Cigars seem to be everywhere in Key West. Stroll down Duval Street and you’ll see several kiosks selling nothing but cigars. Guys from every walk of life are puffing on them all over town. It’s really not surprising that Key West is such a cigar friendly town when you consider that it was once the cigar capital of the United States.
The earliest cigar factory on the island dates back to 1831 but the industry really boomed during Cuba’s Ten Year War (1868-1878), when thousands of skilled cigar makers fled to Key West to escape the violence of war or the anger of the government.
Eduardo Hildago Gato fled Cuba in 1869 to avoid being arrested for aiding revolutionaries of the war against Spain. After a failed attempt to start a cigar factory in New York City, he moved to Key West in 1874 and became the first Cuban-born cigar factory owner on the island.
Gato knew that in order for his factory to be successful, he needed the very best cigar rollers in the business. A brilliant businessman, he built forty cottages around his factory in order to offer affordable housing to the artisans that he hoped to attract. As a result, Gato established our nation’s first successful industrial community.
While typical industrial towns such as Pullman’s outside Chicago were owned and operated with an iron fist, Gato operated entirely differently. He encouraged private enterprise and went above and beyond to build a family oriented neighborhood. The area became known as “Gatoville” and its owner built parks and encouraged education for his employee’s children at the two schools adjacent to the cigar factory. Gato started the first street car system, built a hospital and supported a baseball league to improve the quality of life for his workers.
Rollers were paid according to how many cigars they rolled each day; a good roller could produce an average of 300 cigars a day. Some employees were earning as much as $30 a week and were sending the majority of their wages home to Cuba to support the fight against Spanish control.
By 1884, the Gato Factory employed about 500 workers although not all of them were rollers. The output was 70,000 cigars every single day. In late 1899, the factory was producing 400,000 cigars a week.
Cigar making was the most lucrative business on the island and by 1885, there were over eighty cigar factories employing thousands of cigar rollers. From 1895 to 1900, Key West averaged $2.3 million in year in cigar exports, making it the wealthiest city in America at that time.
The decline of Key West’s cigar making industry began with the Great Fire of 1886, which destroyed eighteen of the main factories, six wharfs and most of the downtown business district. A large number of the factories were rebuilt and while the industry recovered for a short time, the inevitable process of the unionization of workers and opposition of factory owners forced the largest cigar manufacturers to relocate elsewhere. Need is the Mother of all invention and the labor shortage caused by World War I, brought the advent of the rolling machine. Hand-rolling became a thing of the past. By 1931, all of the large cigar factories in Key West were closed.
Cuban influence remains strong in Key West and is visible in Cuban-owned restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries. Appreciation for authentic, hand rolled Cuban cigars is on the rise and there a few places that still make cigars in the traditional, time-honored way. The Cuban Leaf Cigar Factory at 310 Duval Street and the Rodriguez Cigar Factory at 113 Fitzpatrick are two of them. There are several other Key West businesses that are named “cigar factories” but not all of them actually manufacture cigars; some are imported from other locations.
Even if you don’t smoke, take a moment to stop by one of the factories that honor tradition by hand rolling cigars and watch the artisans at work. It’s a fascinating window to Key West’s past and this is one of the few places you’ll find it.