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John Dengler Cigar Co. box

The John Dengler Cigar Co. was one of more than two dozen cigar makers in La Crosse nearly a century ago.

“John Dengler’s Capital for 5 cents is a gentleman’s smoke,” advertised the Daily Tribune.

Cigar making used to be a significant industry in La Crosse, and the town once was home to more than two dozen cigar factories.

Most of them were smaller-scale operations. The industry was practically eliminated by the late 1930s: Local factories couldn’t compete with the nationally advertised brands or keep up with change from handmade to machine-made cigars.

The average pay for a worker rolling cigars was about 70 cents for every 100 cigars.

One worker could usually hand roll 400 to 500 cigars in a day, though that was in an assembly-line model of production, with other people doing different parts of the manufacturing process such as breaking bunches, and dampening the rolled tobacco so the cigars wouldn’t dry and crack, as well as capping and storing them.

If a worker were to do the entirety of this process from beginning to end, a good roller could make about 100 to 150 cigars in a work day.

The history of the John Dengler Cigar Co. is very interestingly tied to the history of La Crosse.

John Dengler was born in Austria and came to the U.S. with his parents in 1856, when he was 7.

He entered the cigar manufacturing industry at age 11 and became a journeyman at age 15. He eventually became a foreman at the Pamperin Cigar Co, but he left with a number of other workers when they wanted to form a union. They formed the John Dengler Cigar Co., which was located on the southwest corner of Third and State streets.

Dengler was very involved in local politics and helped shape the growth of the city of La Crosse. During his two terms as mayor, from 1889 to 1891 and 1911 to 1913, he helped create a bridge from Wisconsin into Minnesota.

Dengler was on the police and fire commission for 14 years and served as the president of the Board of Trade. Somewhat like today’s Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Trade helped develop economic opportunities for La Crosse, and Dengler was a great booster of the young city.

This cigar box dates to the 1880s, when the many saloons in town sold only handmade cigars, and cigarettes had yet to make inroads into the business. It and other local cigar boxes can be seen in our online collections database.

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(1) comment


Amazing how a beat up old cigar box can be the starting point of a very nice part of the city's very rich and fascinating history. And it is instructive in these times to note that this fine gentleman was a child immigrant who came here as a 7-year-old who rose to become a successful businessman, union leader, mayor of the city and ran the police department. I am sure he and his family were scorned at some point for their language deficiencies, but with time he proved to be something much larger than others' pettiness.

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