Five women and four men pose near stacks of tobacco leaves in a small 1914 Bay City cigar factory.
This group likely accomplished the whole manufacturing process: sorting, stemming, hand-rolling, and packaging. At that time, manufacturers generally created only one type of cigar, using three different tobaccos. Five-cent cigars (domestic tobaccos and some imported leaf) and seed and Havanas (domestic tobaccos and Havana leaf) were the most popular.
The tobacco industry and cigar manufacturing facilities once operated in several locations across Michigan, most notably in Detroit. In Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (1995), historians Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May explain that in 1880 tobacco products had become “the single most valuable group of products of Detroit’s factories.” By then, Detroit factories were producing nearly 40 million cigars annually, and Detroit was nicknamed the “Tampa of the North.” In 1909, tobacco products were still ranked fourth among manufactured goods in Detroit. Historian Patricia A. Cooper writes in Once a Cigar Maker (1992), “6.7 billion [cigars] were produced in the U.S. in 1909 (representing about 350 different brands!).” By the 1950s, however, the industry had virtually disappeared from Michigan.
City directories reveal that in Bay City there were 17 cigar manufacturers in 1914, three in 1947, and just one in 1950: the San Telmo Cigar Company, owned by Charles J. Bengelsdorf (1894 – 1985). Bengelsdorf’s business continued until 1985 and is often thought to be the last cigar manufacturing business in Michigan.
The demise of the cigar-making industry in Michigan is attributed to many factors, including the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, mechanization, industry relocation to Florida for Cuban immigrant knowledge and labor, and growth of the cigarette industry. Photo courtesy of Clarke Historical Library, Mount Pleasant. •