Since the 19th century, Key West has been one of the historical centers of cigar tradition. At one time boasting more cigar factories per capita than anyplace else in the world, Key West had always played a major role in the cigar industry. Just after the American Civil War, this city became a Mecca for Cuban citizens fleeing their countries long running revolution against Spain. By the late 1870’s there were over 100 factories making cigars.
Cuban influence in Key West first began on a massive scale in 1868 when the first war against Spanish authority created a mass exodus. When Cubans faced forced conscription into the Spanish army to fight against their countrymen, thousands of skilled cigar artisans and their families fled their homeland.
On a single September day in 1869, over 2,000 Cubans lined the docks of Havana to flee their mother country. While some left for New York City or New Orleans, a majority boarded steamers for the 12-hour trip to a destination ninety miles to the north, a city Cubans called Cayo Hueso, today’s Key West.
The civil war against Spain failed by 1878, however it created a social upheaval in Key West as Cuban immigrants continued arriving intermittently for decades, virtually revolutionizing Key West’s social fabric and economy.
Prior to 1868, Key West had less than 500 residents, noted primarily for acquiring wealth from shipwrecks, but a new form of wealth was about to arrive when Cuban immigrants, with talented cigar making skills, arrived by the thousands in the matter of a year or two.
At the heyday of the industry, Key West was the largest cigar-producing city in the country. It boasted 57 major producers of cigars–many of whom relocated from Havana–and each engaged between five and 500 workers. In 1883 alone, 42 million hand-rolled cigars were constructed.
To house their cigar laborers, factory owners frequently constructed little cottages–bungalow-style structures principally of frame construction–and rented them out for low sums. To assure an ample supply of laborers, these homes were adjacent to manufacturing plants. These structures still comprise the biggest category of frame vernacular (simple structures, made of wood with few or no ornamental details) in Key West proper.
They were built from termite-proof Dade County pine with high ceilings for ventilation. They were elevated off the ground, allowing air to flow under the houses where roosters and hens lived and were part of the family, raised for eggs or meat or were trained for cock fights.
While humble by today’s measures, these homes were far superior to those in Havana, certainly far superior to the wretched tenement houses in cities in the north. Many times a cigar craftsman would exchange jobs with another factory merely to have a newer house to live in. These abodes were offered for cheap rent or with the option to purchase at a fair price to preserve a stable work force.
With good homes, good wages and the freedom to affirm the revolution, the cigar artisans existed well. Their clever unions assured substantial strength, and while many union laborers in the North were cowered in deplorable tenement housing, Key West cigarworkers were reveling in Shangri-la. Even their many strikes, which finally helped bring about the decline of the cigar industry, reflected the luxury of their position. In the strike of 1918, work stopped, as was normal, until the union requirements were met. The petitions: no sweeping before 6 a.m., ice in the drinking water, and coal, not wood, fuel for winter heating.
The cigar houses have held up to the test of time. Many of these Key West structures are lilliputian, only three hundred or four hundred square feet. They oftentimes have porches, small yards with picket fences and minuscule amounts of grass to mow. The homes were made from Dade County pine by ship’s carpenters, who built with a tongue-and-groove technique which holds up.
Property values are high, crime is low and the climate is all but perfect. The houses are plenty big enough for one or two friendly people to dwell in–when you can be out of doors 350 days of the year. Key West has transformed into such a sought after paradise for artists, the wealthy and retirees that these rustic homes now cost at least $125,000–if you can discover one.