Cigars Made Key West The Wealthiest City In Florida

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.

Historical display of cigar making memorabilia in East Martello Museum and Fort

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.

Historic Gato Cigar Factory is today 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.

Near the corner of Duval and Front streets, this gentleman sits in his storefront rolling cigars for all to watch. Photo courtesy of

13 thoughts on “Cigars Made Key West The Wealthiest City In Florida”

  1. In 1973, I was stationed in Key West: Army. Mr. Parks was my landlord. He claimed that he did not move to Tampa.. He continued to hand roll cigars for his friends in Key West. I watched him roll a few. And, I smoked a few of his cigars. He lived next door to me. I had black beans, bijol rice and marinated turkey wings at his home one evening. A memorable first of that cuisine. I sure miss Cuban sandwiches made in Key West.

  2. Loved your article Barbara! I am a direct descendant of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was the son of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, Jr. There is so much history of our family in Key West. It’s wonderful running into articles like yours. Thank You!

  3. hello,
    wow.. what a fantastic article. I love the key west cigar factory. I want to appreciate to you for this. These all cigars are amazing. I want to like your post and jut wanna comment on this. looking forward to see more. thanks

  4. I think they are the best out there aside from the Cubans. You just have to age them properly and everything will be fine.

  5. With Key West being located about as close to Cuba as you can get, it is no wonder that it has such a rich history in the cigar manufacturing industry. I would like to get my hands on some of the hand rolled cigars that guy in the photo is making.

  6. Cuban Cigars have had a long history both here and in Cuba. They are the best tasting Cigar’s I have personally smoked. The rich history for these Cigars is amazing. It is also quite amazing to watch them roll one of these beauties.



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