Guilderland Center’s cigar factory made ‘Grand Racket,’ ‘Little Gem,’ ‘Way Up’ — sold for five cents apiece

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Today it is difficult to conceive how popular a male activity cigar smoking was in the 1890s.

Modern drivers cruising through Guilderland Center could hardly imagine the long gray structure at 490 Route 146 was a once a thriving 19th-Century cigar factory.

Erected by John P. Bloomingdale, a Guilderland Center entrepreneur and builder responsible for the construction of several residential and commercial buildings in the hamlet during the 1880s and early 1890s, this one was specifically intended to be a cigar factory.

It was leased by George A. Hallenbeck whose cigar-making operation began there in April 1888 and continued until 1899 when he moved his business to Voorheesville.

Cigar-smoking among American’s male population grew increasingly popular during the second half of the 19th Century. President Ulysses S. Grant and Britain’s Prince of Wales as well as Gilded Age millionaires were pictured, cigar in hand, in the woodcut engravings featured in the widely circulated publications Harper’s Weekly or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Local farmers, craftsmen, and shopkeepers may have felt they, too, could acquire the same prestige and panache when they lit up a cigar. Several Albany-made cigars were regularly advertised by Dearstyne Bros. in The Altamont Enterprise. “Old Honesty” and “Pride of Knowersville” retailed for only five cents, but for a real splurge of 10 cents a fellow could puff away on “La Premiada.”

With the opening of the new factory, the Guilderland Center’s Enterprise columnist, most likely a male, commented, “We can throw away our pipes and smoke cigars.”

Cigar-making had begun in Albany as early as the 1790s. By the 1880s, there were at least 14 factories or cigar-making operations including one employing 200 people who produced 7 million cigars annually.


Hallenbeck’s operation

For whatever reason, Geo. A. Hallenbeck’s decision to open his factory out in the small hamlet of Guilderland Center could possibly have been due to factors of lower overhead costs, cheap labor, or the location on the recently opened West Shore Railroad.

Operations began in April 1888 and within a month Hallenbeck employed nine people. During the next year, the business prospered with “cigar orders coming in from all directions.

By then, the factory employed 12 people including John H. Mann and Henry Brust. In October, Ella Sherman of Catskill was added and Hallenbeck made it known that three more boys were wanted.

In August 1889, eight boys and seven girls labored rolling cigars. Usually the names of workers were not mentioned, although occasionally the Guilderland Center correspondent mentioned local names in the weekly Enterprise column.

Described as a stripper, Levi Martin’s job was to draw the leaves off of the tobacco stems and stack them in pads of 50. Then the wrappers had to be carefully cut to shape without wasting tobacco, filled and rolled with both hands to make a perfectly shaped cigar.

Late 19th-Century urban cigar factories were notorious as unhealthy, dusty sweatshops where workers were paid low wages for piece work, their earnings depending on the amount they could produce. It’s unknown what the wages, hours, or working conditions of Hallenbeck’s factory were, but with very few immigrants in Guilderland, it was likely local youths or those who commuted in from various communities along the West Shore Railroad were employed, probably happy for the opportunity to earn money even if  a meager amount.

An 1890 note in the Guilderland Center column described the factory as “one of the growing industries of this place.” When the column writer visited the factory, he found all busily engaged. According to this writer, Hallenbeck & Co. carried a stock of over 300,000 cigars on hand at all times. Employees were constantly busy filling orders.

Salesmen were on the road, seeking additional orders. In 1896, salesman Bert Hallenbeck reported that he had orders for 30,000 cigars within the past two weeks. These salesmen ranged far and wide, even out into the boondocks.

A lively sales trip occurred when Hallenbeck salesman D.J. Hutton “encountered a large bear which gave him a lively chase on his last trip north of Gloversville.” No word here about his sales!

In 1897, The Altamont Enterprise ran a special section with the title “Our Business Review,” featuring “The Men Who Keep the Engine of Progress in These Wide Awake Villages in Motion.” George A. Hallenbeck was of course one of these entrepreneurs whose factory was cited as an important component in the success of the cigar industry in Albany County.

Characterizing him as “an authority in the business,” using “only the finest tobacco for wrappers and fillers,” the writer noted that every cigar manufactured in his factory was of the highest quality, guaranteed to please any smoker.

Cigar lovers had the choice of several five-cent brands including “Grand Racket,” “Little Gem,” “Way Up,” and others unnamed. His 10-cent cigar, “The Resolution,” had a reputation with cigar smokers “as the best and purest made, being of delicious natural flavor and uniform excellence.”

The article claimed that ever-increasing numbers of tobacconists, druggists, and hotels were ordering Hallenbeck’s cigars and to meet demand he employed two salesmen who traveled throughout the state. At his factory, eight to 16 “hands” manufactured 75,000 to 150,000 cigars monthly.


Factory for sale

With the death of builder John P. Bloomingdale, his properties were put up for sale. Either because Hallenbeck had no desire to own the building outright or because he couldn’t afford to buy it, in 1898 a new cigar factory was being built for him in Voorheesville. By 1899, he was manufacturing cigars in his new location.

John P. Bloomingdale’s properties, including the “cigar factory” building (quotes in the original), were apparently sold at auction. Two bids were received for the empty factory, one from Mr. Griggs for $480, outbid by John Mann for $500.

A month later, the Guilderland Center correspondent reported that Mann had made over a portion of the building for his business and had “capacious and first class accommodations for serving the public in his professional line,” which was painting. His painting contracts were often mentioned in the Guilderland Center column.

In 1905, he converted the west section of the building into “a very pleasant tenement,” which he promptly had rented. Over the years, the building changed hands again and again and became strictly divided into residential units.

Over a century later, the building had seen better days, but in recent years it has been attractively updated and remains in residential use. If you are driving through Guilderland Center toward Altamont, look for the long gray building on your left, remembering that once several hundred thousand cigars were manufactured there.

Thomas Reimer
Joined: 05/05/2020 - 13:16
Albany County Organic Cigars?

It would be nice if there were more crafts blossoming in the area. We do have wineries, cheese-makers etc, but no local organic tobacco cigar makers yet. I am an occasional cigar-smoker and would love it.