Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs

Saturday May 15, 2004 

Postcard 244: Cigars and Local Brews


This oil depicts an Iowa City Goosetown neighborhood garden which includes tobacco behind 

John Chopek’s legs, with a barn, pig run and outhouse all connected by board walks. 

Image courtesy Marybeth Slonneger from her 1999 Goosetown history, “Small But Ours.”


By Bob Hibbs


Tobacco was grown in the vegetable gardens of Iowa City’s Goosetown neighborhood, and fresh locally-brewed beer was as near as the corner grocery, thus satisfying two principal male vices of a century ago.

In fact, local tobacco growing was “quite prevalent during the late Victorian period up until about World War I” (1880-1915), reports local historian Marybeth Slonneger whose 1999 Goosetown history “Small But Ours” is available in local bookstores.

It’s a treasure trove of local images and vignettes. The accompanying image of an oil painting by Leo Chopek of his grandfather in his Goosetown yard is from the book, used here with Slonneger’s permission.

Goosetown native and retiree Bob Kacena recalls that as a Press-Citizen carrier during the early 1940s he’d stop in an East Church Street home to watch “old bachelor” John Konvalinka roll cigars for sale locally.

The 1943 City Directory lists Konvalinka as a cigar manufacturer.

Racine’s is one store – actually three separate locations downtown – always mentioned as selling locally-made cigars. Another was Dunkel’s, and many drug stores handled tobacco products from time to time.

“He’d roll ‘em, press ‘em, apply a wrapper and pack ‘em 25 to a box,” Kacena recalls. When asked if he ever smoked one, Kacena just grins sheepishly; “don’t like cigars, never did,” he retorts. He is a 1950 City High grad.

The cigar trimmings all were saved, he explained – and sold as chewing tobacco!

Retired Iowa City schools instrumental music teacher and cigar aficionado Bob Moninger says conditions aren’t right locally to grow good tobacco. Soil makeup, sun and moisture at the right stages of growth are essential. In the end, Moninger explains, it’s the taste and aroma of the tobacco that sell.

Locally-grown tobacco was for home use, principally in pipes, while cigars made locally for sale were from tobacco shipping in from growing areas in the southeast.

Christopher Columbus discovered the stuff when he landed in Cuba in 1492; but, he got it wrong. The natives referred to the pipe used in smoking as tobacco, while the stuff that burned up was cohiba.

Cuban president Fidel Castro resurrected the word during the late 1960s when he began boxing the finest of his local cigars for foreign visitors under the brand name “Cohiba,” perhaps Castro’s only commercial success during his half-century of rule.

A century ago, three breweries were operated within a block of each other along Market Street from Linn to Gilbert. One structure – now called Brewery Square – survives. The Englert operation was a half-block east along the south side of Market where a parking lot now exists.

The Dostal brewery was at Market and Gilbert where a paint store now exists.

The most memorable local brew was Erlanger Beer, simply because it advertised itself as “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Jealous.”

Fresh brew made its way daily to pubs and corner groceries, from which it typically was carried home in metal pots with  covers. It was rarely chilled since winter ice stored for summer cooling of milk and butter was too valuable to use on beer.

In her book, Slonneger reports that Joseph Shalla made cigars in Goosetown for Racine’s cigar store, and Charles Bobrich saloon. She continues:

“Joe was called ‘a man who never smiled,’ a trait which must have served him well in his duel career as a professional gambler. He rented a few rooms on the second floor of a downtown building for his cigar business, but also for an ongoing poker game.

“It was there that he won the homes of six or seven players that made him unpopular with some of his peers, necessitating the hiring of his nephew Joe Pec for protection,” Slonneger writes.

Oh, so there must have been male vices besides tobacco and beer.

Next Saturday: The Pentacrest update of 1905.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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