Cigar rollers at William Hennessey’s shop on Jordan Street, 1907
It is difficult today to imagine a small village like Skaneateles supporting its very own cigar makers, but such was the case from approximately 1860 to 1910, the golden age of the cigar.
In Skaneateles, William Hennessey, Thomas A. Brogan (who learned the trade from Hennessey) and others operated cigar “manufactories.” They worked in rooms over a barber shop or a lawyer’s office, wherever there was space for a small number of men and a long table. A spare room in which to store leaf tobacco, empty boxes and other supplies, including flavorings such as licorice, pretty much met the trade’s needs.
Making hand-rolled cigars was (and is) elegantly simple. One needed a wooden board to work on, cigar molds and a press to uniformly shape the tobacco, and a sharp knife to cut the final wrapper leaf. And tobacco.
To Chester Moses and Nathan Grimes of Marcellus township goes the honor of planting the first tobacco in Onondaga county, in 1845. Within 10 years, the growing of tobacco was widespread, “a grand success,” especially in the townships of Lysander, Clay and Van Buren, but also in Manlius, DeWitt and others. Local varieties shared the fields with Connecticut seed leaf and hybrids of Cuban and Spanish tobaccos, yielding up to one ton per acre. Baldwinsville was a hub for trading, where farmers brought their tobacco crops to be sold, cured and prepared for shipping. The New York harvest in 1900 yielded close to 14 million pounds.
The cigar makers themselves came from everywhere. Some were immigrants who brought their skills from Europe; others were young men, often very young, who learned the trade as an apprentice. A 14-year-old boy could receive a few months of training with a cigar maker in exchange for $20, and then go to work for $6 to $8 a week.
In New York State, villages and towns as small as Skaneateles, Marcellus and Weedsport had their own cigar factories; Binghamton had 50, Syracuse 80, Brooklyn 800. In 1860, there were 2,000 cigar factories in the U.S.A.; by 1895, the island of Manhattan alone had close to 2,000 and the national count had reached 40,000. Long days of 10 to 18 hours were common for the rollers, but they could not keep up with the demand.
American men smoked six billion cigars every year, or about 250 cigars a year for every man over the age of 18. Four out of five American men smoked at least one cigar a day.
In Skaneateles, the finished product was available wherever smokers gathered. In 1889, it was said that Charles Krebs carried the finest cigars in the village at his Lake View House, including his very own “Lake View House” brand:
The bar of the Packwood House, shown below in 1905, displayed its selection of cigars in a glass-windowed case.
On occasion, one might even be offered a free cigar, as on a July evening in 1883, when The Scott Cornet Band traveled up the lake on the Glen Haven steamboat and serenaded Krebs’ Lake View House and the Skaneateles Free Press office. The grateful editor reported: “H. Thurlow passed out his ‘Buds of Promise’ cigars to members of the Scott Cornet Band last Thursday, while they were serenading on Jordan street, and they smoked them with a keen appreciation of their flavor.”
Henry Thurlow was an English-born teasel merchant and grocer who manufactured cigars “over Irish’s flour and feed store.” His trade card, shown above, listed the brands available from the Skaneateles Cigar Company. “Buds of Promise” was an unblushing poke at organizations of that name wherein young innocents pledged to avoid all tobacco and alcohol.
Thurlow also made a hit with another crop, as this piece from the August 28, 1896 Skaneateles Press attests: “Henry Thurlow, at his fruit and tobacco store near the bridge, has some of the largest bananas ever seen in this village, four weighing two pounds two ounces, and many weighing half a pound.”
By 1910, the cigarette was displacing the cigar, just as the cigar had displaced snuff in the century before. As the machine-made cigarette thrived, the hand-rolled cigar went into a decline, and small cigar-makers closed up all over America, including those in Skaneateles. However, one can always step into Riddler’s on Jordan Street, open the door to the humidor, inhale deeply, and dream.
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My thanks to The Skaneateles Historical Society; “Report on the Culture and Curing of Tobacco in New York” (1881) by J.B. Killebrew for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office; The Skaneateles Free Press, Saturday, July 14, 1883, August 28, 1896; the trade card of H. Thurlow courtesy of eBay; Tobacco Culture (1884), No. VII, by J.H. Norton, Onondaga County, N.Y.; Report on the Growth of Industry in New York (1904) New York State Department of Labor; “Cigar History: 1860-1910″ by Tony Hyman; “The Corner Cigar Factory” by David Savona; “A Century Mark” by Gordon Mot.
The Robert Burns Cigar brand dates from 1863; you can see a poster similar to this one on the wall of the Packwood House bar in the photo above.