The stench of stale beer and old smoke fills the Saturday night air in Ybor City, while neon signs detract visitors’ attention from noticing the exquisite buildings that house the bars and clubs. Serving as a place for people to engage in their vices, Ybor City once held the reputation as a place to live out the American Dream.
Founded by Don Vicente Martinez Ybor in 1886, Ybor City developed as a result of labor problems in Key West. Ybor felt that moving his cigar factories from Key West to the Tampa area would help his business thrive, especially with the area’s access to the railroad system. He purchased 40 acres of land on the outskirts of the city limits, and by March construction began on cigar factories and homes for the workers. Ybor lured workers to the area by offering good-paying jobs and the opportunity to purchase homes.
“My daddy came to Ellis Island from Spain and was an apprentice to a cigar maker in New York,” said Orlando Vega, a native of Ybor City. “He came to Florida when he was 17 years old because he knew there were jobs and that he could afford to buy a house instead of just renting like most other people did.”
The quality of Ybor City’s cigars set it apart from many other cigar-manufacturing towns of the late 1800s. Most workers used the Spanish Hand Process, a special technique of “bunching” the tobacco prior to rolling the cigar, and many considered themselves craftsmen more than manufacturers. Also, since most of the tobacco came from Cuba, it was much fresher when it arrived in Tampa than it was upon arrival in the northern cities. In addition, the industry was accepting of women, who worked side by side with their male counterparts, and blacks, many of African and Cuban descent.
Ybor City quickly became congested with cigar factories, as companies from Havana, Key West, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia relocated their entire operations or set up branches in the area. Eventually, more than 10,000 immigrants called Ybor City home. Those not working in the factories set up businesses to serve the cigar factory employees. Most Jewish and Chinese immigrants had shops and restaurants lining Seventh Avenue, a short walk from the majority of the factories. Also, the First National Bank of Tampa was set up originally to handle cigar transactions.
The most prominent ethnic groups set up social clubs, which provided health care and entertainment to their members. Though the groups celebrated individual cultures outside the factories, inside was a different story.
“Italians, Jews, Cubans, Germans, most of them were Spaniards, though,” Vega said, referring to the workers of the cigar factories. “But they all learned to speak Spanish because that was what the lector spoke.”
The lector was who kept the workers entertained throughout their long days in the factories. He would sit or stand on a platform raised above the workers and read to them, everything from the daily news to famous novels to poetry and drama.
“My daddy always said the people in the factories knew more than most others at the time. The lector offered them a good education,” Vega said.
Aside from educators, lectors were also entertainers. During the reading of books and plays, one man had to take the part of multiple characters by changing his voice and acting out the emotion. Factory workers were able to select the material read to them and each donated 25 cents of their own wages to make up the lector’s salary.
In 1899, factory owners introduced scales to the factories as a way to prevent the workers from stealing loose tobacco. This led to a strike that would cost $600,000 in lost wages and would force 1,400 workers to leave the area.
“My father was working in ‘Charles the Great’s’ factory (the Arturo Fuente Factory) at the time of the first strike,” Vega recalled. “He and Mama both were home for three months. He was friends with the owner and he was nervous when he had to talk to him about the strike, but Charles told him, ‘Business is business, and friendship is friendship,’ so my daddy did what he had to do.”
This was only the beginning of rough times for Ybor City and its residents. In 1910, machine molds were introduced to the factories, which, while they quickened the production of a cigar, also threatened people’s jobs. By the 1920s, some factories had machines producing entire cigars. Other issues in the industry began to surface during this same time.
“Up until World War I, most men wouldn’t be seen smoking cigarettes,” said Stanford J. Newman, CEO of JC Newman Cigar Co. “But during the war, the cigarette companies distributed cigarettes through the Red Cross for free. Those are more habit-forming than cigars, so after the war people began to buy cigarettes instead of cigars.”
Another even more detrimental event was the onset of the Great Depression.
“The big depression came in 1929 and lasted until 1933, and things in this country started to diminish until Roosevelt got into office and implemented new laws. Many factories closed in Tampa and up North during that time because people didn’t have money for cigars,” Newman said.
Once the Depression ended, union strikes plagued the industry. Lectors were blamed for spreading radical ideas and were eventually no longer allowed. They were replaced by radios which upset many workers and caused more unrest among the unions.
By the 1940s, so many factories had closed that unemployment in Ybor City caused many residents to relocate. Only a few factories remained open as Ybor City entered a new era of disintegration.
What’s left of the cigar industry today in Ybor City pales in comparison to what it used to be. JC Newman Cigar Co., which is located in “el reloj” (meaning the clock, it is the Regensburg Factory which used to produce Cuesta Rey cigars), is the only factory left in the area that still produces hand-rolled cigars.
“We don’t make a lot of cigars here, only (50,000) to 60,000,” Newman said. But we distribute all over the country and sell to 81 countries around the world.”
Newman also mentioned that there are two factories that still produce machine-made cigars, but they’re much cheaper and made more like cigarettes.
Within the past few years, there has been resurgence in the preservation of Ybor’s history. Old buildings are being restored and cleaned up, and much attention is being paid to the intricate history that started the town. While it may never get back the booming City of Commerce that it once was, it remains a treasured area of Tampa and a piece of living history.