 1838, operated a factory in which sixteen men were employed, and made shipments to New York. Communication between New York and this island was exceedingly irregular and uncertain at that date, being dependent chiefly upon vessels going north with cotton from St. Marks and other gulf ports, and the long time elapsing between voyages worked serious injury to the business.

Odet Phillippe and Shubael Brown also engaged in this business with a force of six men, about the same time.

The Arnau Brothers, Francisco and James, as far back as 1834 down to the time of the death of both, were constantly employed in cigar manufacturing, and in 1838 were joined by Albert, another brother.

Messrs. Francisco Sintas, Manuel Farino and E. 0. Gwynn, the latter the grandfather of Mr. Gwynn of the Gwynn, Martin & Strauss cigar factory, now operating here, were at different times and for short periods engaged in this business.

Its development, however, into the immense industry which it now is, began in 1868 with the coming of the Cuban population upon the breaking out of the Cuban rebellion that year, as described in the chapter on Cuban Migration.

Among the first of the large factories to come to Key West was "El Principe de Gales" of Vincente Martinez Ybor, followed soon afterwards by Seidenberg & Company with "La Rosa Espaniola." Later came the E. H. Gato Company, Geo. W. Nichols, the Ferdinand Hirsch Company, the Cortez Cigar Company, the Havana-American Company, and Ruy Lopez Ca.

The two first were destroyed by the fire of 1886, but, nothing daunted, Mr. Seidenburg at once found new quarters, and began rebuilding immediately after. Mr. Ybor, induced by a committee which came to Key West from Tampa, after that great fire, moved his factory to that place. This removal, brought about by the solicitations and inducements offered by the committee from Tampa, at a time when our people were nearly all homeless, was the beginning of Tampa's competition with Key West as a cigar manufacturing center.

The next serious blow which the cigar manufacturing industry of Key West sustained, grew out of labor troubles in the Seidenberg factory in 1894. Strikes, which seem to be a part of the cigar manufacturing industry, were constantly occurring therein. The board of trade held almost daily meetings to investigate the labor troubles, but no sooner would one be adjusted than another would crop out. Mr. Seidenberg then decided that he would not work Cuban operatives, and announced his intention to employ Spaniards. He informed the board of trade that threats bad been made against the lives of any Spaniards who might come to work in his factory, and asked for protection. He was assured that he would receive not only the protection of the law, but the support of the citizens of Key West, who felt that the right of the people of any nationality to come to the United States to obtain work should not be infringed.

A committee was thereupon appointed to accompany Mr. Seidenberg to Havana, to assure the Captain General that if any Spanish subjects desired to come to Key West to work, they would receive full protection of the law.

Key West at that time was the center of the revolutionary movement, which had for its purpose the ultimate freedom of Cuba, and the Cuban patriots were naturally apprehensive of the effect, the presence of an appreciable number of Spaniards might have, on the secrecy which it was necessary to maintain with respect to their revolutionary plans.

The committee that went to Havana was composed of Hon. George W. Allen, now collector of customs, Judge L. W. Bethel, of the eleventh circuit of Florida, Mr. William H. Williams, Hon. A. J. Kemp, then county judge, Mr. W. R. Kerr, capitalist, Rev. Chas. W. Fraser, a militant Christian with the brains and courage of a Savonarola, and Mr. John F. Horr. When the committee returned, a number of Spanish workmen who had been assured of protection, came with them.

The situation was tense. Reports of threatened violence grew thick and fast, and a large delegation headed by the mayor, met the steamship and escorted the workmen to temporary quarters provided for them.

The Cuban junta sent a lawyer, Horatio Rubens, Esq., to Key West, who collected some ex-parte affidavits, charging Hon. Jefferson B. Browne, collector of customs, Hon. Geo. Bowne Patterson, United States district attorney, and Hon. William Bethel, immigrant inspector, with having abetted the violation of the contract labor laws of the United States. It was also charged that the committee which went to Havana, and other citizens of Key West, had been guilty of violating this law. As soon as it was known that these charges had been made, the board of trade appointed a committee consisting of Hon. Robert J. Perry, mayor, and Hon. Geo. W. Allen, to go to Washington to investigate, and lay the facts before the Treasury Department. They were accompanied by Hon. Jefferson B. Browne. When they arrived in Washington they found that the department was about to make a ruling on an ex-parte hearing. The administration considered the matter of so much importance that the committee was invited to meet with Mr. Gresham, secretary of state, Mr. Olney, Attorney General, and Mr. Carlisle, secretary of the treasury. This interview brought about the exoneration of the three Federal officials concerned, but the cabinet officers were strongly inclined to believe that there had been a violation of the contract labor laws. The committee was furnished with copies of the affidavits against the citizens of Key West, and they asked for time to return to Key West and submit counter affidavits. They left Washington, believing this would be done, but before reaching their destination it was announced in the press that the department had ruled against them, and would order the deportation of the Spaniards, and that any further action would be by the United States court.

The committee thereupon adopted heroic measures, and forestalled the action of the government by lodging complaints against Mr. William Seidenberg, Hon. Geo. W. Allen, Hon. C. B. Pendleton and Mr. Wm. R. Kerr, charging them with violation of the United States alien contract labor laws. Warrants for their arrest were issued, and the charges were heard by United States District Judge Alex Boarman of the Western District of Louisiana, who was holding court in Key West. After a full investigation, Judge Boarman discharged the defendants, and ruled that no contracts, written or verbal, expressed or implied, had been made by the committee or anyone for them.

This decision completely cut the ground from under the attempt of the Treasury Department to deport the Spanish workmen.

Acting under instructions from Washington, however, Immigrant Inspectors Deshler and Bethel arrested ninety-four Spaniards, and charged them with having come into the United States in violation of the alien contract labor laws. Writs of habeas corpus were at once sued out before Judge Boarman, who held that there was no proof to sustain the government's contention. The men were put under bond, pending an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, but the appeal was never taken, and the matter was thus disposed of. The work of the board of trade and the citizens in their effort to keep this factory here, were of no avail, for Mr. Seidenberg soon moved to Tampa.

This move would not have been very serious had it not been for the complications which grew out of it. A spirit of unrest took possession of the Cuban population, who considered the action of the citizens unfriendly to them. This feeling, however, would have soon worn off, and the former friendly relations between the Cubans and the Americans reestablished, had not a committee come from Tampa to take advantage of the delicate situation. They offered attractive inducements to the Cuban manufacturers to abandon Key West and move to Tampa, and succeeded with the factories of O'Halloran, Teodoro Perez & Company and S. & F. Fleitas. The factory of Julius Ellinger was also moved to Tampa at this time.

The change proved of little benefit to the Cuban factories. Mr. Teodoro Perez and Mr. Fleitas returned to Key West after their Tampa contracts expired, and the latter now has one of the largest establishments here. The removal of these factories was heralded all over the 'country, and the impression created that the cigar business of Key West had been practically removed to Tampa. The largest factories, however, including the E. H. Gato Company, the Geo. W. Nichols Company, the Ferdinand Hirsch Company and the Sol. Falk Company remained here, with forty or fifty smaller ones. Those that remained largely increased their output as the demand was for cigars made in Key West. Discriminating smokers are not satisfied with those made elsewhere and marked "Key West," as they lack the flavor of those made at this place under conditions identical with those of Havana, which conditions do not exist in Tampa or elsewhere in the United States.

The cigar industry of Key West reached its zenith in 1890 when something over one hundred million cigars were made. The output fell off in 1894 but it has gradually and steadily increased, and in 1911 the hundred million mark has again been passed.

Among the large factories in Key West are the E. H. Gato Company, the Ferdinand Hirsch Company, Ruy Lopez Ca, Havana-American Company, the Geo. W. Nichols Company, the Cortez Cigar Company, S. &. F Fleitas, Key West Cigar Factory, Jose Lovera Company, the Martinez Havana company, M. Perez Company, the R. Fernandez Cigar Company, Murias Campana Company, Manuel Cruz, and the Gwynn, Martin & Strauss Company.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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