The earliest cigar factory in Key West dates back to 1831, but the industry really took off during Cuba’s Ten Year War (1868 – 1878), when Cubans fled to the United States in droves. Many Cubans resettled in Key West, bringing the art of cigar making with them. By 1876 the city’s 29 cigar factories were producing a staggering 62 million cigars annually! During the next few years, Key West boomed, and the population grew to more than 18,000 people by 1890, making it the largest and wealthiest city in Florida.
Among those who were most influential in the cigar making business was Eduardo Gato, the first Cuban to own a major Key West factory. In addition to building a large factory, Gato constructed a series of cottages adjacent to the factory to provide housing for his workers, which quickly became known as “Gatoville.” Although “Gatoville” no longer exists the factory still stands; today the stately building has been converted to government offices.
The decline of the cigar making industry began with the Great Fire of 1886, which destroyed 11 factories, six wharves, and most of the downtown business district. Many of the factories were rebuilt and the industry recovered for a short while, at its height producing 100 million cigars in 1890 and again n 1911, but the inevitable process of the unionization of workers and opposition of factory owners drove many of the largest cigar makers to leave Key West. Vicente Ybor was among the influential cigar makers who moved their operation to the Tampa area. Later renamed Ybor City, this area of Tampa son became the new center of cigar manufacturing. By 1931, all of the large cigar factories in Key West had closed.
In its heyday, the Key West cigar industry employed thousands of men and women, all of whom rolled cigars by hand. The labor shortage caused by World War I brought about the use of rolling machines, and hand-rolling became a thing of the past. In Key West today, several local hand-made cigar stores keep the tradition of hand-rolling alive. They stand in glass-fronted storefronts or behind crudely constructed wooden kiosks on Duval street, patiently hand-rolling cigars for curious spectators and cigar fans alike.