Cigars boasted guardians Figures: In smoking's heyday, Indian statues stood outside many of the city's 2.000 tobacconists.

Remember When

December 01, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Before today's yuppies and the Hollywood crowd discovered expensive hand-made cigars and elevated them to cult status, Baltimoreans went about for years puffing on such now-vanished brands as Iraba, which they insisted on mispronouncing "Irabia" as they do "Patapsico" for Patapsco today.

Nacirema, Fire-King, Caton, Monument Square, Clifton Park and Uncle Willie were other brands favored by smokers, who made their purchases in tobacco stores whose premises were often guarded by colorful, hand-carved, cigar-store Indians.

At the turn of the century, The Sun reported that, "On good authority, it can be stated that there are 2,000 tobacco stores in Baltimore."

"The basic cigar-store Indian of yesterday was shown with feather bonnet and one arm outstretched holding a bunch of cigars," said The Sun in 1988. "The image, often life-size, looked just like Edwin Forrest, a mid-19th-century matinee idol, dressed as an Indian chief named Metamora in his greatest stage role."

In the 1870s, there were approximately 800 wooden Indians in Baltimore, and by 1908 that number had fallen to 150.

In 1946, there were only two left, and of them -- perhaps the most famous -- was Pocahontas, which stood outside Hopper McGaw, the fancy specialty grocery store at Charles and Mulberry streets, until the store closed in 1957.

Today, as far as is known, there is only one surviving wooden Indian in commercial use in the city, Chief Iraba, who stands inside the door of Fader's Tobacconist on Baltimore Street.

P. G. Gaspari, who was perhaps Baltimore's foremost dealer in wooden Indians and other wooden figures, established his business in 1861 in West Baltimore and later moved to South Street.

His shop, it was reported, was jammed with hundreds of Indians, along with a full inventory that included Captain Jinkses, Champagne Charlies, ballet dancers, voluptuous young women astride velocipedes, street drunks, Revolutionary War patriots and black sportsmen with top hats and cigars.

He told The Sun in 1908 that the the art originated about 1790, when ship's carpenters using reclaimed masts began carving figures. Indians were chosen as subjects, Gaspari said, because they introduced Sir Walter Raleigh to tobacco.

Today, the Maryland Historical Society maintains an interesting and varied collection of cigar-store Indians. Thought of as American folk art and highly sought after by collectors, a period figure can command somewhere between $3,000 and $40,000.

In 1975, what had to have been the last known hijacking of a cigar-store Indian in the nation occurred when Fader's 7-foot, 175-pound Chief Iraba, made of fiberglass, was kidnapped by miscreants from its base in front of the Baltimore Street store.

"Chief Iraba was found several days later standing at a bus stop in the Canton Industrial Park," recalled Bill Fader Jr. recently with a laugh. "I had to go down to police headquarters and identify the body," said Mr. Fader, whose grandfather Abraham Fader originally established the business in 1891 in the 200 block of East Baltimore Street.

Outside of a few marks on his feathers, Chief Iraba was none the worse for his unexpected journey. He was returned to the store and cemented to his pedestal, where he has stood for the past 20 years gazing upon the passing street parade, all the while clutching a bundle of maduro-colored stogies.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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