So what’s with the centuries old fascination with tobacco and cigars? The first Spanish conquistadors and explorers in Florida were looking for gold but initially over looked a commodity that would be far more lucrative than panning or mining for the golden stone.
In many ways Key West and Cuba’s history has been shaped by the humble tobacco leaf. Take a broad view of the Cuban revolution from Spain, the exodus of 200,000 Cubans to the United States during the revolution, Key West becoming the largest cigar producing city in the country in 1890, and the advent of the Spanish American War. While each of these events have their own story, combined they represent the primary ingredients of a tobacco war.
One of the largest and most successful Key West cigar manufacturers was E.H. Gato. He was one of 200 cigar manufacturers that flocked to the island in the 1800s to take advantage of the political instability in Cuba and the worldwide demand for quality cigars.
This is the second Gato cigar factory located at 1000 Simonton Street. The first factory was a three story wooden building constructed in 1871.
The first floor of the factory was used for receiving tobacco and for distributing cigars. The second story consisted of rows and rows of benches and rolling tables where workers produced a wide range of cigars. In front of the workers was a raised lectern for a reader. The reader was paid by the factory workers to read books, poetry and daily newspapers. The third floor was used to store the sorted tobacco and for sorters to choose the best grade of tobacco leaves for the outer layer of the cigar.
You can see the workings of a large cigar factory at kwhmt.org and clicking on the – anatomy of a cigar factory – link on the home page.
The factory was destroyed by fire in 1915. Construction of a new fire proof factory was started in 1916 and completed in 1920. During construction of the new factory Eduardo Gato moved his operations to a number of factories that had been vacated by cigar companies that had gone out of business or moved to Tampa.
When Eduardo Hidalgo Gato opened his factory in Key West he knew that he needed the best rollers in the business and did everything he could to insure he had the best cigar artisans working under his roof. He built a city of 40 cigar maker’s cottages around his factory and started the first street car system, created a hospital and supported a baseball league to better the lives of his workers.
The factory workers average day was very structured. Sorters would arrange the Cuban tobacco leaves into 20 shades of brown. The most expensive leaves being those used for the wrapper. The rollers knew exactly how many and what grade of tobacco leaves to roll into the wide array of cigar styles and brands the factory produced. Every roller had their own rolling table and was paid by how many cigars they crafted each day. A good roller could produce an average of 300 cigars a day.
The factory itself was illuminated solely by natural sunlight. Cigar factories were typically built on a North/South axis so the windows faced East/West, maximizing the hours of sunlight.
In 1894 the Gato Factory employed 500 workers, not all of them rollers, and produced 70,000 cigars every single day. In December of 1899 the factory output reached 400,000 cigars a week. From 1895 to 1900 Key West averaged $2,300,000 a year in cigar export. It was the efforts and output of Gato’s factory that helped lead to Key West’s reputation as the cigar capital of the world.
The factory was bought by the Navy and served for years as the base commissary. Currently the structure is in its third life as the Monroe County Headquarters. Visit the first floor during business hours and experience a free exhibit of the one of the largest and most significant businesses in the history of our island.