Giant agriculture exhibition leads to creation of Ocala’s cigar industry

Ocala’s business leaders had great expectations for the future in the latter part of the 1880s and looked for a way to show the state – in fact, the whole southeast – that Ocala was on the march to become a flourishing commercial center.

The devastating fire of 1883 had pretty much destroyed downtown Ocala, but from that disaster a new city, already being called “the Brick City,” had sprung from the smoldering cinders.

A massive building was constructed on West Broadway at 11th Avenue in 1888 to house what was planned as "the greatest agricultural show in the Southeast," called the Sub-Tropical Exposition..

The “big gesture” that would signal Ocala’s arrival was nothing less than the Semi-Tropical Exposition, which would be advertised throughout the southeastern United States. It would be a gigantic county fair with statewide pretensions, and the word “international” crept into the advertising.

There would be a link-up with the Florida Southern Railroad to provide special excursion trains to “La Belle Ocala.” A mule-drawn street trolley would take visitors from the railroad station on North Magnolia to the exposition building.

The exposition would feature Florida agricultural products and highlight a variety of business enterprises. It would be presented in a multi-story frame building covering a block on the south side of West Broadway (now Silver Springs Boulevard) at what is now Southwest 11th Avenue.

The great hall became the scene of a grand ball and a variety of other entertainments. Outside, there were jousting tournaments with riders posing as knights of King Arthur’s time.

This costly enterprise was successful in its first year, in 1899, but the second year showed local supporters the exposition was at the end of its run. There would be county fairs each year in the future but on a smaller, less costly scale.

One of the popular exhibits during that first exhibition featured a group of skilled Cuban exiles rolling cigars, perhaps the only truly international element of the fair. The tobacco came mostly from Spanish-controlled Cuba, but locally grown tobacco was also a part of the exhibit.

Businessmen like Charles Rheinauer and bankers R.B. McConnell and John Dunn saw great potential for a cigar industry in Ocala and began to encourage it. Their enthusiasm marked the beginning of Marti City, the incorporated town adjacent to Ocala’s western boundary that flourished for several years as the hub of the local cigar industry.

With a $30,000 investment, Rheinauer and a half-dozen others formed the La Criola Cigar Manufacturing Company and constructed a two-story factory building and a brick warehouse in the heart of what was initially called Havanatown but became formally Marti City, named for Cuban patriot Jose Marti.

A foreman experienced with cigar making was hired to run the factory, which soon was turning out more than 25,000 cigars daily. Cubans were brought in to roll the cigars, and soon there were more than 100 on the payroll. The finished cigars were sold throughout the country.

After about a year of operation, Rheinauer told the Banner the La Criola cigars were making Ocala known throughout the country. He said a large western business had ordered 300,000 of the “La Belle Ocala” brand cigars.

Also, in 1891, the El Tropico Cigar Company moved into a new brick building in Marti City. It was operated by Charles Peyser, who had set up his first plant prior to the Semi-Tropical Exhibition.

Peyser claimed El Tropico was turning out nearly 50,000 cigars weekly and was having trouble keeping up with orders from all over the country. Like La Criola, Peyser was using imported Cuban tobacco as well as locally produced tobacco in his product.

After the cigar industry died in Marti City in the late 1890s, Peyser would move his operation to the back room of the downtown building where, as a one-man operation, he continued to produce cigars until the 1920s.

When the local cigar industry was in its infancy, Ocala had a population of less than 3,000. That figure had risen to over 4,500 in 1895, making Ocala the fifth largest city in Florida. The only cities with more people were Jacksonville, Pensacola, Tampa and Key West.

Economic disaster came with the big freezes of December 1894 and February 1896. The growth spurt was cut back drastically. Citrus production was the primary industry in Marion County, and it was literally destroyed by the freezes.

Both of Ocala’s banks were forced to close. They were the First National and John Dunn’s Merchants National. The freezes weren’t the sole cause. There also was a national economic depression, but in Ocala, the freezes got the blame.

The cigar factories, both large and small, began closing their doors, and the Cuban cigar-makers fled to Tampa, where the cigar industry still flourished. There no longer was any need for the trolley system that had hauled passengers and freight to and from the cigar factories.

By the end of the century, Marti City had become a ghost town. The Semi-Tropical Exhibition building was gone, too – lost to fire.


Leave a Reply