Back in the day when a manly man could take a whiff off a cheroot, blow out a puff of smoke and pronounce, "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke," and not get slapped in his face, Sarasota had a cigar manufacturing business.
Nothing to match Tampa’s burgeoning Ybor City, to be sure; but the Sarasota Cigar Company was a welcome addition to a community then struggling to bolster its economy.
In 1911, when John H. Hill and his family started the enterprise, Sarasota looked very much like the back lot of the movie Western, Shane, which is to say there was very little to distinguish it from a number of other "cow towns." Inasmuch as a cigar factory would be a benefit to the fledgling community, Mr. Hill approached the Board of Trade to get them to ante up some money to assist in the building of a factory. Up to that point the Hills were rolling them in their home on lower Main Street.
Dr. Schultz, proprietor of Badger’s Pharmacy, promptly pledged $10. At the same meeting, businessman John Savarese grandly prophesied that in the near future a workforce of some 200 men was possible. How much of a difference the $10 made is not known, but Hill was evidently happy to get it and the vote of confidence that went with it. At the next meeting he demonstrated his appreciation by presenting the board with a box of cigars, with the verbal pearl that they were a hit with "railroad people." Who better to judge a good smoke?
Initially, the company offered three brands: Board of Trade (amazing how much good will $10 bought), Sarasota, and the Sarasota Gem. Soon Little Dixie, Simpatica, and Habana were added to the product line.
After a month’s production, nearly 10,000 stogies had been rolled and sold through local businesses and also in Bradentown and faraway Tampa. Even during the summer, business was said to be "very satisfactory."
The Sarasota Times soon reported that the factory (still in Hill’s Main Street home) employed four workers and that output had doubled every month since the enterprise started.
Hill took on the role of traveling salesman, drumming up business throughout the state. A November trip netted orders for 28,675 cigars. By the middle of 1913 the promising business was prosperous enough to require a larger factory, and Hill decided to form a stock company offering a capital stock of $25,000 divided into 1,250 shares with a par value of $20 per share. As the Sarasota Times put it, "Sarasota’s businessmen have shown their faith in the future of this growing enterprise by subscribing liberally towards the stock." After the initial offering, however, the reported share holders were J.H. Hill (84 shares), P.A. Hill (83 shares), J.K. Hill (83 shares), J.C. Hill (10 shares) and A.B. Edwards, and H. L. Higel, two prominent locals, in for five shares apiece. By the beginning of 1914, 30 others would pony up.
The company took on more help, employing nine men who rolled 2,000 cigars a day and had difficulty keeping up with demand. Two more men were soon added.
Advertisements began appearing regularly in the Sarasota Times: "Try a SIMPATICA cigar. You’ll like them. There isn’t one man in fifty who finds fault with them; so they must be pretty good." "You never see a butt of our cigars lying around, they are smoked as long as there’s a whiff."
A pen and ink drawing with a smiling gentleman in a stiff wing collar and derby hat ran with the caption, "In order to make the most of yourself, smoke Sarasota Gems and you will feel right with your business and right with the world."
Thomas Riley Marshall, President Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, had pronounced, "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar." Heeding the call, Hill priced his brands at five cents and promised that they were equal in quality to the three for 50 cents variety. Not only did they have a fine flavor, but his Havana Smokers drew freely, burned evenly, and held fire and the ash. Hill said his company used imported wrappers and only the best domestic tobacco for filler.
After 1916, Hill and his family left Sarasota and have been lost to local history. But the cigar industry did not die with his departure. In the 1920s, Michael and Edward Roth began manufacturing cigars, Havanas at eight cents and up in a cigar factory and news stand. The operation later moved to the Mira Mar Court with a salesroom on Main Street where the El Prosito cigar was sold for 10 cents.
By this time, cigarettes had replaced the stogie as the smoke of choice, and despite the admonition, "Lips that touch tobacco will not touch mine," both sexes were puffing away. Philip Morris even sponsored a nationwide lecture tour for ladies on the etiquette of cigarette smoking, including such topics as how to hold a cigarette without looking affected-advice Hill’s cigar smoking railroad men never needed.
By the Great Depression of the 1930s, Sarasota’s cigar manufacturing industry had gone up in smoke.