Commercial cigar rolling in Florida dates as far back as the 1830s. Seeking to market authentic Cuban cigars in America, while avoiding high tariffs from Havana and Spanish trade restrictions, Samuel Seidenberg opened the first cigar factory in Key West in 1867.
Late 19th century cigar makers also found Jacksonville as an attractive location to process Havana tobacco. At the time, Jacksonville was the terminus of six railroads, home to a 24' deep river channel, and considered the gateway to Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba.
By 1895, the city had become home to 15 cigar manufacturing companies and thousands of Cuban immigrants. It's largest, Gabriel Hidalgo-Gato's El Modelo Cigar Manufacturing Company, employed 225 and produced 6 million stogies annually. Area cigar factory wages ranged from $9 to $35 per week, depending on the skill of the worker.
Other companies in Jacksonville included the J. Dzialynski, El Perfecto, M. Fritot, I. Hernandez, M. Hirschman, and H.R. Lohmeyer cigar factories. Most of Jacksonville's cigar makers were clustered into two areas within walking distance of Bay Street. East Bay in the vicinity of Liberty Street, and West Bay in the vicinity of Broad Street.
José Alejandro Huau, Hidalgo-Gato's brother-in-law, may have been the most popular cigar factory owner in town. Huau came to Jacksonville, finding a job with the Florida Central Railway in the early 1870s. Soon he was operating a small sawmill on Washington Street and a tobacco factory in partnership with his brother-in-law, Henry M. Fritot.
After buying out Fritot, Huau changed the factory's name to C.M. de Huau and Company, using his wife's initials, Catalina Miralles, and selecting "El Esmero" name for his cigar brand. Huau's factory occupied a three story building at 32-40 West Bay Street. With annual sales of $200,000, he employed 150 workers and his well-stocked cigar store at Bay and Pine (Main) Streets was said to be one of the finest in the city.
With the assistance of Huau, José Martí visited Jacksonville eight times between 1891 and 1898, stirring up enthusiasm and financial support for Cuba's freedom movement. Huau would go on to become a Jacksonville city councilmember.