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Cigar

The Pepperberg Cigar factory on O Street is shown here from the Harris Overpass so only the upper two floors are obvious. Next door to the right or west is the old wholesale grocery building currently under restoration as condominiums.

The phrase “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar’s a smoke” has been attributed to both Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, but as early as 1862 Methodists in Nebraska condemned tobacco as “filthy, expensive and debilitating,” requiring prospective ministers in the state to denounce it.

Still, after the opening of the 20th century, Nebraska had well over 100 cigar manufacturers, many with only one or two employees, far from the source of tobacco farming with the closest being in Missouri. Even Lincoln, sometimes called a “Methodist Mecca,” was the site of a major cigar producer.

Julius Pepperberg was born in “Warsaw Russia Poland” in December of 1847 and as a young man, served a three-year apprenticeship, then a two-year stint as a journeyman in the cigar manufacturing business. In 1865 Pepperberg immigrated to the U. S. where he worked with a leading New York cigar manufacturer for 17 months then moved to Chicago where he joined John Hoof’s cigar factory on Randolph Street.

In January of 1869 he moved to Plattsmouth, which had been platted only 13 years earlier, and set up a small cigar making shop in a wooden building on Main Street. Although a man from Louisville, Kentucky, had opened a cigar making shop in Brownville, in 1858, Pepperberg’s shop was called the first cigar manufacturer in Nebraska, while another source said there were as many as 28 makers, some with only one or two employees, in the state.

In 1869, just as Pepperberg arrived, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad was granted the right to enter Nebraska and that July their groundbreaking was held in Plattsmouth. Thus, he was on hand as the city began an immediate period of great growth. Still, in 1872, Julius moved back to Chicago where he set up shop at 459 South State Street but two years later dissolved his partnership there and returned Plattsmouth. There, with $800 of capital he started business again and, in 1876, was elected to the city council. Within four years, while there were a dozen cigar makers in Nebraska, the Pepperberg Cigar Company reached production of half a million units in one year.

In 1882, with six to eight employees, the firm reported manufacturing 800,000 cigars using 12,301 pounds of leaf tobacco and was also active in the retail sales of both cigars and cigarettes in Plattsmouth, which also supported two additional cigar making firms. Pepperberg Cigar Company, still expanding, built a new two-story, brick building to the west at 525 Main St. An advertisement of that year promoted “Pepperberg’s Buds … the ideal five cent cigar.”

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Julius’ son Roy, who had been born in Plattsmouth and attended high school there, graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with a degree in geology in 1907. The following year Julius sold the Pepperberg Cigar operation in Plattsmouth to the Conis Cigar Company and, because he planned to begin making a 10-cent cigar, which he felt would be too expensive for Plattsmouth’s market, announced he was moving to Lincoln.

In 1907 a lot left empty by the previous cast-iron-fronted Lincoln Color & Paint Company building was purchased and Roy, though not trained as an architect, designed the new, extant, cigar manufacturing building, though the name was interestingly changed to the Pepperberg Segar Company. Six years later was perhaps the height of cigar making in Nebraska with 116 firms reportedly in business. Lincoln had three besides Pepperberg, Herminghous & Hellwig, Wohlenberg and G. R. Wolf & Co., Omaha had 12, Plattsmouth five with the supposed largest in the state being Evans-Bloom Company in Hastings, which was producing around 25 million cigars a year. Pepperberg then advertised themselves as the oldest such firm in Nebraska and said their cigars were “made of the finest Vueha Havana by the best handworkmen in the most sanitary and best equipped factory in the west.”

Julius died in September of 1926 while living in Dallas with his son Leon, who had become a well-known petroleum geologist, and was buried in Lincoln’s Wyuka Cemetery.

The Pepperberg firm continued in production with Joseph C. Orcutt, who had been a cigar retailer in Lincoln, as president when the company closed in 1930 leaving two cigar makers in Lincoln and the 815 O St. building vacant. As cigarette sales increased, cigar manufacturing waned and the building limped along vacant or used by various firms for storage. As the Historic Haymarket District developed, 815 O St. became a series of bar/restaurants with the upper floors occupied by offices or apartments and continues as such today under the ownership of U. S. Property.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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