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R.W. Drane Cigar Company: A Puff of History in Florence, Alabama


PART 1 of 3 in a special series about the life and business of R.W. Drane

Florence, Alabama boasts a vibrant past that extends beyond its river heritage and even its musical roots. One intriguing chapter in its history revolves around Robert Wesley (R.W.) Drane, who ignited a revolution in the South’s tobacco and cigar industry. Drane Cigar and Company was an establishment that left a memorable mark on the city's landscape during the early 20th century. Let's take a journey back in time and explore the fascinating story behind the rise and legacy of this once-prominent cigar enterprise.

Robert Wesley (R.W.) Drane

Born in Newbern, Tennessee in 1886, Robert Wesley Drane grew up. At the age of eighteen, Drane became  the editor of the Newbern Chronicle newspaper. Showing that at an extremely early age he was destined to become a successful businessman. He was editor for the newspaper for two years before moving to Florence. In December 1909, R.W. Drane arrived in Florence, embarking on a journey that would leave an impressive mark on the city's landscape. Initially involved in the retail tobacco, cigar, and cold drink business until 1920. Drane quickly became a prominent figure in Florence's vibrant business scene.

R.W. Drane Cigar company on Court Street in Florence AlabamaCultivating Craftsmanship in Cigar Making

The turning point came on March 6, 1914, when R.W. Drane opened a cigar making factory in his building that already housed his billiard room at 115 E Tennessee Street. Nestled in the second story of the Perlitius building (Perlitius was a local tailor at the time), Drane’s factory became the heart of cigar craftsmanship in the Shoals. With four dedicated cigar makers, the cigars produced were hailed for their exceptional quality, quickly gaining popularity in both retail and wholesale trade.

The momentum continued to build, and the company expanded. Solidifying their presence in the city's tobacco landscape. By August of 1914, R.W. Drane announced the opening of a wholesale cigar and tobacco house in the Dillard block on Seminary Street. This exclusive wholesale venture would be the first of its kind in Alabama north of Birmingham.

Cigar Innovations and Factory Expansion

In 1916, now located at 105 N. Court Street, the Drane Cigar Company became the only store in the area to utilize humidors, ensuring the preservation of their exquisite cigars. The business flourished, prompting Drane to purchase the interest of Thomas N. Smith’s wholesale cigar and tobacco business.

R.W. Drane Elk Cigar for Congressman AlmonEnter M.H. Guerro:

Soon, the Drane Cigar Company welcomed M.H. Guerro, an expert cigar maker who understood the art of his profession, having worked in some of the largest cigar factories in the United States. At the factory, Guerro originated the renowned "Elk" cigar giving Drane Cigar Company further acclaim as orders poured in. With Guerro managing the cigar-making department and contributing to the growth of the enterprise, the factory was at the top of it’s game.

Congressman Almon's Approval:

The quality of Drane's cigars reached Washington, D.C., earning praise from Congressman Ed. B. Almon. In a letter dated December 21, 1916, Almon expressed his appreciation for the cigars, attesting to their fine craftsmanship and acknowledging the surprising excellence emerging from the heart of Alabama.

Peak Production and Recognition:

By early 1917, the R.W. Drane cigar factory was in full operation, employing over twenty skilled cigar makers and producing over 56,000 cigars per year. R.W. Drane Cigar & Co. garnered attention not just locally but nationally, with their exceptional cigars finding buyers all over the country.

The Twilight Years

As the business peaked, R.W. Drane decided to transition out of cigar manufacturing. In 1919, he sold his wholesale cigar store, soda fountain, and pool room to brothers T.N. and B.J. Smith. The move allowed him to focus on the newly organized Drane and McFarland Supply Company, controlling concessionaires at Nitrate Plant No. 2.

The story of R.W. Drane’s cigar company is one of entrepreneurial spirit, innovation, and dedication. As we walk the streets of Florence today, the remnants of a once-thriving cigar empire linger in the air, a testament to a bygone era when the aroma of fine cigars wafted through the city, leaving an everlasting imprint on its history.