Between 1898 and 1918, travelers arriving in Abilene by train were greeted by a vibrant 12 block downtown centered on the intersection of NW. 2nd and Broadway Streets. Among the banks, hotels, dry goods stores, clothing stores and pharmacies was an odd looking narrow building with 3 windowed spires where a German cigar maker and a couple employees were quick to sell a box of cigars and keep rolling hundreds of cigars each day. The building was the “Toothpick” building (where KABI radio studio sits today) and the proprietor of the cigar shop was Mr. Albert Lenze. In those days, his cigars were carried in pharmacies, groceries, and restaurants in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
Albert Lenze was born Aug. 24, 1853 at Magdeburg, Germany and grew to manhood in his native land. On March 3, 1879, he was united in marriage with Miss Catherine Setz and came to America in the year of 1881. They arrived in New York City and purchased their pet Amazon Parrot, “Laura”. Three years later they moved to Abilene. Albert began working for cigar maker, William Meyer, who’s shop was a wood framed building at 112 NW. 3rd, which was two doors east of Spruce Street. This site is now where the Masonic Temple and Cypress Bridge are located. By 1885, the company was known as William Meyer and Company and Albert became the sole owner of the business by May of 1886. Albert set about to grow his business by traveling to towns throughout Kansas, Nebraska, and later to St. Louis to supply retail merchants with cigars.
As reported in the Abilene Weekly Reflector on July 8, 1886, “Mr. Lenze manufacturers a variety of excellent brands of cigars, among which the “Abilene Sport” has the largest sale. A large wholesale business is yearly done by him, and we are pleased to see that his trade is rapidly increasing. He uses the best leaf, has experienced makers and the superiority of all cigars turned out by him is sufficient cause for his fast increasing patronage.” One of Albert’s employees during the mid-1880’s was W. H. Thompson, who moved to Junction City in 1890 and started his own cigar shop. W. H. Thompson would later serve as Mayor of Junction City and the families remained lifelong friends. When Thompson opened a new cigar factory in Junction City in 1901, Albert Lenze was there to witness 1,500 people walk through the factory.
In 1891, Albert rented space in “Vanderbelt’s old stand” which was known as the “Little Red Store” in the “Toothpick Building” at 302 NW. 2nd Street. This was right across the street from the railroad station, which became his retail shop with manufacturing still occurring at NW. 3rd Street. For a brief time in the mid 1890’s the manufacturing moved to the 400 block of NW. 3rd, approximately where the Martin, Carlson, and Becker Funeral Home currently sits.
The Panic of 1893 and the resulting depression hit businesses hard. However, Lenze weathered the storm better than most. Albert went speculating in Guthrie, Oklahoma along with several other Abilene businessmen only to return a short time later. In the summer of 1893, Albert left Abilene for 90 days to go to the World’s Fair in New York and to visit family in Germany. He returned from the trip having gained 25 lbs. In 1894, Albert was elected as a City Councilman and reelected in 1896, despite being indicted for selling tobacco to boys under the age of 16. In 1895, he was an investor in the Peerless Fence Machine Company and treasurer of the company board. In 1897, he traveled to California and then to Portland, Oregon, where he was looking into buying some land. He already had land in The Dalles, Oregon, but found the boom of the Klondyke Gold Rush had busted. On his way back from Portland, he stopped in Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah. On another adventure to Germany on July 4, 1899, Albert Lenze was a passenger on the Kaiser Wilhelm when it crossed the ocean in a record-breaking time of 5 days, 20 hours, 55 minutes while covering 3,150 miles.
After what he experienced in Portland, Albert decided to stay in Abilene and bought the “Toothpick Building” in July of 1898 for $2,400 and consolidated his operation to this location. That same summer, the Kirby Bank filed bankruptcy and Albert Lenze lost $3,000 that he had on deposit. For the next 20 years, his operation sat near the focal point of Abilene buzzing downtown. Travelers, parades, festivals, and Presidential addresses took place right outside his business door. The Toothpick building would have an oyster bar, real estate offices, and lawyer offices at different times. In addition, to W. H. Thompson, among his employers were Henry Ballweg, John Gardner, Earl Shearer, C. C. Lightner, Burrel Baker, and Albert Wolfe. Albert Wolfe would start his own cigar shop and produced “The Wolfe”.
Business was good. So good that in May of 1892, the tobacco shop was robbed. The Abilene Weekly Reflector reported that, “Abilene’s burgalars are certainly tony and like the luxuries of life. Some of them broke into A. Lenze’s tobacco and cigar store in the Toothpick building last night by raising the west window and stole a large quantity of fine cigars, tobacco, etc. The loss is at least $50.” His famous brands were the Vestibule, Abilene Sport, Bon Ton, and others. Albert came to own a wood framed building in the 200 block of NW. 2nd, which was purchased from him in 1916 to make way for the Forester Hotel (now where Verizon, Cook Real Estate, Teck Shop and Farmers Insurance). He also owned the former Morrison’s Market building at the NE. corner of 3rd and Buckeye (now part of RHV).
The Lenze home was at 215 NE. 3rd Street, which is currently a gravel parking lot across from the ADM Mill. In the winter of 1899, the Lenze’s had the house wired for electric lights. During the City Mill fire in July of 1901, the Lenze house was under threat and was saved thanks to Charles Benigus who remained upon the roof of the house and kept it wet when not another man could withstand the heat. Charles Benigus was a butcher who owned a shop at 311 N. Broadway Street. In 1901, Albert Lenze improved his residence by adding new porches and an addition was added in 1904.
In addition, to their parrot, “Laura”, they had a black, Gordon setter dog, who responded to the name “Sport”. When Laura died in 1913, the Abilene Daily Chronicle reported that, “Laura has passed to the great beyond…” and “The much loved Laura died Tuesday evening at the family home after all that human skill and medical power could accomplish had failed save its life…” and “She was laid to rest yesterday noon in the Lenze yard alongside of the old Lenze dog called “Sport”.
Albert and Katie were involved in several fraternal and philanthropic endeavors. Albert was involved in the Shaubenee Tribe No. 12, I. O. R. M., Knights of Pythias, The Fraternal Aid Association, Dramatic Order of Knights of Khorassan, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Katie often hosted Germany-American functions and they often traveled across the state to attend Germany gatherings. They were also member of the Abilene Car Club. Albert had owned a car for a number of years and it was reported that in 1910, he purchased from Tom Prendergast one of the finest automobile outfits in the city. It was a big 40-horse power Overland touring car with top, glass, wind shield and all the other things that enter into a complete touring outfit.
As 1918 began, Albert was experiencing failing health and they went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in quest of health. Instead of health being restored he gradually grew weaker and died on August 19, 1918. His largely attended funeral was held at the Lenze home. The rites of the Elks were read at the grave in the Abilene Cemetery.