Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

The air is spiced with smoke inside The Owl Shop, where patrons are puffing on their favorite cigars. It’s a vestige of an earlier New Haven, where cigar-making was a thriving industry, and of an earlier Connecticut, whose acclaimed tobacco wrapped, bound and filled cigars in great volume. (Prized tobacco is still grown in the Connecticut River Valley, only in smaller quantities; many of the cigars on The Owl Shop’s shelves are wrapped in the state’s light-colored, shade-grown leaves.)

No one knows for sure when tobacco was first grown in Connecticut, though it likely originated with the indigenous peoples of the area. There’s evidence of colonists adopting the crop as early as the 1640s, says Jim LaMondia, chief scientist emeritus for the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s laboratory in Windsor. Over time, the crop was developed into the two main types Connecticut is known for today: shade-grown and broadleaf.

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It wasn’t until the mid-18th century, however, that cigars appeared on the scene. “Colonel Israel Putnam is generally credited with the introduction of cigars into Connecticut in 1762, upon his return from an expedition against Havana,” writes Adrian Francis McDonald in The History of Tobacco Production in Connecticut. “Once started, the cigar-smoking habit took hold instantly and increased by leaps and bounds.” A merchant named Samuel Russel is reported to have begun selling pipe tobacco in his State Street shop in 1786, and “Spanish segars were introduced into the United States around 1790,” writes Rollin G. Osterweis in his Three Centuries of New Haven (1953).

Cigars were originally manufactured at home. “Farmers’ wives would fashion the crude cigars and they would be peddled by their husbands throughout the countryside in wagons, in conjunction with other articles of commerce,” McDonald writes. In 1810, “modern cigar-making was born” when brothers Roswell and Samuel Viets opened cigar factories in East Windsor and Suffield, Connecticut, respectively.

The biggest names in New Haven’s cigar-making history, competitors Lewis Osterweis and Frederick Grave, lit up later in the 19th century. Born in Germany in 1836, Osterweis learned his trade in New York City and opened his first “cigar manufactory” in Iowa, according to History of the City of New Haven to the Present Time (1887), edited by Edward E. Atwater. In New Haven, Osterweis set up shop on Congress Avenue in 1860 and moved three years later to Church Street, first at the address 91-93 and later at 18-22. “Every convenience is at hand for the manufacture and storage of goods, and the successful prosecution of the business, which from a comparatively small beginning has been built up, until to-day the trade of the house extends throughout New York, New England, and the West, and involves the sale of an enormous number of cigars annually, beside large quantities of leaf tobacco,” Atwater reported.

Frederick Grave learned cigar-making as an apprentice in Cincinnati and arrived in New Haven in 1873 to work as a foreman in a cigar factory here, according to a 1905 profile in the Saturday Chronicle. In 1885 he opened F.D. Grave (later F.D. Grave & Son), his own business, manufacturing the brand Judges’ Cave. “From the start the superiority of his goods was acknowledged, and the demand for them being so great that within five years the factory became too small,” the Chronicle reports.

Together with their Connecticut colleagues, Osterweis and Grave helped to build a booming industry. Though Grave and Osterweis were “cordial, if energetic, competitors for more than half a century,” as the New Haven Register put it in a 1954 piece, that year the F.D. Grave company prevailed, buying out Lewis Osterweis and Sons. A Register profile 30 years later celebrating Graves’s 100th anniversary noted it was one of only two cigar manufacturers left in Connecticut. The industry had taken a hit from the increasing popularity of cigarettes in the 1920s and again from the Surgeon General’s official warning in 1964 that smoking causes cancer. Frederick Grave’s grandson and namesake Fred Grave blamed women for lost business as well, calling them “our worst enemy.” He told the Register, “At one point, the cigar industry tried to promote cigars to women but gave up. It was decided they’d be happy if women just didn’t object to men smoking them.”

Like the business it housed, the final Osterweis building on Church Street didn’t survive the times. It was located where Gateway Community College is today. But the F.D. Grave building still stands on State Street near the corner of George, identifiable by the owner’s name carved in a large stone plaque mounted on the front second story and a painted advertisement for one of the Grave brands, Muniemaker cigars (pronounced “moneymaker”), which can still be spotted high on the building’s side. The company moved to North Haven at some point but recently ceased operations.

Tobacco, however, survives and continues to be an economically important crop in Connecticut, to the tune of 50 or 60 million dollars as of 2019. It’s grown for an international market in the Connecticut River Valley by small farmers, many of whom also rely on other crops like vegetables and Christmas trees, LaMondia says. Some of the signature old sheds and shade tents of the tobacco farms can be seen in central Connecticut towns including industry-starters East Windsor and Suffield. Only about 100 acres of shade tobacco were grown in the state as of 2020, LaMondia says, while broadleaf took up about 3,000 acres. “The demand for it is actually higher than what we can produce,” he says, adding that some farmers are trying to grow Connecticut broadleaf in other parts of the country.

Smokers can no longer buy a cigar made of Connecticut tobacco for a nickel. And no matter how much you spend, it won’t have been rolled in New Haven. But as you puff, you can still conjure up thoughts of the local history behind that stogie.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, featuring tobacco leaves from the Lost in New Haven collection, and 4 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2, 5 and 6, the latter featuring a patron at The Owl Shop, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 3, featuring Frederick Grave, provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum. This story was originally published on January 9, 2020.

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