Up in smoke: Cigar making in Detroit

Ms. Midie Wright shows off the finished product from a Detroit cigar company

Long before Detroit became renowned for the production of automobiles, the city had earned a solid national reputation for the manufacturing of cigars and chewing tobacco. Tobacco companies, in fact, were among the city’s leading employers at the turn of the 20th century, and even in the mid-1920s  it was estimated that 210 million cigars and 14 million pounds of chewing tobacco were produced in Detroit annually, providings jobs for some 10,000 Detroiters.

The tobacco industry was so large that it had even prompted the establishment of the Cigarmakers Benevolent Association, a type of workers society that provided sickness and death benefits to tobacco employees and their families.

Detroit’s history as a tobacco center dates to the years before the Civil War with the arrival in the city of Germanic and Jewish immigrants who brought with them the skills and techniques of cigarmaking from their European homelands. Another factor that added to the growth of the tobacco industry was the Civil War itself. Soldiers exchanged tobacco products among themselves, spreading the use and the reputation of certain brands.

ImageEula Wilkins collects Workman chewing tobacco from a conveyor belt at the Scotten-Dillon Cigar Co.

Given the prominent role 90,000 Michigan soldiers played in all theatres of the war, it is not surprising that Detroit’s home-made cigars, called ‘seegars’ (a cheaper version of the more traditional product), and especially chewing tobacco soon gained a national reputation.

According to Industries of Michigan, published in 1880, there were four leading tobacco companies in Detroit at that time. The Banner Tobacco Co., founded in 1878, manufactured chewing tobacco and employed 125 workers. The Rothchild and Brother Tobacco Co., founded in 1854 by two German immigrants, produced cigars made from imported Cuban tobacco. With annual sales in the range of $500,000, the company employed 150 workers.

The Globe Tobacco Co. imported into Detroit each year an average of 4.5 million pounds of tobacco for the production of both chewing tobacco and cigars. Incorporated in 1871, the Globe Co. employed 190 employees who produced 3,000 pounds of chewing tobacco and 5,000 pounds of cigarettes every day, according to estimates made by the editors of Industries of Michigan. Incorporated in 1853, the fourth leading tobacco enteprise of 1880 Detroit was the Mayflower Tobacco Co., which imported one million pounds of raw tobacco annually for the production of the nationally-known Mayflower Chewing Tobacco.

Tobacco industrialists became some of Detroit’s leading public citizens. M.I. Mills, the founder and president of the Banner Tobacco Company, was a founder of the Detroit and Michigan Stove Company (another leading Detroit enterprise 100 years ago) and a director of the First National Bank, the city’s largest financial institution. He also had time in his busy commercial life to serve as mayor of Detroit in the late 1860s.

One of the founders and directors of the Globe Tobacco Company was Hiram Walker, who was also gaining a reputation at the time for distilling whiskey at his Canadian facility, a product that currently is known world-wide as ‘Canadian Club.’


ImageThe headquarters and manufacturing plant of the Scotten-Dillon Cigar Company on West Fort Street as it appeared in 1934.

Of all Detroit tobacco entrepreneurs, two stand out — Daniel Scotten and John J. Bagley. Scotten started in the tobacco business in 1852 as a 33-year-old apprentice to Detroit tobacconist Isaac Miller. Sleeping at the shop and saving his money, Scotten eventually was able to finance his own enterprise which he opened to his eventual good fortune just before the Civil War.

Scotten moved his enterprise to a large factory on West Fort Street in the latter half of the 19th century, when its name was changed to the Scotten-Dillon Company to reflect the addition of a corporate partner. By the 1890s the company had 1.200 employees, a weekly payroll of $8,000, and $4 million in annual sales. Daniel Scotten was involved in a variety of outside interests even into his late 70s. Possessing a peculiar horror of railways and railroad travel, he insisted on carrying on his farflung business affairs by means of his horse-drawn private coach. Scotten invested in Detroit commercial real estate to such an extent that at the time of his death in 1899 he owned nearly 2,500 city plots, the Hotel Cadillac, and business blocks along Gratiot and Randolph Streets. He left to his heirs a $7 million estate and to the Detroit Public Library his 20,000-volume private library of rare volumes.

John J. Bagley, a native of New York State, came to Detroit in 1846 to work as an apprentice to Isaac Miller. He became acquainted with Daniel Scotten who at the time was employed by Miller as well. Seven years later, Bagley bought out Miller and renamed the company the Mayflower Tobacco Company. As was the case with Scotten, Bagley’s enterprise boomed during the Civil War and its owner’s personal fortune and community status grew accordingly. In the 1860s, Bagley helped to organize the Michigan Mutual Life Insurance Company and served as its president for five years. Like many Michiganians at that time, Bagley was a staunch Republican, helping to found the party in the 1850s and chairing the Republican State Central Committee for a number of years. He was involved in Detroit politics as a member of the city’s Board of Aldermen, and in 1872 was nominated by his party for the governership of Michigan.

Image The home of John and Frances Bagley faced Grand Circus Park and later became the headquarters of the Detroit Conservatory of Music. The structure was demolished for the construction of the now-abandoned Statler Hotel.

According to Stewards of the State, the definitive collective biography of Michigan’s governors by the Detroit News’s George Weeks, Bagley was an effective chief executive during his four years in office. He encouraged the establishment of a state commission to regulate railroads, dealt with the always difficult matter of juvenile delinquincy, and led the effort to establish the state Board of Health and the state Fish Commission.

Bagley was an enthusiastic supporter of prohibition, and used his gubernatorial powers to persuade his fellow citizens of what he perceived as the evils of drink. Retiring to business and private life after his years in public office, Bagley had little time to enjoy the fruits of his commercial success, dying at the age of 49 in 1881. His widow, Frances Newberry, the daughter of a pioneering Michigan missionary and one of the founders of the University of Michigan, survived her husband by 50 years and became a leader among business women in Michigan, helping to establish the Young Women’s Club of Detroit that offered financial assistance to women starting business careers.

John Bagley’s name was immortalized by the naming of Bagley Street in his honor. Additionally, at the news of his death the Detroit News led an effort that raised $1,900 from its readers for the production of a statue of Bagley that stood on Campus Martius (near the present-day Kern Block) until the 1920s when it was given to The Detroit Institute of Arts to make room for commercial development on the site. Bagley also provided in his will for the erection of a public drinking fountain. Designed by the famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson (whose style of public architecture is seen most notably throughout Chicago’s business districts), the fountain still stands in downtown Detroit, an odd tribute to a man whose company produced a product that necessitated spitting!

The year 1937 was one of serious labor-industrial strife in Detroit, beginning with the famous General Motors Sit-down Strike of 1936-1937, in which the fledgling United Automobile Workers union brought mighty General Motors to a standstill and prompted the first labor agreement between the UAW and a Michigan automobile manufacturer. Many automobile companies followed suit, as the mere threat of a sit-down strike led them to the bargaining tables.

“Sitdowning” became a popular tactic among disgruntled workers, especially among the predominately female work force of Detroit’s tobacco companies. The most famous of the tobacco sit-down strikes took place at the Bernard Schwartz Company, founded in 1895 by its namesake, a Jewish immigrant.

Employing 400 in the manufacture of R.J. Dun Cigars, the company was one of Detroit’s well-known family-owned enterprises. When its workers sat down on their jobs in the spring of 1937, the Schwartz family turned to Detroit’s municipal leaders for assistance in removing the sit-downers from the shop.

The Detroit Police Deparment responded with heavily-armed officers whose brutal tactics in clearing the Schwartz factory was captured in newspaper photographs of the day and led to a labor-organized public protest in late March 1937 in Cadillac Square, the city’s largest outdoor gathering spot and a traditional area for public protests for generations of Detroiters.

Detroit’s tobacco industry began to die out toward the middle of the 20th century. By 1956 only three cigar manufacturers were listed in Detroit’s business directories, and by 1964 there was only one. Competition from enterprises elsewhere in the country, especially Ybor City, Florida, where Cuban immigrants made that city a center of American production of Cuban cigars, helped to close out Detroit’s years as the nation’s leading tobacco producer.


Image Cigar workers sit down at the Mozier Cressman Cigar Company in 1937.

By Thomas L. Jones / special to The Detroit News