A historic walking tour of Cigar City in Tampa, Florida, reveals the genius of Vicente Martinez-Ybor, quite possibly America’s first Hispanic entrepreneur who, in 1886, orchestrated the development of Ybor City, now Tampa’s Historic Latin Quarter, and Florida’s first industrial town.
Being in Tampa for only three days in early January, in the midst of the chilling “Bomb Cyclone” weather pattern, ruled out visiting a number of the popular outdoor attractions and water sports that Tampa is known for. While researching more indoor type activities, I learned that Tampa has a historic Latin Quarter area called Ybor City, aka Cigar City — my curiosity was piqued and, with the help of Visit Tampa Bay, I was able to meet up with a local historian for a late morning walking tour on my last day.
A bronze statue of Vicente Martinez Ybor gazing over 7th Avenue of the city he built was designated as our meeting point. Ybor City comes alive at night, but at 11:00 a.m. the town was barely awake, even on 7th Avenue, the city’s colorful commercial center. Having a few minutes to spare, I walked across the street to watch cigars being hand-rolled at Tabanero Cigars and peeked into just-opening cafes, gift shops, vintage clothing stores, and a number of bars biding their time until beer o’clock.
Ybor City became known as the Cigar Capital of the World in the early 1900’s when an estimated 700 million cigars were hand rolled daily in the 230 cigar factories that populated the town. Immigrants from Cuba, Sicily, Italy, Spain, Germany and Romania came to work in the cigar industry established by Vicente Martinez Ybor. With them, they brought their rich cultures and skills from their homelands, which live on today in Tampa’s Historical Latin Quarter.
At Tabanero Cigars, you can see Cubans hand rolling cigars; step inside and hear the banter and laughter as they speedily roll and repeat, fuel up on dark coffee or sweet café con leche, and even smoke a stogie. You can also take a factory tour — sign up 24 hours in advance, tours are at 4:00 p.m.
Like me, you’re probably thinking — wait a minute, wouldn’t the largest manufacturer of cigars be in Cuba? My private walking tour with local historian, Lonnie Herman, delved deeper into the history of Ybor City. Here’s how Ybor City became the Cigar Capital of the World in the late 19th and early 20th century:
Vicente Martinez-Ybor was born in Spain and, at age 14, was sent to Cuba to avoid military service in Spain. In Cuba, he learned the cigar business and soon had his own factory. During the Ten Years War between Cuba and Spain, he fell in disfavor as a result of his outspoken objections to Spanish rule. He was forced to leave Cuba and moved his cigar operations to Key West in 1869. His business prospered in Key West, but was plagued with labor problems, conflicts between Cubans and Spaniards, and transportation difficulties to and from the island.
Ybor dreamed big — he wanted to build a cigar industry town, not just one factory. He and Ignacio Haya, began exploring possible sites for his town and, in 1885, decided on the port city of Tampa, which offered transportation links provided by a steamship line and a newly expanded railroad. At the time, Tampa was basically a mosquito and alligator infested swamp with a population of about 700, but land was cheap and they, along with several partners, purchased 40 acres from the Tampa Board of Trade.
Originally constructed in 1886 as the city’s first cigar factory, Ybor Square is a complex of three brick buildings built around a central courtyard, with a separate building for the three stages of the cigar making process: stemming, sorting, and rolling. On April 13, 1886 the first cigar was rolled by the Sanchez & Haya factory.
The huge factories had rows of windows to keep air flowing and workers were served café con leche throughout the day to keep them energized. Interestingly, an oral tradition brought over from Cuba made cigar factory workers the best educated factory workers in the world — the well educated and respected “El Lector” (Reader), would read from a raised wooden lectern in the middle of the factory floor – usually political articles and Cuban current events from Spanish newspapers followed by literary classics. El Lector was hired (and fired) by the workers, but factory owners eventually did away with El Lector feeling that it gave the workers ideas that led to labor unrest and strikes.
Stop by the Ybor City Visitors Center to view a short film and see the cigar making process.
In 2010, the Church of Scientology acquired Ybor Square and conducted careful restoration and renovation. Among the historical artifacts preserved in the buildings are an original tobacco bale press and the lectern from which the cigar factory’s lector read to the workers.
Across the street from his factory on 9th Street is another historic site, The El Pasaje (also known as the Cherokee Club). Also built in 1886, it housed the offices and private social club for Vicente Martinez Ybor’s companies as he planned Ybor City and ran his cigar factory and other businesses. El Pasaje has been home to many establishments since: a hotel, several restaurants (the latest was Café Creole whose sign remains), several bars and speakeasies, a military recruiting station, and newspaper offices, among others.
A shrewd businessman, Ybor lured workers to Ybor City with the promise of interest free home ownership. The “casita” was a well built, wooden structure elevated on bricks to protect against wild animals and flooding. Built in the “shot gun” style, where the front and back doors are aligned, allowed for cross ventilation in the sweltering heat. The home was purchased from the factory owner at slightly above cost with payment taken out of the worker’s weekly earnings. You can see three original examples of these casitas on 9th Avenue near Centennial Park.
If you build it, they will come. Ybor’s vision of a land where all people could flourish and prosper attracted thousands of Cuban, Afro-Cuban and Spanish cigar rollers who immigrated to Ybor City, bought homes and settled down. Sicilians migrated from New Orleans or Florida sugar plantations, some learned to roll cigars and others opened businesses such as cafes, food stores, restaurants, and boarding houses. Soon, Romanian Jews and Germans followed. Most of the Jews became merchants while Germans worked as bookkeepers, managers, and supervisors in the cigar factories or in German-owned cigar box factories.
The Immigrant Statue in Ybor City’s Centennial Park, erected in 1991, represents all the people that came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
There was a blending of cultures with residents harmoniously going about their daily routine of eating, working, and socializing. At the heart of Ybor City were the social clubs — also known as Mutual Aid Societies. Each ethnic group formed their own social club to help their people with the transition to the New World and provided medical care to members in exchange for the dues collected — around $.25 per month. The clubs were the gathering place for families and friends and offered live music and entertainment, sports gymnasiums, cafes, and ballrooms for dances and celebrations.
The Cuban Social Club (Circulo Cubano).
I felt like an actor on a period piece film set as we walked the deserted cobblestone streets from the original factory on 8th Avenue to 14th Avenue to the Cuban Social Club, an impressive 4-story, yellow building with Neo-Classical design elements. Constructed in 1917, the building contained a two-story theater, pharmacy, library, and Cantina, as well as an elaborate Grand Ballroom and gymnasium, complete with lockers, a swimming pool, and two bowling lanes.
A few young people arrived with instruments while Lonnie told me tales of life in Cigar City circa turn of the twentieth century. The Cuban, Spanish, Italian and Afro-Cuban clubs are still active as social clubs with the purpose of keeping their heritage alive for present and future generations.
Ybor City is small and very walkable – for a larger and interactive view of this map visit Discover Downtown Tampa.
Visit Cuba – no passport required. Many thanks to my guide, Lonnie Herman, for sharing the colorful history behind Ybor City and for having the key to unlock the gates to Cuba for me! Yes, right here in Ybor City is the only piece of U.S. land owned by Cuba.
This tiny park is dedicated to Jose Marti, the Cuban revolutionary poet, journalist and political theorist who visited Tampa many times in the early 1890’s to rouse Cuban cigar workers and raise money to free Cuba from years of oppressive Spanish rule. During his visits to Tampa, Marti would stay at the home of Afro-Cuban patriots, Ruperto and Paulina Pedroso. The park sits on the site of the Pedrosa boardinghouse at the corner of 8th Avenue and 13th Street. In 1956, the 0.14 acre plot was deeded to Cuba and the Cuban government donated the money to create a memorial park for Marti. Fun fact: the plants in the park grow in Cuban soil brought from the different provinces of Cuba. The park is managed by the Cuban Historical and Cultural Center and maintained by the City of Tampa.
My short time in Cuba was not as sunny and warm as I would have liked and it was time to experience a few of the other cultural aspects of Ybor City, like returning to Tabanero Cigars, see video above, and sipping warm café con leche. Then, heading over to Carmines to fulfill my Cubano craving.
Carmine’s has been serving awesome Cuban-Italian cuisine since 1948 and their Cubano did not disappoint; appropriately paired with a Ybor Gold amber ale and a side of fried plantains, while watching the Epiphany ritual of diving for the cross in the cold and murky waters of Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs, Florida, no less.
The Cubano sandwich is a delicious expression of the ethnic diversity in Ybor City: the bread and pork from the Cubans, ham from the Spaniards, salami from the Italians, and cheese, pickles, and mustard from the Jews and Germans. Take a bite of history!
More delicioso food and drink coming in the next post. Thanks for reading!
If you want to combine sampling the local craft beer, there are three breweries in Ybor City: Coppertail Brewing Co., Rock Brothers Brewing, and Tampa Bay Brewing Company’s Ybor City Brewpub – maker of the Ybor Gold Amber Ale which I enjoyed at several places in Tampa.
Take advantage of the heritage Teco Line streetcars that run between downtown Tampa, Channelside and Ybor City. They served as the main form of transportation between Tampa and Ybor City for workers and residents back in the day. In 1893, the steam-powered streetcars were converted to electricity. They’re fun, cheaper than Uber, and kids love them – the day I rode (1st Saturday), it was free.
While you’re exploring Ybor City, you’ll see chickens roaming freely and roosters strutting their stuff. The best chicken sightings are near their nesting ground at Centennial Park. They are urbanized wild chickens, protected by the city, that are direct descendants of the chickens that lived in the backyards of the neighborhoods earliest residents over 100 years ago.
Interested in seeing Cigar City for yourself? PIN this collage to your vacation and bucket list Pinterest Boards!
You can easily do the historical walking tour on your own, but I highly recommend strolling with Lonnie Herman to get the full story of this unique area of Tampa.