2017-09-07 / Top News

On the way from Key West to Tampa, tobacco industry landed in Fort Myers

BY KATHRYN WILBUR
Special to Florida Weekly


A young man enjoys a smoke in downtown Fort Myers, in front of Dr. Matheson’s store. 
WOODY HANSON / COURTESY PHOTO A young man enjoys a smoke in downtown Fort Myers, in front of Dr. Matheson’s store. WOODY HANSON / COURTESY PHOTO While herds of cattle headed through town to Punta Rassa and citrus groves graced the banks of the Caloosahatchee in the late 1880s, a door was opening to a new industry — cigar factories.

For decades, an important business trade would exist between Cuba, Key West, Fort Myers and beyond.

In the early 1880s, political exiles from Cuba outnumbered Americans three to one in Key West. Within a few years a Cuban-dominated cigar industry evolved which produced the “Clear Havana” — so called because the cigars were clear or free from Spanish taxation. After a brief era of prosperity, disaster struck.

“Key West Fire-Gutted!” was the alarm- ing title of a Press newspaper article dated April 3, 1886. A mass of flames had consumed 18 cigar factories, numerous businesses and homes. In 1889, further blows to the Key West tobacco industry were sparked by clashes with workers’ unions.


A bright spot in Fort Myers’ history took place in the mid 1920s when Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, second from right, brought his team to train at Terry Park. Soon the town was boosting with baseball pride — and baseball players who liked to smoke cigars. One of the team’s favorite hangouts was the Royal Palm Pharmacy downtown, with its glass cases full of cigar boxes. The owner of the store, R.Q. Richards, is third from the right. 
SOUTHWEST FLORIDA HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTO A bright spot in Fort Myers’ history took place in the mid 1920s when Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, second from right, brought his team to train at Terry Park. Soon the town was boosting with baseball pride — and baseball players who liked to smoke cigars. One of the team’s favorite hangouts was the Royal Palm Pharmacy downtown, with its glass cases full of cigar boxes. The owner of the store, R.Q. Richards, is third from the right. SOUTHWEST FLORIDA HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTO Hundreds of highly skilled tobacco workers were displaced. Some relocated to cities as far away as San Francisco and New York while others chose to stay in Florida. Small-scale factories, which hired three to five workers, opened in pioneer communities, like Fort Meade, Palmetto, Fort Myers and Punta Gorda.


Albanie (Benny) Lorraine, a former Ybor City cigar roller, worked 30 years for Bill Moger. 
SWFL HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTO Albanie (Benny) Lorraine, a former Ybor City cigar roller, worked 30 years for Bill Moger. SWFL HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTO The 1902 United States Directory of Cigar Manufacturers listed nearly 30 cigar factories in Ybor City, but images of large brick cigar factories in Ybor City do not reflect the national trend. Almost every town had a cigar factory — often small operations run out of a backyard barn. Since an experienced worker could roll up to 500 cigars a day, even these small businesses could be profitable.

In 1890, Howell A. Parker, Fort Myers’ first mayor, bought a building at the corner of Hendry and First streets. He employed his young nephew from Lexington, Ky., Harvie Heitman, as clerk.

At the store opening on Oct. 1, 1891, the local Press drew special attention to the cigar display.

In the center of the building in a most conspicuous pla ce we noticed a pyramid of cigar boxes filled with cigars manufactured in Fort Myers. This is a ne w industry just started, and is worthy the prominent place given it. The whole arrangement was artistically gotten up, everything bright and attractive. Communities like Fort Myers were so eager to attract cigar trade that residents did their best to offer financial incentives as reflected in a Press article dated July 28, 1892:


Cigars made by the Moger Cigar Factory in Fort Myers were sold in boxes like this one. 
KATHRYN WILBUR / COURTESY PHOTO Cigars made by the Moger Cigar Factory in Fort Myers were sold in boxes like this one. KATHRYN WILBUR / COURTESY PHOTO Two gentlemen from Punta Gorda are here with a view of starting a cigar factory. They asked a reasonable money consideration which was promptly raised, Mr. Jas. W. Bain going around among our citizens and raising nearly the amount asked in a few hours. They will commence operations in about ten days or two weeks. The money raised was generally for land intended for a building site. In 1892, Antonio H. Gato arrived in Fort Myers with his family from Key West and rented a space in the general store of William Marion Hendry at First and Hendry streets. Gato requested financial assistance to build a cigar factory for his 25 workers. A town meeting was held at the courthouse to discuss this appropriation of funds. The Press could only explain the predominant “nay” votes in this short statement, which appeared on Valentine’s Day 1892:


In a picture taken in Fort Myers in about 1922, in front of what was the Gonzalez and Mendez cigar factory, seven men don an assortment of hats, and all but one has his sleeves rolled up. They are the cigar rollers, their faces aimed across Second Street at a photographer’s lens. Perched on an upper floor window sill, a worker looks out curiously — captured in what appears to be a spontaneous publicity shot. 
SOUTHWEST FLORIDA HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTO In a picture taken in Fort Myers in about 1922, in front of what was the Gonzalez and Mendez cigar factory, seven men don an assortment of hats, and all but one has his sleeves rolled up. They are the cigar rollers, their faces aimed across Second Street at a photographer’s lens. Perched on an upper floor window sill, a worker looks out curiously — captured in what appears to be a spontaneous publicity shot. SOUTHWEST FLORIDA HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTO The fact is our people are too poor to assist in any project, at present, however commendable it may be. We have plenty of land that could be donated, doubtless, for the project, but when it comes to building a factory, &c, we think our people are not in it. After spending only a few months in Fort Myers, Gato moved his equipment and cigar makers to Orlando.


Workers cultivate a tobacco field, left, in 1888. Below, a view of the Jackson City Dock. 
SOUTHWEST FLORIDA HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTOS Workers cultivate a tobacco field, left, in 1888. Below, a view of the Jackson City Dock. SOUTHWEST FLORIDA HISTORICAL SOCIETY / COURTESY PHOTOS Yet small factories persisted. In 1894, one of Fort Myers’ first residents, William R. Washburn, traveled to Key West to hire two skilled cigar workers to roll cigars in his storefront. At the same time, the tobacco company of Swain & Hart appeared on the scene. Frank McNulty had worked for Washburn while Swain & Hart employed William McNulty. Miguel Morales, who had come to Cuba from Spain as a young man also opened a factory here in Fort Myers in 1894.

Large ads were placed by merchants in the Press. In an ad dated May 15, 1890, Simmons & Evans (E.L. Evans) boasted brands of cigars, which were attractively arranged. In 1894, Holtzendorff & Bros. advertised the largest and finest brands of chewing and smoking tobacco in the city. Thirty years later, the Evans-Smith Pharmacy at the corner of first and Hendry, Hunter’s Drug Store on First Street, the Royal Palm Pharmacy two doors away from Hunter’s, and the A.H. Schultz store in the Arcade all specialized in the sale of locally produced cigars.

An embargo on Cuban tobacco preceding the Spanish American War didn’t seem to daunt Fort Myers, which was a predominantly agricultural town. In fact, the embargo appeared to be an incentive for experimental farming, which, like tarpon fishing, was becoming a rich man’s sport. For the ordinary farmer with a few acres to spare, Cuban tobacco seeds and methods of cultivation were readily available.

Among those interested in growing tobacco was Ambrose McGregor, friend of John D. Rockefeller and one of the largest stockholders in the American Standard Oil Company. McGregor, and his wife, popularly known as “Tootie,” wintered in Fort Myers at the former Gilliland house adjacent to Mr. and Mrs. Edison’s place when they were not aboard their yacht The Whim.

The McGregor tobacco plantation was located at what was then called Caloosa, near today’s Alva.

Real estate ads for agricultural land now highlighted good tobacco growing soil. J.M. Kramer and Amos Kramer, expert tobacco growers, invested in 242 acres in New Prospect (North Fort Myers). They divided their land into 10-acre tracts for vegetables and tobacco.

The local cigar industry grew. One of the most prominent and permanent cigar factories in Fort Myers would be The San Carlos Cigar Co. established in 1905 by Harvie Heitman and Frank McNulty. It can be assumed that this was the same Frank McNulty hired by Washburn in 1894. Heitman, who had created a business network during his years working for his uncle, Howell Parker, had already built the first brick building in town on First Street.

The San Carlos Cigar Co. was located at 121 Bay Street between Jackson and Hendry Streets — across from today’s Florida Repertory Theatre. By 1911, the factory was producing half a million cigars annually — three-fourths of which were exported out of state or abroad. Company advertisements boasted brands like the “San Carlos,” “Madam Lombard,” “Captiva” and “Fort Myers Smokers.” By 1921 the San Carlos Cigar Co. was owned by William McNulty — formerly of Swain and Hart — and had changed its name to the Fort Myers Cigar Company.

In 1912, Fred Campbell and Bill Moger opened a cigar factory at #13 City Dock. The city dock was an extension of Jackson Street and home to many businesses including two taxidermists, the City Fish Market, the Standard Oil Company, the Ft. Myers City Band and two steamboat lines. Early motor vehicles risked their way over narrow planks of wood held up by piers to reach their destination. The Campbell-Moger Cigar Company employed up to five rollers and, at first, was situated on the second floor of the taxidermist business of Ike Shaw. Fred and Bill, who were related by marriage, eventually moved into their own building on the dock.

In 1917, A.E (Gene) Russell, arrived in what was now Fort Myers with two grown sons. Russell opened a new cigar factory across the street from the Daily Press on First Street — across from today’s Ford’s Garage Restaurant. While the men rolled cigars, the company hired a female “stripper” employed to remove the center vein of the tobacco leaf. The factory was called the Palace Cigar and specialized in the 5-cent cigar. The company succeeded but was dwarfed in size by a new cigar factory soon to appear just around the corner.

The years 1919–1922 saw the establishment of a company, which aspired to equal any factory in The City of Cigars — Tampa. In November 1918, just as World War I had come to an end, the Press printed an article entitled “Big Factory for Making Cigars May Open Soon.” Embedded in the article, which underscored economic opportunities for Fort Myers, was a brief yet anonymous, description of the man who would be manager and owner. A month later, the Press revealed his name as Antonio Fernandez. Fernandez, the reporter claimed, was one of the very best tobacco leaf men and cigar manufacturers, employed the last nine years as foreman at the “Charles the Great Factory” — one of the largest factories in Tampa and producer of the highest grades. Robert A. (R.A.) Henderson, already successful in the mercantile business, citrus and cattle industries, offered Fernandez the use of the upper floor of his building at the corner of Hendry and Oak Street (now Main Street) and encouraged investment.

Much had changed since the early 1890s when would-be cigar manufacturers like Gato were turned away from Fort Myers for lack of community support. This time 60 local businesses invested $50 in company stock with two prominent businessmen buying 500 shares amounting to $10,000. Incorporation papers for the business of Antonio Fernandez y Co. were recorded in Tallahassee on Feb. 11, 1919. The cigar factory specialized in mild Havana cigars such as La Rama, La Verdad, Clarencio, Royal Tribute and Sofoso — or Safo. Edwin F. Scott from Arcadia, just decommissioned as Lt. E.F. Scott, was recruited as secretary-treasurer. A graduate of Emory college, Scott was introduced in the Press as an excellent violinist who would add greatly to Fort Myers’ social scene. Apparently, he did. In 1923 Edna Washburn, daughter of William R. Washburn, accepted his proposal of marriage.

For a year, the factory prospered.

What the stockholders may not have anticipated, or chose to ignore, was that the hundred employees would unionize. When Tampa factories went on strike, so did the employees of the Antonio Fernandez y Cia factory. The factory was closed for several weeks during the summer of 1920. In fact, the Fort Myers factory took longer to open than those in Tampa since many of its employees had left town.

Production again declined in the summer of 1921. Stockholders lost faith and forced Antonio Fernandez to resign. Jose Gonzalez — formerly of Tampa’s Santaella & Co. Cigar Factory — replaced Fernandez. Gonzalez renovated the workrooms and made changes in the tobacco blends. The factory was renamed the Gonzalez Jose & Co. and, for a short while, remained in R.A. Henderson’s building. Whether it was due to a split with the stockholders or Henderson’s need to use his prime property to better use, the newly named cigar factory relocated to Second Street at the southeast corner of Evans — now a vacant lot. With 60 employees, the company did very well — producing new brands like The Dulce, La Vallière, Verdi, Salsana, El Progeso, Leonora and the Old King Cole. On Dec. 17, 1921, the United States Tobacco Journal wrote the following about the “Old King Coles” which were sold exclusively in New York.

Within a year the factory was dismantled and its equipment shipped to the former Calixto & Lopez Cigar Factory in West Tampa. According to Edwin Scott, who had remained with the company, lack of adequate local housing was the problem — a factor that Antonio Fernandez had also claimed for his business failure. When Gonzalez and Mendez removed to West Tampa, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Scott set sail for New Orleans where Scott remained in the employ of the company as their sales representative.

After the 1926 hurricane destroyed businesses on the City Dock the owners of the Campbell-Moger Cigar Company moved to dry land. Bill Moger built a house on Braman Avenue where he continued to manufacture cigars in a secondary building behind his house — a building that still exists today.

When interviewed about the Depression years, Moger, who imported bales of cured tobacco from Cuba, spoke not of the lack of demand for cigars but of changes in consumer demands. At the height of the Depression, consumers wanted the two for a nickel variety; as prosperity returned there was a demand for the 20-cent cigar; and, finally, by 1936 there was a renewed market for 25- and 50-cent cigars. A modest man who generously handed out cigars to his friends, Moger was just at ease with his “regulars” as he was with his celebrity clients, which included Will Hays, Jack Dempsey, Winston Churchill and Charles Lindbergh.

A bright spot in Fort Myers history took place in the mid 1920s when Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, brought his team to train at Terry Park. Soon the town was boosting with baseball pride — and baseball players who liked to smoke cigars.

Baseball and cigars crossed all levels of society and local tobacco businesses promoted the game whether it was the Arcade Cigar Store selling tickets or cigar manufacturers giving incentives to the players.

But all good things must come to an end. Albanie (Benny) Lorraine worked for Moger from 1932–1962. Moger, no longer associated with his brother-in-law, continued to get his supply of tobacco from Cuba. Benny’s husband built their home beside the Moger house, making Mrs. Lorraine both a neighbor and an employee. An experienced cigar roller from Ybor City, “Benny” could regularly roll 500 cigars a day.

Moger had made a promise, however, that when he could no longer obtain Cuban tobacco, and offer his clients the best, he would close up shop. In 1962, a year after the failed Bay of Pigs mission, John F. Kennedy signed a trade embargo on Cuban goods. Moger’s supply of Cuban tobacco soon ran out. True to his word, he retired and is said to have pursued his greatest passions, following baseball on TV, and exploring Southwest Florida’s natural habitat with trips deep into the Everglades.

Many other countries such as the Dominican Republic produced and continue to produce Cuban cigars from Cuban seeds. But the climate and soil in Florida were particularly suitable for growing tobacco and, for decades, bales of tobacco could be imported from Cuba. Between 1890 and 1962, cigar smokers had just to go to a pharmacy downtown or place an order at any of the local cigar factories to buy Cuban cigars. Admittedly, Fort Myers’ production of cigars was on a smaller scale than that of Tampa’s Ybor City, but Fort Myers was never totally eclipsed in the manufacture and sale of the “Clear Havana” — an often-forgotten part of our heritage. ¦

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