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Davenport, Iowa, was once cigar capital of the Midwest

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Written by ALMA GAUL, Quad-City Times   
Monday, 28 March 2011 11:32
Made in Germany, this chromolithographed cigar tip tray advertised the Markert Cigar Co. in Davenport, Iowa. It is 4 1/4 inches in diameter. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Cowan’s Auctions Inc. DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) – If you listed your occupation as “stripper” in the early 1900s, it didn't necessarily mean you peeled your clothes off for pay.

In Davenport anyway, it likely meant that you were employed by one of the city's various cigar manufacturers and that your job was to strip out the center stem from the big tobacco leaves and tear the leaf into smaller pieces that would then be used to roll cigars.

That's one of the interesting bits of information inveterate collector and Davenport history buff Merle Vastine has learned in gathering memorabilia related to the city's cigar industry.

A portion of his collection, including 90 cigar boxes, plus various box openers, lighters and trimmers, is on display now through May at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport.

At one time, Davenport was a cigar capital of the Midwest; at its high watermark in 1910, there were 34 manufacturers easily employing more than 1,000 people, Vastine said.

Cigars got their start here before the Civil War with entrepreneurs – mostly German immigrants – bringing tobacco in by rail in bales, boxes and barrels from southern Illinois, Wisconsin and Kentucky, he said.

Once here, the big leaves were torn into strips that were wrapped around other pieces of tobacco and placed moist into molds that were pressed and dried to give the cigar its uniform shape. The cigars were then packed into colorful boxes and shipped across the country.

The early boxes were wood, usually covered in paper with lithograph pictures along with the manufacturer's name. Among the pictures in Vastine's collection are one for WOC, the communications company, and another for the I&I, a trolley that ran between Clinton, Davenport and Muscatine, Iowa.

“Anything to personalize it,” Vastine explained.

By 1945, there were just two manufacturers left, and the last one, F.C. Gremmel Co. at 908 W. Second St., closed in 1961, he said.

“They couldn't compete with the big national cigar manufacturers,” Vastine said. Also, as cigarettes became more popular, demand for cigars decreased.

Two of the bigger manufacturers were the Ferd Haak Co., located in what is now Tri-City Equipment, a big redstone building at 527 W. Fourth St., and the Peter N. Jacobsen Cigar Co., located in a building at the southwest corner of Fourth and Harrison streets.

Another manufacturer whose building still stands was M. Raphael & Sons., now the site of Raphael's Emporium antiques, 628 Harrison St.

In addition to boxes, openers, lighters and trimmers, the display includes carriers, clippers, sample pipes (so you could test your tobacco before buying), ashtrays and advertising giveaways such as calendars and a ruler.

Vastine has been amassing his collection for years, buying mostly at flea markets and from other collectors who, knowing of his interest, give him a call when they find something.

At one point, Vastine sold his collection of boxes to the late Dan Nagle, who put them on display at Pioneer Village in Scott County Park, Long Grove, Iowa. “But I have a passion for it and I got into it again,” Vastine said.

He is a Davenport native who retired from the former Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co. and now works part-time as an auction clerk – and as a collector, of course.


Information from: Quad-City Times,

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-CS-03-25-11 2228EDT


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Made in Germany, this chromolithographed cigar tip tray advertised the Markert Cigar Co. in Davenport, Iowa. It is 4 1/4 inches in diameter. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Cowan’s Auctions Inc. The cigar box on the right is held Speckled Trout brand cigars made by Ferd Hack Co. in Davenport, Iowa. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Rich Penn Auctions.
Last Updated on Monday, 28 March 2011 11:54

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