Key Westers embracing cigar past

Key West is looking to go back to its cigar-making past.

Tuesday, the City Commission is expected to approve the construction of a replica cigar-makers' cottage at the Gato Village Pocket Park at 616 Louisa St. The goal is to preserve the historical function of the property and support the placement of art in public places.

The idea to create the replica came from Bruce Neff and his wife Patricia Madiedo, who is descended from the Gato cigar-making family. The Art in Public Places Board, the Historical Architecture Review Committee and the city's Building Department all have given their initial approval.

Eduardo H. Gato built his namesake cigar factory, now the home to various Monroe County administrative offices, in 1883. By 1885, Gato employed more than 40 cigar makers who, along with their families, were housed in an area called Bario de Gato, which surrounded the factory and is currently the site of First State Bank.

Neff said referring to the heyday of cigar making in Key West, "This part of history isn't represented, but it's a very important part of Key West."

Neff, who referred to cigar-makers' cottages as "the first workforce housing in Key West," noted that many Cubans today think only of Castro's Cuba and don't "think about a free Cuba."

Gato's cigar makers donated one day's wage per week to Key West-based fraternal societies and, according to Neff, "That money was funneled back to the revolution" being fought against Spain.

"They [Key West Cuban freedom-fighters] were really able to finance the revolution that overthrew Spain. In some ways, the cigar is directly related to Cuban freedom."

The project is estimated to cost around $9,000 and all of that is being funded through local contributions of money, services and materials. The final construct will be a facade; the windows and doors will not function.

The resolution to approve the construction is co-sponsored by commissioners Clayton Lopez and Teri Johnston. Lopez, who is paternally related to a Key West cigar maker, sees the project as a way of preserving Key West's history.

"That's what was on the property before," said Lopez, whose district encompasses the site. He feels the community should support the project "whether you're a patron of the arts or not."

Historical aspects notwithstanding, Johnston said, "One of the things I'd like to do in the town is bring some art back, really focusing on the uniqueness and character of Key West. It's a fun and worthwhile project."

Local contributors include Home Depot, Strunk's Ace Hardware, Page's Paint, Keys Energy Services and Toppino and Sons construction. This cottage, unlike its predecessors, will be capable of withstanding 155 mph winds.

There is still a funding gap of $4,000 and anyone who wants to contribute can stop by First State Bank and donate money into an account for the Gato Park Cigar Maker's Cottage Exhibit.

The City Commission meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Old City Hall on Greene Street.