When it comes to cigars, St. Augustine probably does not come to mind first. You might instead imagine Tampa or Cuba. Well, let us cure that by chomping down on our city’s long, smokey relationship with cigarro.
Let us start at the beginning. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they found Native Americans cultivating tobacco plants. Different cultural groups used the plant for ceremonial, medicinal, and recreational purposes. Ways of consuming the leaves varied across the continents, but some rolled leaves into cigar-like shapes (like seen on this 7th-8th century Maya vessel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Europeans went wild for this American plant. The Spanish in particular adopted Native American practices of smoking rolled tobacco leaves. Popularity for the new product – called cigarro in Spanish – spread across the Spanish empire (including St. Augustine) and Europe. As demands grew, Spain pursued turning tobacco into a cash crop in their colonies – where it especially prospered in Cuba.
Let us fast forward to the 1860s. Rising tensions between Spain and Cuban nationalists, resulted in several wars for independence. The conflicts led hundreds of thousands to leave the island for cities across the globe. Cigar manufacturers in particular relocated to Key West and Tampa. While, a few brought their businesses to St. Augustine.
Here the cigar industry exploded becoming St. Augustine’s second largest industry (only surpassed by Henry Flagler‘s enterprises). At its peak, eight factories employed hundreds of people. The hand-rolled cigar fad continued into the 1900s, but fizzled out by the 1920s and 1930s. Factories could not compete with the Great Depression, automation, and cigarettes.
But the story does not end here!
Cuban cigars made yet another revival in St. Augustine. What rekindled the industry? Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the late 1950s sparked a change for Cuba, cigars, and Florida. When Castro seized control of Cuba, he nationalized the tobacco and cigar industries. This led to another exodus of people as well as manufacturers looking for new places to roll.
Roberto Camimo Handmade Cigars – located in the Oliveros House – provided such a space for cigar makers to apply their trade. Robert Way opened this shop on St. George Street after the Cuban government confiscated two of his Havana businesses in 1960. Like a few decades before, visitors could once more see experienced men and women roll tobacco leaves in St. Augustine.
Although Roberto Camimo Handmade Cigars no longer operates on St. George Street, you can continue to learn about our long smokey relationship with cigars and Cuba. We encourage you to explore The Cuban American Dream online library guide created by the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Libraries for additional stories and resources.