Gwen Tuinman

Novelist Speaker Advocate



Standing by the Millpond


Travel ignites my imagination. Whether venturing off to a destination far away, or one closer to home, a change of scenery and a new experience leads me to a new writing idea. My recent weekend trip to a small town, a few hours drive from my own, was no exception. Continue reading “Standing by the Millpond”

China Rock: A Historical Hook in California

“Cal-i-for-nia, here I come!” This is the song I was singing last July, when I prepared to travel along the Californian coast, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Among the memorable experiences, one of the most impactful to my writer’s imagination, was one discovered by chance.  China Rock. Continue reading “China Rock: A Historical Hook in California”

Delving Deeper — The Cigar, the Lector and the Literature

Travel causes my writer’s mind to twirl around the possibilities of new stories and characters. My visit to St. Augustine, Florida was no exception. This beautiful historic town swells with cultural narrative, stunning architecture, and beautiful vistas.  My camera clicked again and again, documenting settings and references that impacted me. During that week, two unexpected characters pushed their way into my imagination. One of them has a connection to the cigars.

Photo credit: Gwen Tuinman, Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida
Photo credit: Gwen Tuinman, Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida

Upon returning home, I read Karen Harvey’s America’s First City: St. Augustine’s Historic Neighbourhoods and discovered that the town was once home to two different cigar manufacturers: The Carcaba Cigar Company and Martinez, Solla and Carcaba Cigar Mfg. This Cuban/Spanish influence intrigued me. The local library had a copy of the Pulitzer Prize winning Anna In The Tropics, by Nilo Cruz. Thisstory follows the rise and fall of a lector who reads Anna Karenina to the workers in a cigar factory located in an area in Ybor City, an area of Tampa, Florida . This furthered my curiosity and the search for information continued.

The concept of lectors originated in Cuba. A worker, usually a man, would volunteer to read for up to thirty minutes to entertain and inform their colleagues about local issues and political news.  Fellow workers would contribute a few coins to compensate the reader, known as a lector, as the time spent reading aloud was unpaid. The factory owners noted that productivity often increased during the reading period, so they encouraged the practice. As the length of reading  increased to four hour sessions, external candidates were invited to serve as lectors and the position evolved into a respected career.

Left Photo (Historic Martinez, Solla, and Carcaba Cigar Mfg, St. Augustine, Florida Photo by Gwen Tuinman) Right Photo: (Joacquita de la Llana, Lector, 1929, Ybor, Photo courtesy of USF-Tampa Special Collections)
Left Photo (Historic Martinez, Solla, and Carcaba Cigar Mfg, St. Augustine, Florida Photo by Gwen Tuinman) Right Photo: (Joacquita de la Llana, Lector, 1929, Ybor, Photo courtesy of USF-Tampa Special Collections)

In the early days of the lector, many cigar factory employees, both male and female, were illiterate. There was a great thirst for knowledge.  Lectors read novels determined by consensus. They also read poetry, nonfiction works, and newspapers. The people enjoyed hearing about the parallel universe of Les Miserable. They also favoured books by Zola, Dickens, and Tolstoy. Anarchist materials gained popularity as well.

Lectors were gifted orators; some readings might be best characterized as  dramatic performances. The men and women sat shoulder to shoulder in large open rooms, rolling cigars  by hand. The lectors’ voices needed to project to all corners of these spaces, so they read from atop a specially constructed  tribuna or platforms as seen the photographs below.


Labour organization and political topics were of special interest to audiences. In fact, some lectors began writing their own material to rally the workers’ fervour for change and found themselves transformed into workplace leaders. Such activities led factory owners  to sever ties with their lectors.  Many workers arrived at work to find the platform removed; their lector never returned. Tempers ran hot. These abrupt changes contributed to strike actions that typically ended in favour of the factory owners.

The story of the lector ended around 1930 with the introduction of mechanized cigar production. Without amplification, the human voice could not be heard above the clamour of the machinery. As a note of interest, the Great Depression and increasing popularity of cigarettes adversely affected the cigar industry and pushed the lector into obsolescence.

Another piece of history gone up in smoke.

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Bumpy Roads: A Canadian Tradition?

Yesterday, I awoke to a news report about the troubling condition of Toronto’s roads. The extreme cold of the holiday season followed by mild temperatures has increased the number of potholes“It’s like driving on the moon,” says one driver. Many report damage to their vehicles after plunging a wheel into the abyss.

I reflected on some recent information I’ve collected about the lives of the early settlers.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Travel Woes

Canadians have been complaining about state of our roads for years — over two hundred actually, give or take a decade.  Our early settlers endured miserable travel conditions.  Their lamenting is captured in correspondence shared by Charolette Gray, in her book, Canada A Portrait In Letters.

In 1834, Catharine Parr Trail  wrote from her Peterborough, Ontario home, reporting to friends and family in England, about “the badness of roads in this country, the slowness of conveyance, (and) want of proper artifices”.  Lady Durham wrote  from her Quebec City home in 1834 that she was very near “jolted to pieces” on roads travelling inland from Chauderie Falls.  George Child wrote to his mother in 1842 about travelling home after an out of town errand where  “the roads were so bad that it took from four o’clock until eleven in going 13 miles”. He stayed in a hotel and tried to continue his journey the next day. The roads were so bad he turned around and went home.

corduroy roadRoad Report

Some might think that snow and heavy winters would create the biggest impediment to transportation, but not so.  Horse drawn cutters and dog sleds across land or frozen water facilitated effective travel. A spring thaw and heavy rains created major problems for travelers.  Muddy roads resulted, exhausted horses and stuck wagon wheels.  Dry roads peppered with potholes and the remains of stumps  caused  a lot of bumping and jostling of passengers in addition to broken axels and wagon wheels. Corduroy roads, created by laying logs side by side, crossways on the road, solved some problems but created new ones such as a bumpy ride for one. Also, the logs heaved with the freezing and thawing, then eventually gave way to rot. Many preferred to travel by foot or by horseback  instead of using a wagon.

Root of the Problem

The early settlers who were awarded land grants, had a contractual obligation to build and maintain roads adjacent to their property. I’m imagining where this duty ranked in the list of survival related tasks like build a home, clear the land, or plant a crop.  Removal of trees and stumps was an onerous task in a land thick with timber.

“Pathmasters” were appointed by Upper Canada’s first parliament to oversee road development. Settlers were eventually given the option of paying a fine in lieu of performing road maintenance.


The next time I hit a bump in the road, I will draw a calming breath and be grateful that I don’t have to fix it!


Please leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you!

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