Ernst Kohlberg, El Paso civic leader and founder of the first cigar factory in the Southwest, was born on May 24, 1857, in Beverungen, Westphalia, at that time a province of Prussia. He was educated at two of Germany's finest schools, Hoexter and Hildesheim, but left home on August 15, 1875, with Solomon C. Schutz, a fellow Westphalian who had established business interests in the El Paso area. Kohlberg, who probably emigrated to avoid Germany's mandatory military draft, signed a contract with Schutz by which he agreed to work without salary for six months to a year in order to defray the costs of his passage to Texas. Kohlberg and Schutz reached New York on September 1 and traveled by rail to Las Animas, Colorado, the terminus of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. From Las Animas they traveled to Franklin, as El Paso was then called, by stagecoach and arrived on October 9. Kohlberg's first impressions of his new home were less than glowing. He wrote to his parents that the town was "nearly the end of the world and the last creation." He was a young man of some ambition, however, and after he had worked in Schutz's stores on each side of the Rio Grande for eight months, Schutz agreed to pay him an annual salary of $250. Kohlberg studied Spanish and became deputy United States consul in El Paso del Norte (present Juárez), Chihuahua, and assistant postmaster in Franklin. Dissatisfied with his prospects in the Schutz brothers' firm, Kohlberg invested all his money in the Jesús María gold mine in Mexico but was forced to return to Franklin when his funds ran out two years later. He then went to San Francisco, where he clerked for the Lebenbaum Brothers grocers and worked for Esberg, Bachman, and Company, wholesale tobacconists. He returned to Franklin in late 1881 and opened a cigar store in partnership with his brother Moritz, who had originally settled in Connecticut. In 1884 Kohlberg returned to Germany to visit his family; there he met and, on June 22, 1884, married a young woman named Olga Bernstein. Olga B. Kohlberg returned with her husband to El Paso, where her many philanthropic activities included founding the first public kindergarten in Texas. In 1886 the brothers established the International Cigar Factory, the first of its kind in the Southwest. A few years later they opened a second factory in Philadelphia; the firm's most expensive cigar was called "La Internacional."
Although Kohlberg was a member of the Republican party in heavily Democratic El Paso, he was easily elected to the city council in 1893. He and his wife organized the Mount Sinai Jewish Congregation in 1898, and he was a member of various clubs and organizations, including the Progress Club for German Jews, the Masons, the Shriners, the Elks, the Pioneer Society, and the McGinty Club. Kohlberg was also a director of the Terminal Association, established in 1901 to develop the Union Depot Corporation, and of the Rio Grande Valley Bank and Trust Company. He was a founder of the El Paso Electric Railway Company and the El Paso Electric Light Company. He was also the owner of the St. Regis Hotel, the site of the 1909 meeting between United States president William Howard Taft and Mexican president Porfirio Díaz, and the St. Charles Hotel in El Paso. Kohlberg leased the St. Charles to a man named John Leech, a compulsive gambler who fell far behind in his rent. Kohlberg turned the matter over to his attorney, but on June 17, 1910, Leech confronted Kohlberg and demanded that he withdraw his suit. Kohlberg refused, whereupon Leech drew a revolver and killed him. Leech was sentenced to life imprisonment at Huntsville but was pardoned in 1934 by Governor Miriam A. Ferguson. Tom Lea later used Kohlberg as the prototype for the character of Ludwig Sterner in his novel The Wonderful Country.