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Ode to an era that went up in smoke

Tuesday, September 02, 2003


TRENTON - Most explanations of the meaning of the red neon sign on the famous bridge that spans the Delaware River, proclaiming, "Trenton Makes, The World Takes," start and end with three words.

Steel, pottery, rubber.

Those were the locally manufactured products that fueled the capital city's economic engine during its long-gone industrial heyday.

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But Trenton also was known, and perhaps even loved, for a less durable product - cigars - hand-rolled for many years by female factory workers using the finest tobacco leaves Cuba had to offer.

According to Gilbert Gold, the son of the man who managed two cigar factories in the city, Trenton cigars were among the finest available anywhere - good enough for former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who routinely resupplied his humidor with Trenton smokes of a certain size and shape that came to be known as Churchills.

And now, years after the last leaf was rolled and decades after a Grand Street factory was converted into apartments, the cigar's role in the city's economy throughout much of the 20th century is being recognized by an exhibit at Ellarslie, Trenton's museum in Cadwalader Park.

The exhibit, which opens with a private gala tomorrow and a grand opening to the public two days later, includes photographs, old Gold family movies and numerous cigar boxes, bands and other paraphernalia.

It coincides with the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in a 1929 Cuban-American cigar factory, "Anna in the Tropics," opening at McCarter Theater in Princeton Borough on Sept. 9.

The items on display at Ellarslie offer a glimpse of an industry that supported thousands of families during the Depression and more vibrant economic times on either side of the 1930s.

"When you talk about Trenton, you talk about steel, wire rope, pottery and rubber, but no one talks about the cigar factories," said Ellarslie director Brian Hill. "In 1955, there were 3,000 people rolling cigars in this town."

He and Stephanie Morgano are curators of the exhibit.

-- -- --

Anna Dabronzo, 90, who lives in Florida, worked in two Trenton cigar factories for a total of 14 years, starting at age 14. She recalled getting her first pay envelope in 1926 for packing finished cigars at the American Cigar plant at Division and College streets.

"I worked 54 hours the first week. My pay was $5.40 - 10 cents per hour," Dabronzo said. Despite the long hours, she said, "I enjoyed it very much."

She handed over her earnings to her mother each week, Dabronzo said. "We just worked and cleaned the house. If we had a nickel, we'd go to the movies, to The City Square, on a corner between Washington and Anderson streets. Later it was called the Park Theater. They were silent movies, but for a nickel, we didn't complain."

Education took a back seat to helping support her family, including six siblings, Dabronzo said.

"We had what was called continuation school. The boss had to let me off every Tuesday for school until I was 16. Anybody that got a job before they were 16 were allowed to work if they went to school once a week."

The Great Depression followed the stock market crash of 1929, but cigars remained in demand. "It was the only place you could get a job," Dabronzo said. "Everybody was poor then."

Dabronzo has fond memories of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who helped push through a 40-hour work week and a higher minimum wage. "Everybody liked (him), even the Republicans," she said.

In 1933, the owners closed the plant when they opened a new cigar factory at Grand Street and Virginia Avenue. Dabronzo and two of her sisters transferred to the new facility, where they rolled and shipped expensive La Corona cigars, DaBronzo said.

They were among 1,200 workers at the new plant, Gold said.

-- -- --

Mary Buck, 67, who now lives in Ewing, grew up on Han**** Street, not far from the factory at Virginia and Grand. "I started working there in 1952 and worked there approximately eight or nine years, between having babies," she said.

"I probably made about $40 a week. We thought it was good money and it was at the time."

Buck said she enjoyed the job and her co-workers, but she never cared for cigars. In fact, she never lit one up. "I hated cigars, I hated the smell of them burning. I never smoked one."

But handling the leaves wasn't too bad, she said. "I could stand the smell of the leaf, that was fine."

Her job was to select and sort leaves by color, size and quality. Strippers, or workers who tore the central, stemmy vein from each leaf, worked on the first floor of the factory alongside Buck and other selectors. But strippers weren't much fun because they were paid by the leaf, so they didn't waste time chatting, she said. "You didn't even get them people to talk. The selectors were paid hourly - we could talk as long as we kept busy.

"I was only 16 when I started. I quit school, unfortunately," Buck said. "I was married at 16 and, believe it or not, we celebrated our 50th anniversary in June 2002. This past June would have been our 51st, but my husband died in January."

Recalling her youth, Buck said recreation was shoe-horned around work. "We used to come home and play baseball in the street," she said. "We'd climb fences. The only other recreation was a movie once in a while, if you had a quarter to go.

"We used to go to the Broad Theater, which is the CYO now, and we went to the Bijou on South Clinton Avenue. Now it's a black church. You went up in the balcony and did a little smooching here and there. Nothing dramatic."

Buck said she went back to school to get her GED later in life and earned a degree as a licensed practical nurse in 1972, at age 38.

-- -- --

Gold, 82, of Lawrence is a retired dentist. He recalled working summers at the cigar factories managed by his father. "Bales of tobacco were stored in the basement and brought up as needed for the strippers on the first floor. The cigars were rolled on the second floor."

One of his jobs was taking bank checks to Philadelphia to pay the taxes on the imported Cuban leaf. "We had to get the tobacco out of bond," Gold said. "We'd pay the tax at the customs house in Philadelphia at the bourse."

His father, who rose to vice president of the American Cigar Co., supervised the conversion of the Grand Street factory to machine-rolled cigars in the 1950s, Gold said.

Cigar makers were always checking on the competition, Gold said. Once, when he and his dad were eating at Bookbinder's restaurant in Philadelphia, another cigar-maker stopped to say hello. The two men exchanged cigars before the other man retreated to his table.

Instead of smoking the cigars, which would seem to be an obvious measure of their quality, both men plunked their cigars on their dinner plates and dissected them to examine the contents, known as filler and binder in the trade, Gold said.

The city's cigar industry went up in smoke sometime in the 1960s, Gold said, when American Tobacco opened a new, fully automated cigar plant in Mountain Top, Pa.

The new, more efficient facility permitted the owners to shutter a pair of Pennsylvania factories in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, as well as the Trenton plant.

Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved.

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I drove through Trenton once by accident. I had absolutely NO intentions of stopping anywhere in that town, even in broad daylight. I doubt I'l be back to search out any cigar factories or exhibits.... unless I have kevlar and an AK-47 with me :D

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Thank you for a fascinating post. History of our chosen passion is often overshadowed by the glossy magazines that seem to only want to promote the newest and trendiest.

I think cigar smoking is a great way to link to the past. I had the great pleasure of working in an old hotel that Mark Twain used to stay at often. As I smoked my lunch break stogie on the porch I could imagine the old humorist doing the same. It was truely a nice feeling.

Reading historical posts such as yours reminds me of those days imagining smoking one with the great author.

Thank you. I hope you add more posts like this one.
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