Local hand-rollers fed boom-era saloons; machine-made cigars
eventually took over
whatcom historical society
This past November, Washington voters outlawed smoking in public places by passing Initiative 901. It’s difficult now to imagine Bellingham, a century ago, when smoking cigars was the norm. Restaurants, theaters, stores and offices, none were immune to the pungent pall emanating from stogie-puffing gents.
The cigar has native-American roots going back to the Mayans and first became popular in the United States around the time of the Civil War. By 1900, four out of five American men were cigar smokers. Bellingham was no exception, cigars being big business both in retail and manufacturing.
Cigar vendors carried countless brands presented in handsome wooden boxes. In 1905, Holly Street had a cigar store on every block between Railroad Ave. and D St. There were another half-dozen cigar merchants in Fairhaven, including John Jarvis, Anders Peterson, and Martin Lovik. If that wasn’t enough, cigars were also available at saloons, pharmacies, confectioneries and newsstands.
It may be surprising that Bellingham once had a cigar-making industry, especially remarkable for a part of the world that can not grow tobacco. An experimental crop planted "half a mile north of Silver Beach" in 1905 did not yield one usable plant. Nonetheless, tobacco leaves were imported and the fine art of cigar-rolling flourished here for many years.
John Greulich was Whatcom County’s pioneer cigar maker, establishing a small factory in 1890 on Elk (now State) Street across from the Sehome Hotel. Greulich’s La Paloma cigars were a staple of New Whatcom’s boom-era saloons. He was soon followed by cigar makers Charles Shaeffer, Al Senker, and Julius Leonard, each with their own back-room "factory."
A cigar is made of three parts. The "filler," the bulk of a cigar, is two to four mild tobacco leaves chopped or folded and rolled inside a pliant binder leaf. This is known as the "bunch," which is rolled inside an expensive outer leaf, called the "wrapper," that gives a cigar its distinct flavor and strength.
Albert "Al" Senker began a cigar factory on Holly Street in 1894. It closed in 1900, when he was made manager of Jacob Beck’s cigar store, the largest retail cigar firm on Bellingham Bay at the time. After briefly managing Beck’s Theatre, Senker started the Senate, a cigar store and saloon at 109 W. Holly, in 1908. The Senate, "a Resort for Men," was Bellingham’s first sports bar with "All Important Sporting Events of the Season Received by Leased Wire."
In 1904, Silas Gunst started a retail and wholesale cigar emporium, the S. A. Gunst Cigar Co., at 114 W. Holly, with a $3,000 stock of cigars. These included the Baron de Kalb and popular five-cent Rough Rider, among many other brands.
Silas was a member of the Gunst-Esberg Co., large West Coast wholesalers in cigars, headquartered in San Francisco. They’d opened an Oregon branch in Portland and it was considered a major coup for Bellingham to be chosen over Seattle as the location for the firm’s Washington branch. Mr. Gunst told a Puget Sound American reporter in 1904, “I am satisfied that this is the best place on the Coast to locate, and I am coming here prepared to reach out for the Alaska trade as well as that of nearby and adjacent country."
By 1906, local cigar makers were rolling 40,000 cigars a month, still only a fifth of the estimated 200,000 cigars smoked monthly in Bellingham. Local manufacturers included the Bellingham Cigar Manufacturing Co. on E. Holly Street, with the 209, Chamber of Commerce, and La Estrella brands, and Henry Sander at 1005 Harris Ave. with the Miguel Marco, Royal Gem and Great Catch. E. J. Kane on Astor St. produced the La Rosa name and S. Cohen’s "Cuban Shop" on High St. turned out the El Linda.
Cigar workers in Bellingham had their own union and the factories were licensed by the state. Filler and binder leaf usually came from the American East Coast and South, but wrapper leaf was often imported from Cuba, Sumatra or other tobacco-intense locale.
Like today, there were certainly those who objected to smoking. It was not a mystery, even then, that the habit had ill effects. The battle over smoking was strictly divided along gender lines, as ladies did not smoke and nearly all men seemed to.
About 1904, a fracas began among Bellingham streetcar riders over whether men should still be allowed to smoke aboard the trolleys. An attempt at compromise allowed no more than five men at a time to smoke and only then by standing up front with the motorman. It was the motorman’s job to drive and it was soon discovered that his task was not made easier with five cloud-makers crowding the platform.
Finally, in 1908, Whatcom County Railway & Light introduced a new model of trolley that combined open-air benches on both ends with a closed compartment in the middle. Women could ride inside and not get their hats ruffled, yet a man might still enjoy a good cigar while riding outside.
Although groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union successfully fought for bans on the liquor trade, gambling and "haunts of shame," they only managed to outlaw the selling of cigars on Sunday.
Prohibition came early to Bellingham with a local-option law closing all the city’s saloons as of Jan. 1, 1911. It would be 23 years before Bellingham had a tavern again. The cigar store quickly took the place of the corner bar as "the working man’s club." In many cases it actually was the corner bar, only without the booze. The former saloonkeeper, tossing his apron, donned the new vest of a cigar aficionado.
The Senate, the Horseshoe, the Club, the Mint, "thirst emporiums" in Bellingham’s wet days, turned to selling cigars as the centerpiece of their business. Most, like William Gibson’s Lotus Cigar Store at 1315 Cornwall Ave., offered "Confectionery, Soft Drinks, Card Room, and Billiards."
John Kienast, former proprietor of the Turf saloon, opened a cigar shop in 1911 in the vacated Oxford Bar at 113 E. Holly. Kienast’s Cigar Store and pool hall was a downtown landmark for the next forty years, eventually employing Mr. Kienast’s sons George and John.
By the end of World War I, the cigar market was flooded with machine-made cigars. The small enterprise of hand-rolled cigars could no longer compete. Machine-made panatelas were cheaper to produce, yet their quality couldn’t hold a match to a handcrafted cigar. Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president, took the issue to the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1919, stating that "what this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar."
Like other Bellingham businesses in the early 1920s, cigar makers attempted to tap the bumper crop of auto-driving tourists that arrived with the completion of Chuckanut Drive. The Highway Cigar Co., at 1016 Elk St., produced the 10-cent Pacific Highway cigar made with an "Imported Sumatra Wrapper."
Likewise, in 1921, Christian Singer started the Tulip Cigar Factory at 1321 Railroad Ave. Hoping to cash in on the popularity of Bellingham’s new Tulip Festival, Singer proposed that "as you enjoy the beauty of the tulips of our city, enjoy a cigar of the same name."
Though neither the Pacific Highway nor the Tulip cigar caught on, Paul Provanche found a niche among 1920s’ tourists by running twin cigar concessions in the lobbies of Bellingham’s two largest hotels, the Leopold and Henry.
Al Senker died in 1933, yet the Senate Cigar Store he started survived another twenty years under new owners John Pancoast and Fred Spenger.
The Great Depression saw a dramatic shift in America’s smoking habit. Inexpensive and convenient cigarettes, machine made, rendered cigars too pricey for the seriously casual smoker. By 1940, adult Americans were smoking 2,558 cigarettes per capita a year, nearly twice the consumption of 1930. While cigars were exclusive to men, cigarettes were equally marketed toward women. The populist Cigarette Age was just beginning. Cigars came to be viewed as old-fashioned, even elitist.
In the summer of 1952, Pancoast and Spenger closed the Senate Cigar Store and had it remodeled into "Spenger-Pancoast Shoes," a retail franchise for the Brown Shoe Co. From cigars to shoes, it’s still one of the strangest business shifts in Bellingham history.
Decades after all the other cigar makers quit, Eucephas "Ed" Clark was still hand-rolling cigars in the early 1950s. From a little shop behind his home at 2635 Ellis St., Clark continued his "vanishing art" because, as he had told a reporter in 1949, "I enjoy working with cigars."
Clark still turned out 40,000 cigars a year despite being well into his seventies. He had an established clientele, who gladly paid $12 per 100 for his epicurean product. Clark had started his first cigar factory in Bellingham in 1909 and over the decades had operated in numerous locations. In the glory days, he employed as many as 18 men. Mr. Clark, "Bellingham’s last cigar maker," died in 1956.