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A glimpse at Ybor City’s past

Today, Ybor City is a familiar party place frequented by many USF students. Modern clubs, restaurants and bars line the avenues, but the Ybor City of the past was very different. Immigrants flocked to the area to work for cigar manufacturers.This migration of mixed ethnicities made Ybor City one of the most culturally diverse regions in the state.

Tucked away on Ninth Avenue is the Ybor City Museum State Park, housing a great deal of Ybor City history. Since 1976, this museum has been showing the cultural, social and political influences that helped build the Ybor City we know today.

The park consists of the former Ferlita Bakery (c. 1923), a Mediterranean-style garden, which displays Florida flora, statues and a fountain, said Alicia Montes, assistant director at Ybor City Museum Society.

And a circa 1895 ‘casita’ or cigar workers’ house, which has been restored and furnished to display the life of a cigar worker’s family at the turn of the 20th century.

Currently on display at the Ybor City Museum State Park is “Growing up in Ybor: Toys, Games and Childhood Pastimes in Early Ybor City.” This new exhibit allows viewers to take a glimpse at a simpler era when children entertained themselves with homemade toys and inexpensive knick-knacks.

Maureen Patrick, curator of education for the Ybor City Museum Society, worked with a variety of resources to gather all the items on display in this exhibition. The games and toys are on loan to the Museum Society by former residents of Ybor City, Patrick said.

“I relied on interviews and oral histories with former Ybor City residents who talked about their childhood experiences here. I also utilized some first-person autobiographies by Yborcitenos; in these they wrote of their childhoods, schooling, toys and games, dating, work, etc,” Patrick said.

“Growing up Ybor” shows what childhood was like for local immigrant children from 1886-1950. Objects and photographs paint a picture of daily life for Ybor City children. Homemade paper kites, marbles, antique board games, a child-sized sewing machine for the children and turn-of-the-century schoolbooks in Spanish are just some of the personal artifacts on display, Montes said.

The museum’s permanent exhibitions are dedicated to the history of Ybor City and the people who made the area thrive economically — the cigar workers and their families.

A short video titled, “Ybor City Remembered” is shown at the museum. “This film is an introduction to Ybor City,” said Montes. “It includes oral histories, interviews with historians and images of local life.”

In 1886, Vincent Martinez Ybor moved his cigar manufacturing operation from Key West to Tampa. Ybor brought with him the start of a huge economic and cultural development that made Tampa one of the country’s major commercial centers. Thousands of Cuban, Spanish and Italian cigar workers migrated to the area with their families because it offered them a common culture with a familiar language.

Immigrants who worked together also played together. Dominoes and an ivory set of Bolita balls from 1892 (which is like a lottery) can be seen on display, as well as a collection of artifacts including cigar-making equipment, cigar boxes from local manufacturers, bottles from local bottling plants and photographs of local people and businesses.

Ybor City was predominantly a cigar manufacturing town. The immigrants who came here to work with cigars did so in integrated factories, which were very uncommon for the era. Women, Cubans, black Cubans and Spaniards all worked together, and everyone got paid the same amount — there was no discrimination in the work place.

“Ybor City put Tampa on the map,” said museum employee Bill Boydson. “There were only 700 people in the village of Tampa, but within three years, there were almost 5,000 people.”

The introduction of machine-made cigars, the popularity of cigarettes and the Great Depression all brought down the economy of the area Urban renewal resulted in the destruction of many of its residential areas

The Ybor City Museum State Park has taken on the job of keeping local history alive. Deciding what exhibitions will be displayed in the museum is the job of the curator of education and the executive director. “The nature and content of upcoming exhibitions are normally planned a full year in advance,” said Patrick.

Exhibitions at the museum change every six months. The museum’s education curator is currently working on two exhibitions for next year, one on labor unrest and one on immigration, Montes said.

“Once we determine the theme of an exhibition, we rely on primary and secondary sources to support the exhibitions contents — primary sources include interviews and oral histories, letters, contemporary newspaper accounts, records, memoirs, etc. Secondary sources include scholarly books and articles,” Patrick said .

People find different reasons for exploring local history at Ybor City Museum.

“I’m new to the area, and I want to learn something about the history,” said Larry Branch of North Carolina.

Whether learning something new about Tampa, or taking a fresh look at local history, the Ybor City Museum State Park offers something for everyone.

The current exhibition, “Growing up Ybor: Toys, Games and Childhood Pastimes in Early Ybor City” can be seen until Jan. 11 at the Ybor City Museum State Park, located at 1818 E. Ninth Avenue Museum hours are 9 a.m. — 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $2 per person, and children under six get in for free.

Contact Annie Curnowat