Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

The present fades into the past quickly. Suddenly it is gone, leaving only memories and faded photographs: but this does not have to be. Dusting off decades of neglect, interested communities have uncovered their pasts and proudly displayed their heritages. One such town is Red lion. In conjunction with its centennial, Red Lion began to dust off its own nearly forgotten history: from the 1880s to the 1930s, Red Lion was one of America’s leading producers of the five-cent cigar (or, as local folk have it, “SEE-gar”). Months of research produced period photographs, artifacts, memorabilia and cigar-making paraphernalia. The project culminated in a thirty-minute, audio-visual documentary, “Rollers and Strippers, Two­fers and Crooks: The History of the Red Lion Cigar Industry.” During the research, oral histories were recorded from the many people who had spent their lives in the industry. Here, then, is the story of the Red Lion cigar, as told by those who made them.

 

No one can recall a time when cigars were not rolled in Red Lion. Most folks grew up with cigar making as children working in their homes, usually by stripping* (see glossary) tobacco leaf. Mrs. Ida Noll Ehehalt recalls all the children working: “They’d sit around and strip tobacco, and in the morning they’d just bring it back to the factory.” After school, children were also banders. * Mrs. Ehehalt adds, “It just seemed that when you were old enough, there was no other industry here.” Red Lion’s Mary Berkheiser can’t recall a time in her life when she didn’t roll: “We had a factory at home; my dad bunched* them. He put tobacco in the bunching machine, put the scrap * in and rolled * them. I rolled them myself.” Ninety. five year old Margaret McDowell agrees: “We had a cigar bench in our home. My mother made the cigars and my daddy made the bunches. When I got big enough I stripped the tobacco. A lot of people made them in their homes, in that time [ca. 1900] you had a little bench and press* …. People weren’t fancy like they are now. They had a place in the kitchen, and they’d roll.” All the labor and steps that went into cigar making were enough to keep the whole area busy for over fifty years.

Making cigars was a cottage indus­try and a way of life in Red Lion. Arthur Meads, tobacco merchant for half a century, says that “there were 109 cigar factories in Red Lion in 1927. Most may have been only man, wife and child. They’d make cigars in the basements and sell those.” Produc­tion was, of course, limited. “At first it was only a thousand a day,” recalls Jerome Wagman. “The wife herself rolled. We did everything. I bought my tobacco from the wholesalers, and scrap from Meads’ Tobacco.” The aptly-named Wilson Fillmore recalls his start: “Even when I was ten years old, I helped my daddy do things in the factory. We had a little factory at home where my mother taught me to roll and bunch cigars.” At the age of fourteen, Mr. Fillmore left school (a move normal for the time) and went to work full-time as a buncher. He worked at home, too. The industry which was to become nationally prom­inent started in kitchens and base­ments, where often three generations rolled side by side.

Leaf for these home-rollers was raised on their own farms, or pur­chased from local farmers. Most was bought from Red Lion’s tobacco mer­chants, who supplied both domestic and imported leaf. As the demand for cigars rose after the Civil War, cigar making slowly became more organized. By the 1880s, the home factories could not keep up with the market, and the Dutch entrepreneurial spirit flowered. A well-organized system of subcontracting emerged in which a cen­tral office supplied tobacco, fanned out the labor to the hundreds of homes, then collected, boxed and marketed the finished product. Sometimes all the labor was farmed out. Mervin Kaltreider, whose father was an early cigar manufacturer, recalls this opera­tion. “These little factories in the houses would make the cigars for other manufacturers. Then we’d come and take the cigars and pack them” for shipment to the markets.

Making cigars by hand seems simpler than it is. Three forms or states of tobacco are needed: “filler” or scrap for the insides of the cigar, “binder” or coarse leaf to hold the loose filler in a cigar shape and “wrapper,” the best leaf available, to form the cigar’s outer covering. Just getting the leaf became a major industry. Charles Stump, a forty-year veteran of the business, ex­plains, “The filler tobacco was a lot of local Pennsylvania leaf mixed with Ohio and Maryland [leaf], but the greatest bulk of the filler was Pennsyl­vania. Now the binders were grown mostly in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and the wrappers were from Florida and Connecticut.” Leaf was also imported. Mr. Meads recalls that “We imported Havana, Cuban, Sumatra [the world’s finest leaf] and some out of Mexico,” in addition to imports from the Caribbean, the Philippines and Indonesia. Sumatra was the class of the tobacco family: strong, elastic, even-burning and aro­matic. “Of course there was a lol of Sumatra imported in the early days,” says Mr. Stump, “but it became too expensive. You couldn’t afford to use it on two-for-a-nickle [‘twofer’] cigars.”

The process of turning raw leaf into a good cigar starts with the bunch, or, as Mrs. McDowell explains, “the cigar that was first made before the outer wrapper was put on. It was the filler and the binder. The filler was scrap, shredded, loose tobacco. The bunch breaker would lay it [ the filler] on the binder. The binder was a strong, coarse tobacco and it had to have a good burn.” Using a hand-operated machine, the bunch-breaker wrapped the filler in the binder leaf with a quick, firm push on the machine’s lever. Thus, a bunch was born. After bunching, Mrs. McDowell explains, “He put them in a press, and pressed them, and we [ the rollers) got them out of the press and rolled them.”

For rolling, the wrapper leaf was cut into sections, each large enough to cover a bunch, and laid flat on the rolling board. The bunch was placed diagonally on the wrapper, and one corner of the wrapper was folded over across the top. Then, in a quick, fluid, outward-rolling motion using the fin­gers, palm, wrist and the lower fore­arm, the bunch was rolled tightly and evenly. A good roller was ambidex­trous, rolling right and left. Valetta Leiphart, a roller most of her life, puts it simply: “You just had to know how to roll a cigar. I just knew how to cut and roll.”

An odd part of the trade was “crooking,” or making crooked cigars. “I don’t know why they started,” says Mr. Stump. “I imagine someone just thought of it and in order to stimulate business, they just decided to try it and, of course, it came to take.” Mrs. Schmuck, who crooked quite a few in her day, explains the process: “You pack the cigars in a block, and that block is crooked. The cigars are straight when you put them in, and when you take them out the cigars were crook’t.” Mrs. Ehehalt adds, “They had to be packed awfully fresh so they wouldn’t break.” Novelty or not, crooks were very popular; their colorful brand-names – “Tennessee River Crooks,” “Mississippi River Crooks” and “Federal Crooks,” among others – may have influenced sales. Mr. Stump recalls his best seller, “We had a reputation all over the United States for our crooks. No matter where you went, if you mentioned Wolf Brothers, they’d say ‘Oh – Wolf Brothers’ Crooks!'”

The finished cigars were sorted for color, and direction of the roll – right or left. “You never mixed them up,” says Mrs. Schmuck. “We always put the rights in one box and the lefts in another.” Originally Red Lion cigars were boxed as they came off the roller’s bench, but by the 1920s, brand­-identifying bands were used. “Each [manufacturer] had his own label, and his own brand, and they sold their cigars under that brand,” says Mrs. Ehehalt. “No one else was allowed to use it.” Gradually cigars were given outer coverings, first of tissue, then tin foil and finally cellophane. In the early days, says Mr. Kaltreider, “they didn’t wrap them. They just put them in the box. They didn’t have foil until the ’20s; about 1922 was the advent of foil.” By the 1930s, cellophane was the industry norm. Stripped, chopped, bunched, rolled, pressed, banded, cov­ered, boxed (and, of course, taxed), tobacco left Red Lion and satisfied a nation.

Memories of factory life vary. Most agree that the Red Lion plants were clean; “they just smelled like tobacco,” says Mrs. Berkheiser. The work was monotonous but light, safe and clean. The process of turning leaf into cigars left little waste, so Red Lion never faced any pollution problems. Any waste could be swept up with a broom.

As for the work force, rolling was usually done by the women, and bunching by the men, though little explanation for this development exists. “Yes,” says Mrs. Ehehalt, “there were more women than men.” Mr. Kaltreider agrees: “We had more women than men. The women were rollers only; the men were always the bunch-breakers, but the packers were usually men and the handers were usually girls.” Regardless of the job, the pace was fast. “You’d have to wet your wrapper cloth to keep your tobacco moist, get your paste, turn your cigars in the molds [to prevent unsightly creases], put them in the press and press them; you did all this before you sat down,” recalls Mrs. Leiphart. “You had to run around and do a lot so that you’d almost knock each other down. Then we got our wrappers ready, and were accorded an allotment of tobacco, and we got to work. [ used to roll eight or nine hun­dred [a day].”

Above all, everyone remembers the long hours. “I started when I was thirteen. I would put in anywhere from nine to ten hours. And we always worked until dinner [i.e., noon] on Saturdays. Fifty-five hours a week, usually, but some worked more than that,” says Mr. Jacobs. Mary Berk­heiser recalls her grandmother’s going to work before six in the morning and working through eight or nine at night. “They really worked. And they didn’t have electric washing machines and electric stoves. But I remember my grammy would come home and do her housework and get her supper and go back to the factory.” Despite these hours, she insists that women in her day “seemed to have more spare time than women do now.”

Conditions of employment were simple. “We got paid for what we got done,” says Mrs. Schmuck. But pay is a slippery issue. After 1936, wage and hour Jaws went into effect, and “codes” (or quotas) were set. Before these laws, the industry was straight piecework. Wages varied widely accord­ing to the job, factory and year. How­ever, generalizations are dangerous. Mrs. Leiphart remembers starting at “fourteen or fifteen cents a hundred,” for rolling – and that payment was “according to what you made. You worked hard for the little you earned.” William Noll rolled for twenty cents a hundred, while Mary Berkheiser recalls once receiving fifty cents per hundred. Rollers received top pay, then bunchers, packers, handers and strip­pers, in order. Stripping paid the least, as low as eight cents per pad. Earning a living was hard but uncomplicated. According to Mrs. McDowell, “If you wanted to make a lot you worked a lot.”

Harry Thompson puts the matter of pay into fine perspective: “People lived with so much less then that it’s hard to make a judgment call. None of us had that much – even the people who had a little money. It was an en­tirely different life style.” How dif­ferent? Mrs. McDowell’s memories are helpful. “We got twenty-five cents to roll. but then we bought eggs for five cents a dozen and milk for about a penny a pint. We’d rent a house for ten or eight dollars a month. If you paid ten dollars a month for a house, why then you had a house! We built a whole house [ca. 1903] for eleven­-hundred dollars.”

After the 1880s, cigar consumption grew on a yearly basis, and the indus­try and Red Lion grew apace. By World War I, demand was so great that the cottages of Red Lion could not keep up; the evolution of the corpora­tions and large factories was hastened. During the war, “business was very good. They couldn’t make enough cigars-soldiers smoked a lot. That’s when [T. E.] Brooks and all those big fellows made all their money,” ex­plains Mrs. Ehehalt. Mr. Noll, who started his business in 1917, remembers that “When the war was on, they’d come and they coaxed you for cigars. And they paid cash. Everybody paid cash.” By 1920, Red Lion dominated the industry-so much so that York County had two tax offices: one for the county, one just for Red Lion. By 1927, Red Lion produced fully a fifth of all American-made nickel cigars. “Red Lion” and “cigars” were, more or less, synonymous for decades.

But all things pass, and Red Lion’s days, too, passed like smoke. First the Depression hurt many businesses badly, closing dozens of small factories. The effects of the economy on a national scale are put into human terms by Charles Stump: “The average citizen couldn’t afford to pay ten cents for a cigar. He might smoke one after din­ner, when he had the time to enjoy it. But during the day, he didn’t have the time, and he couldn’t afford to throw it away when it was half-smoked. And that’s one thing that made the cigar industry go down.” Fewer smoked meant fewer rolled and fewer jobs.

The industry was also affected by the whimsy of popular taste. Before the Civil War, chewing tobacco was the most popular; after that war, the cigar rose to prominence. But after World War I, the cigarette began to replace the cigar, and by 1940 it dominated American tobacco consumption. Cigar production fell to 1880 levels. “We’re a nation of habits and fads,” com­ments Harry Thompson. “What’s in is in and what’s out is out. And cigars are not in … at the present.”

The final blow to Red Lion was the increased use of automatic cigar-making machinery. Machines had been used since the 1900s for chopping scrap. These devices, however, were often hand-powered and saw limited use. At the time, they were not cost-effective. However, advances in technology cul­minated with the development of the fully-automatic cigar-making machine – a machine which could perform the entire process. The impact of this automation was immediate and pro­found. Mr. Thompson, who describes himself as “a product of the machine age,” explains that “to manufacture a high-quality product and increase sales (and make a profit), the policy was the installation of modern, efficient ma­chines.” But the other side of this policy was as clear. “The machine,” he continues, “represented a loss of a job. A woman could roll 600 a day; cigar machines 6,000 a day. So that just about wiped out the handrollers. One machine would eliminate eight or ten people, plus the bunch-breakers.”

In 1934, pressures caused by the Depression, lay-offs, unemployment, factory closings and machinery led to a violent strike and small riot in the streets of Red Lion. “Boy, that was rough,” recalls Mrs. McDowell; “the strikers acted so nasty. They came over here and said ‘Don’t you dare go to work!’ I remember one woman was acting terrible – she was ran ting and raving and yelling.” Mrs. Leiphart recalls her husband’s returning from work early, telling her “I don’t under­stand any use in your going up to the factory. They won’t let the bunch­breakers in, and everybody’s standing outside.”

Mr. McCleary also witnessed the scene. The factory was loading ma­chine-made cigars, “and the strikers were going to stop them. The women laid down across the driveway, so the trucks couldn’t get in. The drivers wouldn’t run over the women, so that effectively blocked it. They didn’t get a shipment made that day.” But very soon things turned violent. Fights erupted and the police tried to restore order with billy sticks and tear gas; there was talk of calling in the Penn­sylvania National Guard. The riot was the last twitch of a dying craft. Calm soon returned, but cigar making – so long both mainstay and centerpiece of Red Lion – faded slowly into the past.

Yet, there is an obvious reminder of the heritage of Red Lion. It lives in the fact that Red Lion itself was built on, grew with, and flourished because of the cigar industry. Red Lion is what it is today because of all those rollers, strippers and those millions and mil­lions of twofers and crooks. Schools, streets, churches, firehouses, parks, the fine library – all were paid for and maintained with cigar revenues and profits. More, the nickel cigars-“Silver Princes,” “Lucky Lindys,” “Ne-Hi’s” – earned the dollars that paid the wages that paid the baker who paid the farmer. “Red Lion Special Fives” and “Mark Twains” generated the taxes that built the roads patrolled by the police and used by all. “Victorys” and “Gold Ribbons” paid the mortgages. “Red Dots” put food on the table.

Thriving for fifty years, the indus­try, above all, provided opportunity for the bold and the industrious. The ambitious could – with energy, work and a few dollars worth of tobacco­ – start their own industries. “And that,” says Mervin Kaltreider, “is what made Red Lion prosperous.” Speaking for generations of Red Lion cigar makers – ­strippers, bunch-breakers, rollers, handers and packers – Mary Berkheiser, roller of millions, has the last word: “Oh, I liked it, I guess. You had to like it. That was about all there was around to do.”

 

Glossary

banding: pasting the ring-like brand label on the cigar

binders: a high grade, good burning tobacco heavier than wrapper tobacco used to hold the filler in shape in a bunch

bunching: wrapping filler in binder to make the core (“bunch”) of the cigar

packing: placing cigars in cigar boxes in layers of 13, 12, 13, 12

pressing: placing bunches in molds and squeezing them to uniform shape

rolling: applying high-grade leaf-covering to the bunch

scrap (or “filler”): chopped leaf; the inside cut tobacco

stripping: removing the thick center stem of tobacco leaf, resulting in two useable sides of leaf

wrappers: high-grade, smooth, thin tobacco with a good burn and taste used to cover the bunch in rolling

wrapping: covering the finished cigar with tissue, foil, or cellophane

 

This article is part of a larger project on the cigar industry of Red Lion, funded by a matching grant from the Public Committee for the Humanities in Pennsylvania (now the Pennsylvania Humanities Council), which includes a booklet and an audio-visual documen­tary written and directed by Dr. Lockyer. The recordings were made in the Red Lion area between August and December 1979 by Phyllis Frey, project director and librarian-curator of Red Lion’s Kaltreider Memorial Library; Mervin Kaltreider, Red Lion cigar maker, historian and raconteur; and Mark Motich, for whose assistance in gathering the oral histories the author is grateful. Those interested in any aspect of the project should con­tact Phyllis Frey at the Kaltreider Memorial Library, South Charles St. & West Broadway, Red Lion 17356.

 

Timothy J. Lockyer, currently an ad­ministrator at DePaul University in Chicago, received his Ph.D. from the Pennsylvania State University, where he became interested in local and regional cultural history. He has written essays for various journals and pre­pared A Literary History of York County which is soon to be published.