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There could be more than smoke in Carroll's Cuban connection [Eagle Archives]

The Dec. 30, 1899 issue of the Westminster American Sentinel newspaper carried a community report from the Manchester correspondent about the Christmas season.

According to research for the Historical Society of Carroll County by Jay Graybeal, the paper reported, "Our cigar factories, the chief source of income, have been working full time … and the employees have been earning good money. Some of them who are engaged in stripping tobacco, live in the country. The factories disburse five or six thousand dollars a month in weekly and bi-monthly payments, which goes into circulation, and our business men are smiling over their holiday trade…"

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In published research 10 years ago, Mary Ann Ashcraft exclaimed, "Cigar-making in Carroll County? Absolutely! Although many of us associate it with Havana, Cuba or Tampa, Fla., it was a booming industry here following the Civil War until about 1930.

"As early as 1814, an advertisement in the Uniontown newspaper announced the opening of a shop to make and sell 'segars.' About 50 years later, the Wantz Cigar Factory began production in Westminster, but the town of Manchester dominated the industry beginning in the early 1870s."

Research for the Historical Society by Joe Getty reveals, "Manufacturing cigars out of locally grown tobacco required hand-rolling that was primarily done by women..."

Although today agriculture is still the number one industry in the county tobacco is no longer raised in Carroll County. But apparently the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce still thinks about cigars – and old cars, history, architecture, art, music and culture – all of which were on display on the Chamber's second-annual trip to Cuba in early November.

The first trip to Cuba by about 40 intrepid Chamber voyagers took place in late May 2014 – months ahead of Dec. 17, 2014 when President Obama announced an initiative to chart a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba. Since then various delegations from Maryland have traveled to Cuba – but Carroll County was there first.

And once again this year in Nov. - 53 hardy folks, including this writer, traveled with the Chamber for a week-long people-to-people cultural exchange and goodwill trip to Cuba.

In Cuba, along with visits to schools, museums, historic sites, agriculture and architectural tours; the Chamber ambassadors visited the Francisco Donatien Cigar Factory located in the Viñales Valley city of Pinar del Rio in the V UNESCO World Heritage Parque Nacional Viñales at the far western tip of the island.

Later, just outside the town of Viñales, we visited a veguero or tobacco farmer on 10-hectare tobacco farm where we gained some insight as to how tobacco may have been grown in Carroll County many decades ago when, "The source of tobacco appears to have been local growers, according to research by Ashcraft. "In 1879, eighty-eight Carroll County farms raised over 134,000 pounds of tobacco… Tobacco was a very labor-intensive crop, so each farmer only raised a couple of acres…"

Also outside of Viñales we visited a small government-run tobacco processing and sorting facility called a 'despalillo de tabaco' where employees – mostly women, sorted and graded tobacco by quality and color for use in the Francisco Donatien factory in Pinar del Rio. Again, this parallels our history in Carroll County where according to Getty's research, "Photographers of local cigar companies show the equipment and work areas used by women to produce large quantities of cigars..."

As relations with Cuba continue to thaw and the island nation becomes a trading partner; hopefully the road to Cuba pioneered by the Carroll Chamber cigar ambassadors will pave the way for economic opportunities for Carroll County. We could all smoke a cigar to celebrate that.

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