Plattsburgh, from the 1860s through to the Second World War, was a manufacturing center for the 5 cent cigar. The smell of a quality cigar could be detected walking down Margaret Street between Court and Broad Streets. What began with small businesses in the late 1860s, turned into a major cigar manufacturing industry for the City of Plattsburgh thanks to the Scheier, Mendelsohn, Levy, Merkel and Payette families, to name a few.
The handmade cigar industry in Plattsburgh employed dozens of workers and produced thousands of cigars.
Newspaper reports and research by the late Clinton County Historical Association President Dr. Allan Everest opens the door to a different time when trains brought dried and cured bundles of tobacco that required significant storage space for the Plattsburgh cigar maker. The components of a quality cigar were the wrapper, a filler and an outside binder leaf, then sealed with paste or saliva. Tools included a chaveta, a cutting board, tragacanth paste, a paste cup, a cigar cutter and a cigar mold.
Isaias Scheier (1836-1915) was one of the earliest cigar makers in town. His business is first advertised in 1863 and continued into the early 1900s. His establishment was next to the Cumberland Hotel in what was known as the Scheier Building. When the Cumberland burned in 1978, this building was severely damaged too.
Isaias had two sons, Solomon and Henry, who continued on with the manufacture of cigars. Solomon initially worked with his father under the name of Scheier & Son but eventually he branched out. His business was the Park Cigar Store at 16 Brinkerhoff, a building that preceded the one there now. Henry too began with his father in the Scheier Building but also left to start his own business, The Ingleside. Henry employed up to 15 workers and produced about 650,000 cigars a year.
No story of the Plattsburgh cigar industry can be told without reference to the Levy Brothers, William and Marcus, along with Julius Mendelsohn. The Levys opened their business on Margaret Street in 1882. They needed all three floors of their building plus the basement to store the tobacco required to produce 1 million cigars a year.
They continued in the cigar business until after World War Two. Julius Mendelson began working with Isaias Scheier but started on his own in 1892. The Mendelsohn business became the Payette Mendelsohn & Co. operation and was reported to have produced 1.2 million cigars a year, employed up to 40 people and continued in business into the 1940s, even after Julius’ death in 1934.
As these businesses developed, so did the machinery required to make the process easier and faster. While Julius was alive, he often operated at a loss, still making cigars by hand, because he insisted on keeping the employees who had been with him for years.
The newspapers reported that most of our local cigar manufacturers were associated with the Cigar Makers’ Union which in the early 1900s was reported by the Plattsburgh Sentinel to be the strongest national labor organization in America. The union supported sanitary manufacturing conditions and the importance of selling union-made cigars.
As the Great Depression hit and smoking habits changed, and cigar making became more mechanized, local cigar makers were fewer and fewer and after 75 years, Plattsburgh no longer was known for its handmade cigars. The skill of making a cigar was recognized in obituaries for years to come.
Photo: A Plattsburgh cigar box cover from the Clinton Historical Society’s collections.