by Nancy Duffy, photography by Phil Grout
Opening the door to 372 North Street is similar to stepping onto a preserved 1940s movie set. The dusty wooden floors creak with every step while the humidifier, sitting simply atop an old wooden stool, hums a steady low pitch, spewing a mist into the dimly lit room.
A wooden desk in the corner holds papers and parts equally important to the operations of the day. The deep smell of tobacco, the smell of work, immediately permeates every fiber of clothing. The stacked boxes, some askew, serve as an unofficial guide leading straight into the heart of America’s oldest family-operated and continuously-owned cigar factory.
This is not a movie set but home for Craig P. Smith, who is discovered trying to perform surgery on a beast of a machine in the middle of a large room.
“I’m the guy you’re looking for,” he said, turning around with an infectious, impish smile and an outstretched, tar-stained palm.
Smith has confidence only found in an owner-operator of the 153-year-old F.X. Smith’s Sons cigar factory in McSherrystown, PA that is on the verge of going global.
Blending in to Stand Out
Since 1863, when Craig’s great-great-great-grandfather, Francis Xavier Smith, moved the factory from Irishtown to its current location, only the finest cigars have been made from master blends of tobaccos and seven varieties of fillers.
“Everyone thinks Cuban cigars are the best,” says Craig, shaking his head, “but the best tobacco leaves come from Connecticut.”
The Constitution State’s tobacco leaves are of “superior quality” and it is just “something in the soil.” Growers have extracted the seeds from the tobacco leaves and tried replanting them in different locations with less-than-satisfactory results.
“We store 20,000 pounds of leaves from Connecticut to Indonesia, even Pennsylvania,” says Craig.
The tobacco leaves are transported in presses and boxes are lined and stacked like railroad cars throughout the various rooms in the lower level.
Craig reaches into a crate of prime Connecticut leaves, takes one out and shakes it. “See the sand come off of that?” he asks excitedly. He runs his hand over the leaf before replacing it to the box.
But it is more than just Connecticut leaves that go into F.X. Smith’s Sons cigars. It is science and passion that makes distributors and larger manufacturers take notice.
“It is all about the blend,” confirms Craig. Because he has been around the process his entire life, he “just knows” the perfect mix of tobaccos and fillers to make that “like-no-other” cigar.
Parts of a Process
With the factory in full swing, it is difficult to hear Craig over the inhaling and exhaling of the various machines that breathe life into this generational operation.
Like a proud father, Craig points to a Colton-Boyce from 1929, one of the “best machines,” roped off as if in a museum, but it is actually not in working order.
But it will be.
Working in the factory since he was just 4 years old and operating machines around ages 5 or 6, Craig knows everything about every machine in the factory let alone the cigar business.
At a cost of approximately $15,000-20,000 per machine, dating to the 1940s, plus an additional $30,000 to refurbish, it is important to have all parts on hand for all occasions.
“I have every part I could ever need in this place,” shares Craig. It is a matter of necessity because “one machine out of commission makes for a bad product.”
And there are no bad products coming out of F. X. Smith’s Sons cigar factory.
Connie Grau, a binder layer for 37 years, can attest to that.
Sitting at her pedal-controlled machine, she stretches a tobacco leaf over a template, removes the excess while the leaf is sent through a machine that actually makes the cigar.
Connie works on the left side of the machine and her colleague, Mary, works on the right side. Their tandem process guarantees that the seam goes straight down the middle of the cigar to ensure proper burning.
There is a distinct rhythm to the machine -to their work- that is hypnotic. It is not monotony, but perfection.
“We do make a perfect cigar,” proclaims Connie, “We know our job and we do our job.”
Craig walks over and picks a cigar fresh from the machine, examines it, and presses it between his thumb and forefinger to check for firmness. “See?” he asks, “Not spongey, just right.”
That Was Then
Craig learned the cigar business from the best: his dad and uncle. “Uncle Tom,” Craig recalls,” was laid back” while his dad was more “direct.”
Though he has fond memories of he and his dad driving machine parts around to other cigar factories in the area, his dad had high expectations.
“And so do I,” he states.
“My dad would show me once how to do something,” he says, “ and I had to learn it on that one showing.” With 50 employees, 16 machines, and 3 shifts producing 200,000 cigars a day, there wasn’t time to take time to teach, “you just had to do it.”
“All I know is how to do work,” explains Craig.
This is Now
Craig’s expertise has linked him to a new business opportunity with a company in the Dominican Republic that he feels is “simply necessary” for growth.
Having spent the majority of his life on North Street attending Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and growing up in the house next door to the factory, the opportunity to travel is a definite change in lifestyle.
Craig’s mom, “Grandma” to everyone, sits at her kitchen table in her home, which is everyone’s home, and employees walk freely in and out, coming just to visit on a lunch break or in need of some advice.
“I do miss working there,” she recalls, “I miss the people, but I am very proud of him.”
There is a lot to be proud for this fifth generation cigar maker.
“This is a throwback operation,” emphasizes Craig. “Either you get it or you don’t.”
Craig Smith certainly gets it.
For more information about the various cigar brands, styles, and pricing, go to fxsmithssons.com.