Married at 16, Betty Fife was a teenage mother struggling to find work in the depths of the Great Depression.

Inexperienced and unskilled, she had few options, until hearing about the cigar factories in Red Lion. In August 1941, she walked into J.C. Winters and Co. and left with orders to show up for work the next day.

The 86-year-old Dallastown native can describe vivid details of her first day at the factory on Pine Street -- a stretch known as "cigar row" for its many tobacco processing plants.

She sat at a bench in packing. She combed through bundles of 50 cigars, looking for damaged ones and separating them into lighter and darker shaded stogies.

After her first few batches, an older man, who'd worked in the factory for years, checked her work and found a mistake.

"We have a left cigar here with the rights," Fife remembers him saying.

The man could tell by looking at the outside of the cigar whether it was wrapped with the left or right side of the tobacco leaf.

"And you didn't dare mix the left with the right," Fife said.

In between having two more children, she continued working in the factory until the 1950s when she started feeling ill at work. A doctor told her she had developed allergies to the tobacco.

"He said, 'Get out of the cigar factory,' " she recalled. "And you know I did. I quit and went to the ribbon mill in York, Century Ribbon mill. And you know, it got better, and yet I worked all them years in the tobacco, and I don't know if it was just coincidence that it went away then, or it really was from the tobacco."

...

Hear Nancy Larkin tell her story:   

My mother (Lilly-Mae Fogle) when I was a little girl would hand roll cigars for Harry Smeltzer. He had a little factory down below his home in the alleyway, down below West Broadway. Also, when I was a small child, I would be out front on our porch -- we lived on First Avenue -- and the cigar factories were in the back of us between First Avenue and Broadway, so the girls at lunchtime would come down past my home and I would talk to them and I learned to know a lot of the ladies who worked in the cigar factories. It was just a very important part of my childhood growing up because, like I said, I would go with my mother. My mother would roll the cigars in the evening, so I would go along with her up to the factory, and I would get the tobacco out for her, out of the bin, hand it to her, and she would hand roll it. So, that's some of my fondest memories.

-- Nancy Larkin, 65, of Lower Windsor Township
 

Hear Wayne Burg tell his story:   

My family was living on Keener Avenue in Red Lion during the big cigar manufacturing boom in that area. I had three aunts and my mother were all cigar rollers for Tom Smith, who had a two-story wooden building next to our home on Keener Avenue. Sometimes after school . . . I would stop into the factory, go up to the second floor and watch my mother roll cigars and my aunts also. They were getting, as I recall, just a few cents per cigar, and they would roll several hundred cigars per day. Cigars at that time were selling for 5 cents, 10 cents. Today, they're selling for $5 and $10. And I remember the smell of the factory. It was distinct and kind of enjoyable, even for a young man. . . . My mother was able to utilize both hands to roll. Many of the women were not able to do that, so she was able to make quite a bit of extra money in those days by having that dexterity, which a lot of the women did not have.

-- Wayne Burg, 72, Springettsbury Township

Hear Thomas Herr tell his story:   

I had to sweep out the dust on the factory machines and grease the machines (at T.E. Brooks in West York), and my dad would take us in there, me and my brother Dave. ... That was an experience. I would lube the machines until they ran good, then I would clean the machines, the tobacco dust with the vacuum cleaner, clean the office, and I just remember my dad smokin' a cigar in his '73 Chevy four-wheel drive that he bought at Turner Chevrolet. ... I remember him smokin' a cigar when we would come back from the factory at night when we got the job done.

Thomas Scott Herr, 48, Springettsbury Township

Hear Steven Hatterer tell his story:   

When I was about 10 ... I used to sell crab cakes and fish for a man down Mason Alley. ... I used to go to a place out on Poplar Street and Dewey Street in West York called T.E. Brooks cigar factory, and they were not allowed to have breaks back then. They worked constantly for their eight hours. Anything they needed was right there where they worked. . . . I went to a lot of different factories doing this job selling crab cakes and fish . . . all around York on my bicycle, but T.E. Brooks cigar factory always stands out to me because I (had) to go from person to person. Any of the other factories, they came to me during their break time, but this place here did not have a break. . . . That always stood out in my mind.

Steven A. Hatterer, 46, of York

I was raised one mile below Red Lion off Route 74. I very well remember the cigar factories in Red Lion. They had quite a few, but the thing that I remember mostly was we had a strike (in 1934), and a man was blinded during the strike (reportedly because tear gas was fired by police), and in 1935, he had a Ford coupe . . . and I bought that from him for $150. The man was from Windsor that was blinded. A friend of mine told me about this man that became blinded, and he had a Ford coupe, and I borrowed the money from my father and bought it.

Mildred Knisely, 92, Springettsbury Township

I lived in Red Lion area all my life, and my mother worked in the cigar factory -- that's the only job that she ever had. When she had three girls, and when we grew up, we all worked at the cigar factory, so it was a family affair. And my sisters would sit in the factory until school started, and when it was time for them to go to school, they would leave the factory and walk to school. ... It was a way of life for us. I worked in the cigar factory for two different places. I worked at J.C. Winters and I worked at Clark Jacobs, and it was full-time work for me. I also got my finger in the machine one time and had to go to the doctor, and it wasn't serious, but they had to stop the machine and get my finger out. It was scary at the time.

Nancy Mundis, 77, of Red Lion

Hear Flo Neff tell her story:   

I was raised in Dallastown, and we had a number of cigar factories in Dallastown, too. My great-uncle (John Peeler) had a factory of reasonable size, and I have great memories of going there to see my grandmother (Mary Baughman), who worked there. ... Some of the factories in Dallastown were affiliated with factories in Red Lion and vice versa. I remember that people stripped tobacco in their pantries, and it was a quite an enterprising thing.

Flo Neff, 84, of Red Lion

ABOUT THIS SERIES

The Remember series is a monthly feature that challenges readers to remember poignant moments in personal, local and national history. Each month, we're asking readers to share their memories on different topics. From those who call, we'll select one to video and post audio files of the other memories online.

So far this year we've looked at:

STRIKE OF 1934

The transition from hand-rolled cigar-making undertaken in backyard sheds to the installation of machines in company-owned factories is marked by a clash between striking workers and sheriff's deputies. Workers on strike for four weeks try to stop the shipment of finished cigars from the T.E. Brooks factory on Pine Street near Main. Workers contend that deputies fired tear gas into the faces of workers to try to open the road. About 20 people are injured in the riot, including several women who are knocked to the street and trampled. "However, when it came to the physical fighting in Red Lion in 1934," a Red Lion history states, "the women were in the forefront, taking the tear gas and billy clubs in perfect equality. "

-- from "Never to be Forgotten" by York Daily Record/Sunday New editor Jim McClure

CIGAR HISTORY

What started as a York County cottage industry expanded into an important part of the area's pre-World War II economy.

York County manufactured more cigars than any other county in Pennsylvania, which was one of the three largest cigar-producing states in the country in the early 1900s. Adams County ranked sixth in the state.

In 1920, York County made more than 500 million cigars a year, about 20 percent of all U.S. cigars, according to York County Heritage Trust archives. Cigar rolling started in people's homes with the whole family contributing.

"It was a type of manufacturing you could do in your garage, your basement, your barn and everyone could contribute to the family income by doing some part of the cigar production," said Shirley Keeports, curator of the Red Lion Area Historical Society Museum.

Red Lion became the epicenter of the cigar boom with nearly 200 cigar producers by the turn of the century, but dozens of other operations sprouted throughout the county in Hanover, East Prospect, Felton and Dallastown, according to Heritage Trust archives.

The cigar industry faded in the decades following World War II as cigarettes became more popular, and the remaining factories employed fewer people as the process became more automated. But small family operations exist in Red Lion and McSherrystown, Adams County, and Red Lion pays homage to its tobacco-processing history by raising a cigar at midnight on New Year's Eve.