LIMA — When Sola Curtis was in high school at Alger, she didn’t see much opportunity around her hometown of Ada besides farming potatoes or onions. That didn’t particularly appeal, so she applied where her parents worked — DWG.
“I was young and wanted a paycheck,” Curtis said.
She lied about her age to get in the door, turning 18 after she started working there. She enjoyed the work; she did not finish high school. Six of the 10 sisters in the family would eventually work in the cigar factory.
“They all worked there a short time and left. I was the only one that stayed,” Curtis said.
And stay she did. Curtis started in 1957 and retired in December 2017, taking a few months off here and there when her family grew.
The company changed around her and she changed with it, reinventing itself several times to reflect what consumers wanted to buy. It began in cigars, grew perhaps too fast at times, came back under local control and diversified to continue yet today.
And along the way, Curtis become friends with coworker Cheryl Wehner. Wehner started in May 1966 and retired in December 2018. She graduated from LCC in 1965.
“In high school I had worked at Welles. I just wanted something a little nicer, a little better,” Wehner said.
She started in payroll, earning $45 a week. Before her time there would end — like Curtis — she became good at all kinds of jobs. They exchanged knowing smiles when explaining the atmosphere. If you were good at something, they gave you more responsibility. Curtis’ jobs were wrapper layer, trainer, line supervisor, warehouse manager and vice president of operations. Wehner worked in the office, doing payroll, accounts payable, personnel and was eventually a buyer in the wholesale division.
Curtis and Wehner recently sat down to reminisce about their working days:
“They hired mostly women,” Wehner said.
The company preferred hiring older women, wary of the younger woman’s penchant for getting married and quitting her job, Wehner said.
She remembers executive Mel Werner joking with her one day, after she had been there about 10 years: “Are you still here? I only expected you to be here a couple three years.”
The production jobs mainly went to women.
“Guys didn’t want to sit,” Curtis explained.
The main jobs on the floor involved sitting and operating machines. Men generally were hired to be mechanics, to keep those machines in good working order. The plant ran three shifts, with first and second shifts involving production and the third shift for maintenance.
The tobacco for wrappers mostly came from Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Wehner said, and the filler tobacco arrived from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Honduras and some domestic.
“The majority of the filler we used was all imported,” Wehner said. “Each brand there was a blend, almost a recipe. That’s what gave each cigar its individual taste, the tobaccos that were used on the inside.”
The tobacco would arrive in a dried wad, essentially, and Curtis explained workers had to rehydrate it and hang it in the conditioning room. It had a distinct odor as it hung there for a day or two. Curtis said the odor of tobacco is still present in the building even today.
The hydration was needed so the leaves would be flexible.
“You get used to feeling it. It has to be workable,” Curtis said.
Once workable, the tobacco leaf needed to be stemmed, or stripped. The leaf had a tough stem in the middle that needed to be cut out by a machine operated by a worker.
“They were called strippers. They loved that,” Wehner said with a laugh.
Each leaf would have a left section and a right section, which were kept separate. Machines were set for left or right to work with the natural curl of the leaf, Wehner said.
The wrapper layer was just as it sounds — the operator who placed the wrapper leaf section into a machine that would cut it out into the proper shape. It was a kind of curlicue shape that would be wound around the cigar. The operator then set the finished cigar into a box that held 600. About 6,000 cigars were made in a day, Curtis said.
The machines were numbered, Wehner said, to track the production.
Old photos show women working in short sleeves.
“It was very humid. We actually misted water into the air to keep the humidity up,” Wehner said.
When RG Dun was being created in 1967, Wehner thought back on the atmosphere.
“Everything just went on business as usual. It was very calm,” Wehner said.
Both women remember Phil Porreca walking around to the workstations every day, saying good morning to everyone personally.
“I guess the reason I stayed there was the people … always treated you fairly,” Curtis said.
“They were all very honorable people,” Wehner said. “They were always accessible.”
They described a family atmosphere where if one person was experiencing a rough time, everyone tried to help.
“It’s really helped a lot of people over the years — and people that really needed the money,” Curtis said.
During the Depression, the company cycled workers in and out so everyone would get a bit of a paycheck.
“You ask why I stayed there that long? That’s why,” Wehner said.
Do they like cigars?
“I never smoked,” Curtis said.
“Can’t stand the smell,” Wehner said, shaking her head.
Reach Adrienne McGee Sterrett at 567-242-0510.