100 Years Ago: July 1920
This is the Sixty-sixth installment in my series of recaps of National Geographic magazines that are marking their one hundredth anniversaries of publication.
The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “Cuba – The Sugar Mill of the Antilles” and was written by William Joseph Showalter, the author of such articles as “Exploring the Glories of the Firmament” and “Massachusetts – Beehive of Industry”. The article contains twenty-four black-and-white photographs of which nine are full-page in size. The article also contains a full-page sketch map of Cuba on page 4 with an inset comparing Cuba to the northeastern United States.
Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
For long generations the Spanish sought a land of gold and jewels in the New World. Ill-advised colonial policies deprived Spain of such a land in Cuba. When first seen, Christopher Columbus said it was the fairest land he had ever seen. It had become a land of millionaires. Just as steel had created Pittsburgh’s wealth, sugar had flowed out of Cuba and the money had poured in, for the world had developed a sweet tooth. In 1920, the production of sugar had doubled and the price quadrupled since 1912. The cane produced in a year would be enough to build a wall around the entire two-thousand-mile-long coastline of the island, as high as a house and eight feet thick. The amount of sugar extracted from that cane could fill twelve hundred steamers, or create two piles, each out-basing and overtopping the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
Sugar was not the only source of Cuban wealth. Wherever around the globe men dined well, Havana cigars followed the coffee. The demand had never been greater for a fine cigar. In spite of the fact that the war had left many countries impoverished, the number of people who insisted on Havana cigars and the number of cigars they smoked had increased at a prodigious rate. Every factory in Cuba was forced to scale its orders. One Havana corporation received an order for fifty million cigars. It could only deliver twenty million. Cuban factories had so many unfilled orders that they could run a full year without any new business.
Few people appreciated the dimensions or area of Cuba. If the island was placed over the eastern U. S. [See Map Inset], it would stretch from New York City to Chicago, spanning New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. While the island was long, it was only sixty miles wide on average, and no place on the island was more than fifty miles from the open sea. Its area was roughly equal to Pennsylvania, and its population equivalent to that of Georgia. Cuba was a land of enchantment. One approached the island through a sapphire sea. Its northern shores were washed by the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side and the Gulf of Mexico on the western. Its southern coast was laved by the beautiful waters of the Caribbean Sea. Both shores were fringed with a myriad of idyllic islands.
No other land in the New World possessed proportionately such numerous and wonderful bays. Most of them were distinguished by their bottlenecked entrances, vast areas of water surrounded by land, except for narrow channels to the sea. An example of these splendidly sheltered harbors was Nipe Bay, on the northeastern coast. It was said to be the third largest harbor in the world. Likewise, at Santiago, the narrow channel seemed clogged with islets, but once past them the bay was broad and charming. The scenery of Cuba was varied, with scenes of unrivalled beauty. The low country was begemmed by valleys with avenues of palms. The mountain scenery rivaled the Andes and the Rockies. The Vinales Valley had been pronounced one of the finest between Alaska and Panama. In many places the mountains were a veritable jumble of weird and fantastic shapes.
Mr. Showalter next touches briefly on Cuba’s past. The tales of buccaneers, pirates, and privateers on the Spanish Main almost all have a Cuban end, or a Cuban counterpart. The rural population of Cuba suffered under the iron hand Weylerism, being place in concentration camps, and with starvation stalking every household. Outside of Havana Harbor lied the shivered hulk of the battleship Maine, whose destruction “brought the banner of forty-five stars to the side of the flag with one”. Along the southeastern shore were strewn the wreaks of that Spanish Armada whose defeat on July, 4, 1898, made Cuba Libre a reality.
Almost every person who visited Cuba to escape the cold and snow of the north landed in Havana, and a comparatively few got more than twenty miles from the city’s central park. More people lived in Havana than in all of the other cities and towns of the Republic that had more than 4,000 population. Santiago was the second largest city, with a population only one-tenth of Havana’s. All of the big businesses had their headquarters located in Havana, and some of the banks had built skyscrapers. As half the urban population is centered in Havana, so also was half of its shipping. Havana handled a greater foreign tonnage than any other port in the Western Hemisphere except New York.
Most of Cuba’s wealthy families had Havana homes. During the most recent four years the net profits of sugar exceeded the profits of any other four-year period in the island’s history. The result was that probably no other city in the world had proportionately as large a wealthy population as Havana. That population was still growing. The dollar was cheaper in Cuba than it was in the U. S. Thousands of acres of land were being laid out in residence sites, and the Vedado district was being extended greatly. There were no advertising signs on those lots. But a motorist would see along the side of the road inconspicuous little boards, about a foot long and a half a foot wide, bearing the legend in Spanish “Sold to Mr. So and So”. Mr. So and So was usually some rich Cuban who had made a fortune out of sugar down in the provinces, or an American who liked to be near the country clubs, and where cocktails were still legal. The price of these lots was from $43,000 to $130,000 per acre, or $1 to $3 per square foot.
When high prices hit the residents of Havana, they would pass it on to the tourists. Hotels were always the advanced guard of this price climb. There was only one hotel in Havana that gave anything like the American standard of service. Its rates during the past season were $25 a day for an outside room with bath, without meals. It was unable to maintain a full house with those rates. The other hotels charged rates of $6 to $12 for accommodations far from as good as one got from $3 to $6 in New York. The result was tourists who had planned on a vacation of a week to ten days had to leave early. The average stay was four days. The hope was that saner prices would be made for next season. The Cuban National Tourist Association was working to lay a solid foundation for the development of a healthy, growing tourist traffic. Under the association’s plan, every room opened to tourist was to be listed as long as it met sanitary and moral standards. The price of all rooms would be listed, and every effort would be made to ensure the adherence to sound business and fair dealings.
Arrangements had been completed, and work started on the building of several large dirigible airships for the purpose of operating a passenger airline, with a daily schedule, between Miami and Havana, a distance of about 300 miles. That distance would be covered in about six hours. The big blimps would have seating for thirty to fifty passengers, not counting crew. Thousands of visitors had been carried to Havana on a small steamer, and it was expected that the “Blimp Route” would prove to be exceedingly popular. It was difficult for a tourist to go out into the provinces. The day trains had no parlor cars and the coaches were overcrowded. The Havana-Santiago express took 35 hours to travel the 538-mile distance.
Next season some of the railroads intended to install parlor cars on the day trains, dining cars might be added, and the running time of the principal passenger trains reduced. In order to provide accommodations outside of Havana, some of the railroad were buying hotels in the provinces with plans to bring them up to satisfactory standards. When those improvements were instituted and English-speaking conductors or interpreters were placed on the tourist-carrying trains, it would be possible to visit the island in a more leisurely fashion, to Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, and Santiago. From Santiago, one could go to Antilla and take a steamer either to New York or New Orleans. Such a trip gave a splendid view of the island, and afforded a better understanding of the country.
Cuba was a demonstration where the theories of international altruism were under practical operation. When the United States took up the burden of winning for the people of the island their independence, and set them up with a republican form of government, the world was amazed. Asking only that peace be maintained, he U. S. retired from the island. Only when Jose Miguel Gomez’s attempt to overthrow the government, in 1917, did Uncle Sam quickly end the revolution. Peace had been maintained since, and constitutional principles had been observed.
The check on revolutions and tyranny, along with the guarantee of protection for foreign investments, had proved a boon to the Cuban people. Even though Guatemala was larger than Cuba with roughly the same population, Cuba’s exports were worth 35 times those of Guatemala in 1918. Venezuela had nine times the area, yet its exports were worth only one-fifteenth that of Cuba. In fact, Cuba’s 1918 exports were worth twice that of those of Mexico and Central America combined. Less than three million on less than fifty thousand square miles had twice the trade of twenty million people on nearly a million square miles of territory. And the value of Cuba’s trade in 1918 was only half of the projected value of its 1920 exports.
There was no better measure of prosperity, or such a tribute to enduring peace. The author had visited every country that touched the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and studied firsthand the people and natural resources of Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and the countries of northern South America. He could not escape the conclusion that much, if not most, of Cuba’s prosperity compared to its neighbors was due to being an American protectorate and the blessing of stable government and a freedom from the stalking specter of devastating revolution.
Mr. Showalter regretted that there was little travel between Cuba and Porto Rico [Puerto Rico]. He envisioned a trip from Havana to Santiago, and then on to Santo Domingo [Dominican Republic], and thence to Porto Rico. In such a trip one could have seen in a single six-week tour the three stages of Latin American development under the touch of the United States. Santo Domingo was a land that long had been revolution-torn. Only recently had it been compelled to travel the path of peace. Its soil was as rich as that of Cuba, its people were not dissimilar, but perennial revolution prevented its development. When one got to Porto Rico one found a prosperity as great as that of Cuba, with better general education. Everything possible was being done to bring the people of Porto Rico up to the standard of living, habits of thought, and freedom from disease as was in our own country. The author’s past National Geographic articles, “The Countries of the Caribbean”, February 1913, and “The Wards of the United States”, August 1916, highlighted the contrast in the progress made by Cuba and Porto Rico with that made by the other tropical American lands.
There were many things of interest for the American tourist in Havana, besides the weather during our winter. Many reports listed the drinking emporiums due to prohibition in the States, but the author saw relatively few Americans drinking and met none that were intoxicated. The locals drank, but the Cuban whiskey glass held little more than a thimble, so the standard drink was barely more than a sip, and little drunkenness resulted. Probably no city had solved the problem of cheap transportation better than Havana. Eight thousand Ford automobiles operated within an area whose radius was a little greater than one mile and carried one or two persons between any two points in that area for 20 cents.
These cars looked different from the familiar types one saw in the U. S., for they had passed through the hands of Cuban upholsterers before going into commission. The cars were completely transformed and made luxurious. The tin and imitation leather of the dashboard, seats, and body gave place to mahogany for the dash, whipcord for the body upholstery, fancy carpet for the floor, and rainbow hued leather for seats. In a single car one saw five or six different shades of leather. It may have looked a little overdone to the staid citizen of the North, but it was an optical feast to the riding public of Havana. There were no speed laws in Havana, and the author was impressed how adeptly the chauffeurs rushed back and forth, starting and stopping quickly, and swerving this way and that. The National Police Department distributed for free a little booklet of taxi information.
The masses of Cuba were lovers of chance and Lotteries were everywhere. It seemed to Mr. Showalter that everyone was trying to sell him a ticket – a little girl of eight to help her widowed mother, an old woman of eighty so she can get a bite to eat, the elevator boy in the hotel, and the shoe shiner in the barbershop. Every city and town in Cuba had a cock-pit, and some of them had several. Sunday was a busy day for the roosters and their backers. Jai alai, which had been transplanted to Cuba from Spain was a popular professional sport. The author explained it by comparing and contrasting it to tennis. The jai alai matches were very exciting with all the spectators shouting and no one sitting except during intermission. Havana had some of the largest clubs in the world. There were no more clannish folk anywhere than the people from several province from Spain. Those from Galicia had their club, those from Asturias had theirs, and so on. The Centro Gallego had 43,000 members, while the Centro Asturiano had 36,000. The Clerks’ Club had a membership of 30,000. The dues for each club were $1.50 per month, and each maintained its own hospital and sanitarium.
Cuba had six provinces, the largest, Oriente, had an area somewhat larger than the State of Maryland, and the smallest, Havana, was slightly larger than Delaware. Each was different from the other five. The westernmost province was Pinar del Rio. It produced less sugar than the other provinces, and therefore it was less prosperous, even though it did produce the finest tobacco in the world. Its towns were thoroughly Latin, and the country districts, except for an occasional tobacco plantation and a few sugar centrals, were given over to a black and mulatto population living in thatch-roofed shacks. The animal life of Pinar del Rio consisted largely of dogs, chickens, pigs, ponies, and goats, listed here in order of numbers. Dogs were everywhere, big and small, lean and fat, but all were lazy. Each shack had a few chickens. There were many pigs, each anchored to a peg by a rope tied around the porker’s body. The horses were between the Texas and the Shetland pony in size. Even though there were two corn crops per year in Pinar del Rio, the ponies saw none, and had to live off of the grass within their tethers’ reach. Milk producing goats were the cows of the province.
Havana province was more prosperous, looked half American, and seemed like southern Florida and cane-growing Louisiana in one. Crossing into Matanzas Province, one gets deep into the sugar belt. Vast, flat areas were covered in sugar cane. On every horizon the green of the cane met the blue of the sky, with a huge sugar central – a sugar mill with radiating railroad – in every landscape. Santa Clara Province was next to the east, and as one travelled eastward the sugar industry gradually yielded to the cattle-growing business, which in turn reached its high tide in Camaguey. The latter province had wonderful guinea-grass and other pastures for the cattle to graze. Camaguey was a little larger than Vermont, while Santa Clara was about the same size as New Hampshire.
Orientale was the Texas of Cuba, the largest and newest of the bonanza lands on the island. A few years prior it was thought that the soil of Orientale was unfit for sugar-growth, but when the article was written it had become the largest producer of sugar and it had not reached its full potential. The largest centrals on the whole island were located there. Cuba’s principle iron deposits were also in Orientale. At Daiquiri, on the south coast, was a veritable mountain of hematite ore. Under the sway of the American steam-shovel it had been terraced until it seemed a vast pyramid. On the north coast were large deposits of ore-bearing mud, which, when sufficient drying facilities were installed, promised to yield millions of tons right at deep water. Cuba ore would compete with those of Minnesota and Michigan at eastern furnaces in the years to come.
Cuba was experimenting with teaching English and other subjects in English. This was being done due to the realization, by many forward-looking Cubans, that Spanish was no longer the chief language of commerce. The inability of the people to speak English was a barrier to progress, since most of the business of the Republic was done with English-speaking people. The author visited one of these schools. He was both amazed and inspired by the teacher and her techniques. The teacher was a young woman of Cuban extraction, born and educated in New York. She was a born instructor. Her class was comprised of twenty Cuban boys. Under such a teacher, learning English was plainly a joy to the pupils. There was a need for more teachers to continue and expand this work.
Even in normal years, sugar was the principle source of wealth in Cuba. But with the restraints of “price-fixing” regulations removed, 1920 was destined to outdo any other year in the history of the industry. Sugar cane was grown by three classes of planters in Cuba. The major part of the crop was grown by share farmers, or “colonos”. The owners of the sugar mills furnished them with land and gave them an agreed share of the sugar they produce. The next class was composed of land-owning farmers, who grew their own cane and ground it in rural grist-mills. The remainder of the cane was grown by the owners of the mills themselves. The percentage of cane grown under “central” management varied among sugar mills from as low as 4% to as much as 90%.
At pre-war prices, even the share farmer made money. When sugar was selling at 2.62 cents a pound, his share of sugar brought him from $46 to $51 per acre. The return to the planter who owned his land was from $56 to &61 per acre. The price of sugar in 1920 was four to six times as high as it was before the war. Because the soil was so deep and fertile, once a field was planted it could be harvested for ten years without reseeding. And after the first season, the blades stripped from one crop formed the mulch that kept weeds from competing with the next one. Mr. Showalter fantasized about American farmers planting corn once and getting ten crops without having to plow nine of them to keep down weeds. Another reason for the low cost of producing sugar was the oxen. The ox-cart was the primary means of transporting the cane. Oxen lived from six to ten months a year on the harvested stalks, and the remainder of the year on guinea-grass. The author imagined American farm animals not requiring a pound of grain to feed them.
The earnings quoted above, reflect a modest rate of twelve sacks of sugar per acre. A great deal of cane land produced much more sugar, as much as 22 bags to the acre. This, at 15 cents a pound, brought a gross return of more than $1,000 an acre. These conditions had brought about a boom in sugar land. One sugar estate worth $3,000,000 three years prior sold for $9,500,000. Another valued at $6,000,000 a few years prior sold for $15,000,000. Numerous new “centrals” were being built, as well as other projects. Thousands of American capitalists were investing in these flourishing enterprises. The author thought that the famine scale of prices of 1920 would not continue. As soon as Europe started harvesting sugar beets again, the price levels were due to fall. Many warnings had been voiced about sugar being the sole source of Cuba’s wealth; too many eggs in one basket and such. But Cubans believed in making hay while the sun shined. The bottom line was that in 1915 Cuba’s sugar crop brought in less than two hundred million dollars while in 1920 it was expected to earn over a billion dollars.
Mr. Shotwell next covers the history of sugar cane. He thought of it as a “romance of modern industry”. Sugar first came to the western world when traders from India brought to England a substance of amazing sweetness, which the Londoners called “Indian salt”. It was so pleasing to the western palate that the plant from which it was made was brought out of Bengal and cultivated around the world. For centuries it was propagated by planting short pieces of the stalk in furrows and covering them. This bred out the ability for the plant to go to seed. One day an English physician living on the island of Trinidad told a sugar planter that the grass-like plants coming up here and there in the cane fields were the result of some of the cane setting to seed. From that little observation, improved varieties had been bred and planted throughout the world. At the author’s time, billions of pounds of sugar were being supplied to man that, under other conditions, could not have been produced.
Cuba had an advantage over every other country in producing sugar cheaply. Most countries had to plant every two years and some of them every season, but the average in Cuba was once in from seven to twelve years. In most parts of the island the harvesting season was from December to June; but in some sections it was from December 1 to October 1. Each month of the grinding season produced its own crop of mature cane. In one field a planter would have a new crop sprouting; next to it he would have another crop half grown; and beyond that field he would have a third crop fully grown and ready for harvesting.
In harvesting, the cane-cutters first stripped the blades from the stalk. They would then cut of the top of the stalk, which was used for replanting and contain very little sugar. The sap of the growing plant had little sugar, but the in mature stalk was rich in sucrose. The plant was able to convert glucose into sucrose, a feat that man could not accomplish. The main body of the stalk was cut down and loaded onto ox-carts. The cane was then hauled to a field station where it was loaded onto cars. Each car contained twenty tons of cane and each train had thirty cars. That made six hundred tons of cane to the trainload, and it took eight to ten trainloads a day to keep one of the bigger centrals in continuous operation. The big United Fruit central, at Preston, required the crop from 250 acres every day to keep busy.
When the cane reached the mill the cars were run, one by one, into a cradle and made fast. The cradle rocked to one side and dumped the cane into a deep trench with a steel belt at the bottom. The belt carried the cane up to the crushing rolls which disrupted the sap cells and released a great stream of foamy juice. Then the crushed cane was sent through a set of rollers, each time under heavier pressure. The last set of rollers might have exerted a pressure of a million pounds. Finally, the crushed cane, or “bagasse”, was almost as dry as tinder. It was carried by conveyors to the fire-boxes of the boilers, where it was used as fuel in generating the steam that drove the mills and boiled the cane juice. The stream of crushed cane came out of the last set of rollers at a speed of seven miles a day. The gears that transmitted power from the engines to the rolls were fourteen feet in diameter.
After the juice was pressed out of the cane it was thoroughly strained and pumped into big tanks at the top of the building, where a milk-of-lime solution, or whitewash, was added. The mixture was then heated to one degree above boiling. The lime neutralized the acid in the juice and bonded with some of the foreign substances. These fell out as sediment; thus, lime played the same role of purifier in the making of sugar as it did in the making of iron. The heat caused other impurities to rise to the surface as scum. When the preliminary process was complete, there was a top layer of froth, a middle layer of clear juice, and a bottom layer of mud-like solid material. The clear juice was drawn off and passed through filters. It was then pumped to the evaporators, where about half the water was boiled out of it.
In most modern factories there was a chain of four evaporators working together. Using the fact that the lighter the air pressure, the lower the temperature at which liquids boil, by means of air pumps these evaporators extracted as much water as possible using the least amount of heat. The steam that boils the juice in the first evaporator had a temperature of 215 degrees Fahrenheit. As that steam cools it is passed through the coils of the second evaporator where the juice boiled at 203 degrees. This process continued with the third evaporator’s juice boiling at 180 degrees, and the last evaporator, running in a virtual vacuum, having its juice boil off at 150 degrees. By this arrangement the juice was boiled to the proper consistency with only one-fourth of the heat otherwise required.
The next step in making sugar was to draw the thick juice into vacuum pans. There it came into contact with hot steam coils and boils at a very low temperature due to the low atmospheric pressure. As it boiled, small grains of crystals began to form. The man in charge of vacuum pan, the “sugar master”, would from time to time add fresh juice. The pan eventually filled with sugar and mother syrup. The sugar and adhering syrup were then removed and placed in a centrifuge and separated. Placed in a perforated basket, the mixture was spun until all of the syrup had been forced through the perforations while the sugar crystals remained behind. The syrup was boiled again, went to a crystallizer, then back to the centrifuge. This process was repeated until all the sweetness had been extracted and the remaining liquid was the “blackstrap” molasses of commerce. The methods of making sugar were based on the fact that water could only hold a given amount of sucrose in solution. As the water evaporated, the sucrose had nowhere to go, so it crystallized. A ton of sugar cane yielded 4½ gallons of blackstrap molasses. One could appreciate the scope of the sugar industry that each day there were loaded a dozen trains of forty tanker cars each filled to the dome with blackstrap.
One instrument, the polariscope, was essential to the management of sugar production. It showed which fields produced cane rich in sugar; whether a mill was extracting the proper amount of juice from the cane; if that juice was yielding up its proper amount of first-grade sugar; If any sugar remained unextracted in the blackstrap; and if the sugar was pure enough for export. The mill manger relied on the polariscope for the answers to those questions, and the chemists using the instrument never failed to return those answers, fully and convincingly. The polariscope operated by means of polarized light. Lens were made which only allow light with one polarization, [much like our 3-D glasses]. Different materials would rotate polarized light to the left or the right. Sugar rotated that light to the left. By first polarizing light and then passing it through the solution being tested, the operator looked into an eyepiece and saw a distinct shadow on the lens. He turned a thumbscrew until the shadow disappeared, and then looked to see where the pointer rested on the scale. Its position was the polariscopes answer to the question asked.
After sugar came from the centrifuges it went to the bagging-room, where it was put into bags that held 325 pounds each. These were hauled in trainloads to the dock and shipped to the U. S. where big refineries removed the impurities and transformed the sugar from dirty yellow to immaculate white. The author’s visit to the big plantation at Preston was an impressive experience. It was a small empire within itself, having its own railroad, police department, hospital, and fire department. It covered 280 square miles, possessed a population of nearly ten thousand, and had nearly twelve hundred buildings. Its railroad system had 121 miles of standard-gauge track, 25 locomotives, and nearly 800 railroad cars. About 5,000 oxen were required to haul the cane to the railroad sidings. Adjoining Preston was the Boston plantation, owned by the same company, and together they constituted the largest compact sugar property in the world.
Sugar was supreme at the eastern end of the island, but tobacco held the top position at the western end. Pinar del Rio tobacco soothed the nerves of men of affairs the world over. There were all kinds of tobacco-growers, from the rich “veguero”, with scores of acres of the finest Vuelta Abajo wrapper, grown under cheese-cloth, to the poor thatched-hut dweller, with his little patch that produced nothing but cheap filler. Profits in growing tobacco were proportionate to the care expended in its cultivation. The poor denizen of the low county may have gotten $50 out of his acre, while the rich “vega” of the rolling uplands region may have brought its owner $5,000 an acre. The finest tobacco lands in Pinar del Rio were on the south side of the range of mountains that extended through the province from east to west, midway between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It was a well-watered, rolling country, full of natural beauty and possessing a mild climate.
In growing Vuelta Abajo tobacco, seed was taken from the first growth of strong and sturdy plants and placed in plots of virgin soil near the fields. When the seedlings reached a proper size, they were transplanted in the fields. Fertilizer was selected by chemical analysis of the soil and the tobacco whose flavor it was desired to reproduce. A mulch of two to three inches of hay was put over the ground to keep gown weeds and to serve as plant food. The tobacco was cut when it reached the proper degree of ripeness. Green tobacco produced a harsh, acrid smoke; over-ripe tobacco did not work up well in making the cigars; but tobacco which the sun had “cooked to a turn” produced a mild, smooth, cool, and fragrant smoke.
In curing, the leaves were suspended on poles which were put in racks, first in the sun and then in curing barns for several weeks. Their color changed from the green of the growing plant to the brown of the finished cigar. When that stage of the curing process was completed the leaves are put in heaps and left to “sweat” for several days. After that they were placed in bales of about 100 pounds each and shipped to a storage warehouse. There they fermented and underwent further curing. That process continued from one to two years, according to the grade of the leaves, before they were regarded as fit to be rolled into cigars. From storage the tobacco went to the cigar factory. There the bales were opened up and sprayed with clear water and allowed to stand until each leave becomes moist and pliable. After that the leaves intended for filler were placed in hogsheads for further curing, which required two to six weeks depending on the grade of tobacco. The wrapper leaves were selected with great care. The cheese-cloth under which they grew kept out insect and protected them from heavy rains. Any leaf that had a hole in it was destined to become filler.
The cigar-makers were employed on a piece-work basis, getting an agreed sum for every hundred cigars made. Each man was given an allotment of tobacco sufficient to make a given number of finished “smokes”. Hundreds of these workmen occupied a single room. In order to pass the time, the cigar-makers clubbed together and employed a reader. This was a gentleman with a musical, soothing voice. He had a little perch about five feet above the heads of the workmen, in the center of the room. In the morning he read the daily papers. Then he passed to comic weeklies; from those he turned to the cheep fiction of the hour. After the cigars were finished, they were placed in old seasoned cedar bins. When ready for market they were assorted according to the color of the wrapper and packed in the boxes seen at the cigar stands. Each cigar-maker usually smoked cigars of the grade he made, and often smoked better cigars than many American millionaires.
The Cuban factories in 1919 produced 157,000,000 cigars for export. Placed end to end, they would reach from the straits of Magellan to Sitka, Alaska. The profits of the tobacco and cigar business in Cuba brought in from the outside world were a great sum. It was only when comparing it with the sugar trade that these profits appear relatively small. There were many other industries which would certainly become sources of great wealth to Cuba, if it weren’t for the opportunities in sugar and tobacco. Cuban sisal might rival that from Yucatan; Cuban cattle might compete with those of Argentina and Australia; and Cuban fruit might compete with those of Florida and California. But the Cuban planter seemed content to stick to his two staple crops.
Considering that twenty years prior to this article, Cuba was a land of gnawing starvation, but had become one of overflowing plenty, one viewed Cuba as a land filled with interest. From one of the most wretched of communities to one of the richest people was the transformation that two decades had wrought. If the island became a beacon light, guiding other American nations into the harbor of permanent peace, the altruism of the U. S. would be justified and external guarantees of internal peace would receive a rich vindication.
The second article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Charm of Cape Breton Island” and was written by Catherine Dunlop Mackenzie. It has the subtitle “The Most Picturesque Portion of Canada’s Maritime Provinces – A Land Rich in Historic Associations, Natural Resources, and Geographic Appeal”. The article contains twenty-two black-and-white photographs taken by Gilbert Grosvenor. Six of those photos are full-page in size. There is an italicized introductory paragraph before the article stating that the Editor of the Geographic Magazine spent a better part of twenty summers in Cape Breton Islands, and testifies to accuracy Miss Mackenzie’s account of the island, which he calls conservative. The article also contains a three-quarter-page sketch map on page 35 of Cape Breton Island [Northeastern Nova Scotia]. The map has an inset of the North Atlantic showing Cape Breton’s location in relation to the region.
Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
The article starts around the end of the Seven Years War with the realization, by Tobias Smollett, that Cape Breton was an island. He then stated “I must go and tell the King that Cape Breton is an island!” Around the same time, the Duke of Newcastle stated: “If France was master of Portsmouth, I would hang the man who should give up Cape Breton in exchange for it.” France had offered to waive her claim to the whole of Canada in return for the single possession of Cape Breton Island. England refused, and negotiations for peace were broken off. The British possessed the island from the time of the Cabots, but it was France who first valued I as a “nursery for her seamen”. A seventeenth century French writer called it “a very beautiful island on the coast of Acadia, where there are plains and prairies, vast forests filled with oak, maple, cedar, walnut, and the finest fir trees in the world”.
The island was 110 miles long by 87 miles wide and formed the northeastern part of Nova Scotia, with which it shared the identification as Leif Ericson’s “Markland”. Her coasts were visited by Norwegian rovers as early as the tenth century. On the authority of the Flemish geographers, the island was rediscovered by Basque fishermen who crossed the Atlantic in search of whales a hundred years before Columbus. Whether or not that was true, it was the Basque fishermen’s province to which Cape Breton owed her name. It was from the voyages of the Cabots, however, that Cape Breton dated her history. The highland to the north of the island was generally agreed to have been the landfall of John Cabot – the first sight of North America of which we have a record. It was then the island was claimed for “Kyng Henry”, a full year before Columbus touched upon the mainland of the continent.
Standing far out in the Atlantic, the most easterly extreme of the Dominion of Canada, Cape Breton owed much of her colorful history to her geographical position. Of all the ports along the Atlantic seaboard, hers were the nearest to the shipping centers of Europe and Africa by hundreds of miles. She reached out into the shipping lanes of the author’s time just as she did in the time of the Cabots’ voyages. Cape Breton was as rich in the promise of a great commercial future, as in the heritage of an historic past. Two centuries prior to the article her position in regards to the St. Lawrence and the West Indies made Cape Breton an issue in world politics. Sometimes that issue disturbed the peace in Europe and upset the treaties of the Powers. Voltaire referred to her as “the few acres of snow” for which France and England made piratical war. The fortunes of the little island, now under the red cross of St. George, now under the lilies of France, were a part of the continent’s history – the greater part of it a war history. Since 1914, her strategic position had given her a new chapter of war history. Since the end of the World War, the new warfare of commerce was coming the fulfillment of that promise which her unique geography had held from the first.
From the close of the fifteenth century until it came under French rule, after the Treaty of Utrecht, the island was used by adventurers from all over Europe, drawn by the great wealth of the costal fisheries and the valuable trade in furs with the native Micmacs. By the end of Elizabeth reign, more than 200 English vessels were fishing off the Cape Breton coast. Her posts were neutral anchorage even in wartime. Her peaceful bays harbored privateer and frigate of war alike. There was a “gay note of lace ruff and jeweled sword” in those rough times. By the Treaty of Utrecht, the island was ceded to France, as the key to her colonies on the St. Lawrence and her rich inland territory south of the Great Lakes. England then held the whole Atlantic seaboard from Hudson Bay to Florida. Cape Breton became France’s one exception, and they saw its advantages. They renamed the island “Isle Royale”, and the harbor became Louisbourgh in honor of Louis XIV. Louisbourgh was a fortress. It took 25 years to build at a cost six million dollars, 24 million in 1920 dollars. Its two sieges and final demolition was the best-known chapter in the island’s history.
The fortress, bristling with canons, contained within imposing public buildings, a cathedral, a convent, a hospital. a theater, a brewery, and housing for its population of thousands. It became the base of French naval power in America and, along with outlying post, became a haven for privateers. Upon the outbreak of war between France and England, in 1744, the colonists of Massachusetts and New Hampshire attacked and captured Louisbourgh with a small band of militiamen under Pepperell with the British West Indian fleet in support. One historian said that the capture of Louisbourgh foreshadowed the American Revolution. It was the first “national” triumph. Pepperell received military honors and the victory was celebrated in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as in London. With the closing of this refuge of Atlantic privateers, maritime insurance immediately dropped from 30% to 12%. The island was restored to France, but the fortunes of war fell upon the fortress again when it was laid siege upon and captured. It was then demolished in favor of the new fortified base at Halifax, much to the chagrin of later visitors.
For some years after the Seven Years War, the British used Cape Breton for military purposes. This retarded its colonization. Not until 1784 were grants of land to settlers permitted. Thus, Cape Breton received fewer Loyalist than the other colonies and had room for a great number of Scottish setters who came in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many were relatives and friends of the Highland soldiers who fought under Wolfe at the second siege Louisbourgh and who remained in the country upon the disbanding of their regiments. The island became “as Gaelic as the most Gaelic part of Scotland. Though there were considerable French Acadian settlements and many of fine old Loyalist stock, Cape Breton was predominantly Highland Scottish in its population. The old Celtic tongue that hurled defiance at Caesar two thousand years ago was still spoken on the island.
Those hardy mountaineers and islesmen found the north and west of the island similar to their homeland, with hills and glens as well as sea-girt coasts. Bred to be hardy by years of war, they were particularly fitted for frontier life. They were unskilled in the use of the axe and the plow, and were unprepared for the cold, yet they endured where most others would have perished. Their descendants had the same qualities of fearlessness and unswerving purpose. The author found them impressive. The youth were leaving the island for other provinces and the U. S. seeking wider opportunity. That serious loss could be solved by a greater commercial development of Cape Breton. These prodigal sons and daughters were respected in profession and trade alike.
While discussing Canadian troops in the war, Lord Northcliffe said: “Many are of great stature, especially the Scotsmen from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and Cape Breton – some of the descendants of the disbanded Highland regiments of long ago.” Another writer claimed they were physically superior to any other race on the continent, and being Highland Scottish with a little French Canadian mixed in, they were nearly all Roman Catholic. That writer’s observations were of the descendants of Barra Islemen. Further inland, Calvin’s five points were practiced with open-air sacraments with services in English and Gaelic. There were still some old people who only spoke Gaelic. Hundreds of Cape Bretoners fought in the American Civil War. There were veterans still living on remote farms who told tales of walking to Maine to enlist. Her sons answered the Empire’s call to fight in South Africa. Since 1914, out of a population of 122,000, Cape Breton contributed 13,000 volunteers to the Canadian forces.
A Cape Breton company first won distinction at the second battle of Ypres. Undying glory was theirs at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, and the breaking of the Queant-Drocourt line. When Canadians marched into Mons on that historic November morning, they were led by the pipers of the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, mostly from Cape Breton. But Cape Breton’s army was not exclusively Gaelic. There were English, Irish, Welsh, and French Arcadians. Also, there were Lowland Scottish from the mining districts. There were Cape Breton medical officers and nursing sisters on every front. And to back up that effort the people back home contributed. Canada’s munitions depended on Cape Breton steel and Cape Breton coal, which meant Cape Breton workmen. The small town of Sydney, with a population less than 100,000, raised a sum of $12,000,000 for the war effort. Throughout the island mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters spun and knitted clothing for the soldiers.
Commercially, Cape Breton was known for her coal deposits. The first regular mining on the island was for the supply of the fortress of Louisburg, though there was an earlier mention of its use in a report to the British Admiralty in 1711. Admiral Walker said that both the French and the English loaded coal, which was extraordinarily good, and could be taken out of the cliffs with iron bars and no other labor. In 1918 the island produced 4,585,110 net tons of coal. There were three distinct coal fields – the Sydney, the Inverness, and the Richmond. The Sydney coal field was by far the most important, with an estimated deposit of one billion tons, excluding seams less than four feet thick. The field extended out into the Atlantic, and submarine areas were being worked. The value of those coal area was enhanced twofold by the island’s location. Compared to any other port on the North Atlantic seaboard, the ports of Sydney and Louisburg were closer to, not only the ports of Europe and Africa, but due to its eastern projection, the ports of South America as well. They were closer to Rio de Janeiro than New Orleans was.
Cape Breton coal was bituminous, especially useful in the manufacture of gas. With this supply of fuel suitable for coke, limestone in abundance, and iron ore near at hand, Cape Breton had the three requisite raw materials for the “cheapest ton of steel” which Andrew Carnegie had said assured a nation supremacy. Above all, Cape Breton’s commercial advantage was in her facilities for water transport. All other major iron producing districts were far inland. Cape Breton was relieved of the burden of railway freight hauls for raw material. This was in addition to the shorter distance to foreign markets. In 1918 the island produced 512,377 net tons of steel ingots and 415,808 net tons od pig-iron. During the war, an army of 16,000 men was employed in the steel plant and collieries, day and night, for four years, producing steel rails, shell blanks, and barbed wire. Chemicals for high explosives were also produced during the war, as were 705,000 gallons of toluene.
Limestone and dolomite were, next to coal, the most extensively mined on the island due to their use in the making of steel. The production of limestone alone, for 1918, was more than 400,000 tons. All the areas of extraction were near the invaluable water transport afforded by the Bras d’Or Lakes. The city of Sydney shared one of the finest ports in all of North America with the towns of North Sidney and the Sydney mines across the harbor. It was the capital of the island when it was a separate province, and was a garrison town up to the time of the Crimean War. Its founding completed Louisburg’s ruin, but was never as important militarily as that fortress. It had some well-laid streets, and its park is outside of town because, as the story went, one the military governors lost the deed to the original site in a poker game. The coal and steel industries were rapidly making Sydney a great commercial center. It had a five-million-dollar ship-plate rolling mill, which could lead to it own shipbuilding operation, on its own waterfront with its own steel.
In early times the whole island was wooded with hemlock, oak, ash, birch, elm, maple, beech, and pine, as well as the spruce and fir which were predominant at the time of the article. The Norsemen came there for timber. Forest fires had depleted the finest areas, and the export had largely fallen off, but it 1918 the Cape Breton collieries used nearly 12,000,000 lineal feet of pit timber, most of it produced on the island. The wood-pulp industry was a large source of revenue and drew much American capital investments. Next in importance to Cape Breton’s mineral wealth were her fisheries. The cod had formed the principle catch of those waters since Sebastian Cabot reported them in great numbers. Charlevoix asserted that the fishery was of more value to France than the mines of Peru and Mexico. In 1918, Cape Breton fishermen took nearly $4,000,000 worth of fish from the island’s coastal waters. The salmon and trout fishing of the streams was well known, and the tuna fishing in St. Anns Bay attracted sportsmen yearly.
Three men who had done more to bring nations together were associated with Cape Breton – Morse, Bell, and Marconi. It was on Cape Breton shores, that the first successful Atlantic cable was landed in 1867. For years the land lines of the cable company ran through the lonely North country of the island – the slender link between continents. One of the biggest problems for the company was the habit of young marksmen using the wires for target practice, thus interrupting global communications.
The laboratories of Alexander Bell at his estate, “Beinn Bhreagh” (Beautiful Mountain), near Baddeck, had been for thirty-five years the center of great scientific work. Research and experiments ranged from aerial locomotion to breeding twin-bearing sheep. Dr. Bell’s work was of special interest to the National Geographic Society. He was their second president and was a member of the Board of Trustees since its founding. In the laboratory museum was one of the first commercial graphophones, used to record and reproduce sounds, as well as a collection of record molds. His Cape Breton experiments with the graphophone were a continuation of his work at the Volta Laboratory, which resulted in the flat disc record, which was in universal use. The museum also contained models of giant man-carrying kites of tetrahedral-cell construction, and a whole series of aerial propellers tested by Bell. Samuel Pierpont Langley visited Bell at Cape Breton in 1894 while Bell was working on his kite structures. Bell encouraged Langley’s work in “aerodromics” when most doubted man would fly. Bell was the only witness, other than Langley’s workmen, of the flight, in May 1896, of Langley’s steam aerodrome at Quantico, Virginia.
For the next ten years Bell perfected his tetrahedral kites. On December 6, 1907. The giant Cygnet No. I made an accent of 168 feet above the waters of the Bras d’Or Lakes, carrying Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge of the U. S. Army. That was the first machine of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) formed by Dr. Bell in 1907. As well as Bell and Selfridge, the AEA included two Canadian engineers and Glenn H. Curtiss, the motor expert of the association. In 1908, F. W. Baldwin made the first public flight in America in the “Red Wing” at Lake Keuka, New York, a flight of 318 feet. Next the “White Wing flew a thousand feet. In the third machine, “June Bug”, Glenn Curtiss won the Scientific American trophy for flying the first measured kilometer under test conditions. Finally came the “Silver Dart” in which Cape Breton born J. A. D. McCurdy made the first flight in the British Empire on February 23, 1909. With its goals accomplished the AEA disbanded in March 1909. That eighteen-month effort was entirely financed by Mrs. Bell. Baldwin and McCurdy continued to fly for Canada. Selfridge unfortunately met his death in an accident of one of the Wright machines, at Fort Myer, in 1908 – the first victim of modern aviation.
For the ten years prior to this article Bell and Baldwin had been associated in the development of high-speed boats of the submerged hydroplane type. They called them “hydrodromes”, and abbreviated the term to “HD”. The “HD-4” was the most recent one tested, and made 70 miles an hour. It embodies the best features developed over ten years and was the fastest boat in the world. During the war the Beinn Bhreagh laboratories were converted for boat building and built small craft for the Canadian and British governments. It was the first boat-building plant to employee women workers.
As Cape Breton received the first direct cable message from Europe to America, so too the first wireless message between hemispheres was sent from the Table Head station near Glace Bay. It was a message from the Governor-General of Canada to Edward VII. In permitting this purely British interchange for this historic message, Signor Marconi showed his appreciation of Canada’s assistance in his work, after the cable companies forced him to abandon his work in Newfoundland. The site for the station was given by the Dominion Coal Co., and the cost of building the first four towers was largely covered by the Canadian Government.
The most striking of Cape Breton’s physical features was the inland sea, the lovely Bras d’Or Lakes, known in its two sections as the Great and the Little Bras D’or lakes. Widening out from its two Atlantic entrances, it extended in its 450 square mile area through the heart of the island. It had nearly a thousand miles of coastline bordering all four counties, with wide harbors, island-dotted bays, and deep fjord-like channels. A ship canal at St. Peters connected the lake waters with the Strait of Canso. The name Bras d’Or literally meant “arm of gold”, but the spelling was simply the French rendering of “Labrador”. This inland waterway was of great strategic value to the French, and later it was a valuable, and only, means of transportation to the Scottish settlers. In the author’s time it afforded easy access to market for farmers of the interior and a playground for the people of the industrial centers. Here was one of the finest yachting courses in the world, with deep cruising withing easy reach of sheltered harbors, deep water fishing, and sea-bathing. With only a few inches of tide, there were no untidy beaches or mud flats. Charles Dudley Warner said that the Bras d’Or was the most beautiful salt-water lake he had ever seen.
Besides those great stretches of inland sea, there were several beautiful fresh-water lakes. The largest was Lake Ainslie with a length of twelve miles. Lock Lomond was as picturesque as its name. The Lake-o-Law, headwaters of the Margaree River was famous for salmon-fishing. There were graceful wooded hills, rich upland pastures, and stretches of fertile intervale between. Lake Ainslie was in the heart of a rich farming country. No country in the world was better adapted for mixed farming or had greater rapidity of growth, once vegetation had started. Beyond the fertile Margaree Valley, stretched a great elevated tableland of 1,100 square miles. Some places it was 1,200 above sea level. The plateau was covered with stunted spruce, moss, and rock, and was a natural game preserve, that, until recently, afforded the finest moose, deer, and caribou hunting. There were still caribou and deer, as well as black bear and partridges, but the moose had been exterminated. The barrens were mostly frequented when blueberries were in season. They were of great size and fine flavor, and had been canned successfully for market. There were tracts of peat-bogs here that cause travelers to complain that “the higher you go in Cape Breton the wetter it gets”.
At St. Anns Bay the fathers of the Society of Jesus labored among the “sauvages” in the days before Louisburg. There were remains of French fortifications from when Louis XIV and his ministers debated whether there or Louisburg harbor should be their naval base in America. Here too was where the Rev. Norman Macleod and more than 800 of his flock sailed to New Zealand in six ships. St. Anns folk still told of the power of this “prophet, priest, and king”, who disclaimed any earthly authority higher than his own. At more than seventy years of age he was inspired to an almost wholesale emigration to the other side of the world. Englishtown was the home of Angus McAskill, the Cape Breton giant, who toured the globe under the same management as Tom Thumb. He was seven feet nine inches in height and could lift hundred-pound weights with two fingers. Tourists still came to see his grave and the clothes he wore.
Beyond St. Anns and Englishtown, the drive along the North Shore was surpassingly lovely to the author. Landward there were the hills, near and far, and the green meadows of farmlands “abounding in the richest of milk and Celtic respectability and gravity, and hospitality”. Seaward was the Atlantic, and in the distance, sheer out of the ocean towered “Smoky”. Once seen, the view looking southward from Smoky was never forgotten. Headland after headland in outline reached out to the east, plaster cliffs dazzled white against the distant blue, and, 1,200 feet below, was the long roll of the Atlantic. Across Smoky was the village of South Ingonish, with a magnificent sand beach and surf bathing. Beyond, the road led over the hill and barren to Neils Harbor, and further still to Dingwall and Cape North. Those coastal villages were cozy fishing communities, settled by Newfoundland fishermen. Ingonish, originally Niganiche, was one of Louisburg’s outlying posts. In 1729 it had a considerable population and an imposing church. Around 1850 the bell, weighing more than 200 pounds was found buried in the sand of the beach inscribed with the date 1729. On the west coast, north from Cheticamp to Bay St. Lawrence, the scenery was as picturesque as that of the eastern side, but until recently had been less accessible to tourists. In these rural locales, superstition was common, with tales of ghosts, witchcraft, and second-sight. According to locals, Old Nick frequented the lonely roads in various guises.
Cape Breton was noted for its nicknames. The custom of identifying families by their pedigrees was as old as Celtic tradition. In Cape Breton there were whole communities of Macneils, or Macraes, or Macleans. There existed the same identifying names in the Scottish Highlands as from the time of Malcolm III. Where there was a half dozen families of Mackinnons, for instance, sharing the Christian names of Donald, Angus, and Sandy, etc., Sandy’s children were likely identified as Donald Sandy, or Angus Sandy, or Sandy Sandy; Angus’s children would be call Donald Angus and Sandy Angus, etc. The grandchildren became Angus Donald-Sandy or Sandy Donald-Sandy, and so on, to unbelievable lengths. It often happened that there were many families of one name. To distinguish amongst themselves one family may have been known as Sandy Ruadh (Red) or Sandy Ban (White) – or – Big Angus, Little Angus, or Angus the Cobbler. Many adjectives were used as nicknames and applied down to the third or fourth generation. The generation prior to 1920 used these by-names following the surnames on electoral voting lists, and merchants frequently resorted to them for identification. Even when the author was in Cape Breton, she observed the bracketed “John’s son” or “Rory’s widow”, along with others in common use.
In the same manner as a person was distinguished by their trade, such as Angus Matheson carpenter, or Angus Matheson mason, occasionally a genuine family by-name appeared like Ranald Macdonald (Bain) or Ranald Macdonald (King), those Ranalds were better known as Ranald Bain or Ranald King. Many Cape Breton nicknames were strictly patronymic, for example, “Johnny the Widow”, or “Mary-Ann Captain Dan Sandy”. There may have been “Duncan the Bear”, referring to some exploit of Duncan’s, or “Willy Holy” and “Sober Neil” which may have been satirical. One story had a man, Axe-handle Angus, who stole an ox and from then on was known as Angus the Ox. The townsfolk called his brother Donald the Ox and his sister Nancy the Ox. The family was ever after known as “The Oxen” and were so sensitive about it that the gave up raising oxen.
The summer weather of Cape Breton had no extreme heat, while the island’s insular position and proximity to the Gulf Stream gave it a winter climate less severe than those in more southerly parts of the mainland. The island was in the latitude of southern France. If the Straits of Belle Isle could be blocked, diverting the cold Labrador currents, Cape Breton’s climate could be more like New England’s, with oranges and olives being grown and vineyards replacing storm-tossed forests. The prospect of this happening was remote, so those forests of maple, beech, and birch would continue their autumn displays of color for some time. Miss Mackenzie preferred that beauty to the idea of vineyards. Whether it was due to the rugged stock from which they came or to so virtue of the climate, those Cape Breton descendants of the Scots were remarkably long-lived. It seemed that Ponce de Leon missed his objective by taking a southerly route. The bracing island air appeared to be the magic elixir of eternal youth.