Cigarmaking Red Lion on top of York County

Photographer Paul Kuehnel shows how Shane Speal turns old cigar boxes, part of Red Lion’s cigarmaking heritage, into guitars.
Two interesting stats popped out in my reading about Red Lion this week. (When you speak to a Red Lion audience as I will do Thursday night, you better know your history because Red Lioners know their history.)
Red Lion earns honors with the highest elevation of any borough in York County. It’s 911 feet above sea level, beating neighboring Dallastown by 11 feet.
Stone Head, 3.5 miles southwest of Dillsburg, is the highest point in the county at 1,384 feet. The lowest is 109 feet above sea level at the Susquehanna River, at the Mason-Dixon Line, a long way from Dillsburg.
The elevation at the steps of the former York County Courthouse is 392.975.
OK, enough numbers.
A second point is that Red Lion was considered the capital of cigarmaking in York County at the turn of the 19th century. This was a robust countywide industry that produced 573 million cigars in 1920, 20 percent of all American-made cigars.


After World War I, cigarettes started gaining in popularity, and Red Lion’s — and York County’s — cigar factories started declining.
Still, cigarmaking in Red Lion remained strong for years, even in World War II. People simply did not stop smoking because of the war.
At the turn of the millenium, only one cigar factory operated in York County.
That was in Red Lion.
The York Daily Record story from 2004 on the last Red Lion’s factory follows:

Each day Jolene Jennings works, she continues a family tradition in an industry that once boomed but now has hit a slump.
She enters G.W. Van Slyke and Horton Cigar Manufacturers at 7 a.m. with clean hands, but that will change as tobacco darkens her fingertips and palms.
The shade is dictated by the jobs she completes that day.
After 23 years at the Red Lion business, Jennings can pretty much do it all — though she says the process isn’t as easy as it looks. Some days can be mentally challenging.
As a child, Jolene Jennings would visit her grandmother, Fern McSherry, at work rolling cigars for the business.
“I thought that was so cool,” Jennings said.
She graduated from Eastern York High School in 1977, and the cigar business seemed like a natural choice.
Her first real job was at the House of Windsor, where she learned the trade.
Two years after graduation, she married Michael Jennings and the couple had a son, Michael Jr.
When Jolene Jennings’ son was 11 months old, she wanted to go back to work. She looked for a position at G.W. Van Slyke and Horton Cigar Manufacturers, where her mother, Kay Hoffmaster, worked at the time.
The process of rolling cigars has changed little over the years and generations.
Harry Bortner, a mechanic at the business, said the machines used to make the cigars are from the 1940s.
Bortner’s mother, Ruth Bortner, made cigars for the company before she died at 84 in 1996. Harry Bortner said his mother had made cigars since she was about 12 years old.
During the early and mid-20th century, Red Lion had a thriving cigar manufacturing business. People would take the tobacco leaves to their homes to dry for manufacturing later, said Joe Jacobs, the business supervisor.
His father, Clark Jacobs, 92, bought the business name of G.W. Van Slyke and Horton Cigar Manufacturers about 50 years ago.
Despite the recent upswing of cigar smoking, business for Jacobs has chopped in half over the last 10 years.
Celebrities spotted smoking cigars are probably holding the higher-end hand-rolled cigar. G.W. Van Slyke and Horton Cigar Manufacturers targets the everyday cigar smoker. The business’ only hand-rolled cigar is sold as a novelty at tourist destinations, Joe Jacobs said.
Despite the numbers and the crackdown on smoking, Joe Jacobs is hopeful the market will improve.
He’s not concerned about the future.
As long as the business needs her, Jennings plans to stay.
On a recent Wednesday, Jennings sat down at a wrapping machine.
One by one, she unfolded tobacco leaves and placed them on an imprint on a large disc.
The leaf has to be laid the correct direction so the veins of the leaf don’t wrap around the cigar in what Jennings calls the “barber pole” effect.
The disc spins to the other side of the work area where a large metal object stamped out the pattern of the cigar wrapper. While the machine stamps, Jennings prepares another leaf on the metal.
Brrrr, clank, whiz, ping, hiss.
Brrrr, clank, whiz, ping, hiss.
The work has a rhythm.
The disc spins around while another part of the machine lifted the cutout wrapper and rolled it onto the cigar.
One by one the cigars rolled out of the machine, and Jennings gathered them to place in a wooden bin.
One bin equals 500 cigars. Filling a bin equals one punch on a card.
Jennings usually earns 11 to 12 punches each day — or makes 5,500 to 6,000 cigars.
On this job, she’s paid by the piece. In other jobs she receives a flat rate.
Sometimes the repetition lulls her into sleepiness. She uses those times to take her break and talk with Bortner who is quick to make jokes.
Jennings likes the people she works with and believes the atmosphere isn’t too stressful.
“I feel lucky to work here,” Jennings said. “I like it here.”

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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