In the early days of Tampa, you could stand on the banks of the Hillsborough River, and if the wind was blowing just right, you might smell the thick aroma of cedar permeating the air. As cigar factories from Palmetto Beach to West Tampa hummed with workers, several ancillary businesses sprouted to support the booming industry. Restaurants and boarding houses kept workers fed and housed. At the same time, other companies manufactured the equipment and tools necessary to produce quality hand-rolled cigars.
Billy Sunday has been downtown preaching for the past couple of days, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed,” I began, pausing for the dismissive mumbling and laughter to clear the room. “Indeed, the aptly named Mr. Sunday has come to town to save your wretched souls…at least that’s what he says. Mr. Sunday has a bit of what you might call a colored past.
He arrived in America with his father, Vincent, and two brothers in 1886. He was still experiencing the pain of losing his mother, Sarah, the year before. His father wanted to start a new life with his sons, and America was the place to do that. They first arrived in New York but soon after that settled in Tampa, knowing there were many jobs to find.
“Now is the time to make a decision.” Saying it, I surprise even myself. “The M. Fernandez Factory was called out yesterday, and the workers have joined the picket line. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports that Castange Ficcarrotta and Angelo Albano–two Italian anarchists–were found hanged this morning across the river in Tampa. I wait for this to sink in, and the workers, quietly setting up for a day of rolling or still shuffling into the galleria, all come to a stop. There is no collective sigh, no gasp, just their eyes watching me on the stand, and I can feel them staring; I can feel them beginning to shoulder the weight of what I have just told them. This strike has dragged on since June, the slow Florida summer doing little to alleviate the pent-up tensions. It’s all over the New York papers, too. The New York Times ran a story on Tampa’s “necktie party,” but I can’t bear to tell them that.
In 1886, Tampa was a city in transition. A small outpost on the west coast of Florida, Tampa was a community of less than 800 residents in 1880. The arrival of Henry Plant’s South Florida Railway and the establishment of the cigar industry transformed Tampa into an ethnically diverse urban center in the New South. By 1900, over 5,000 people called Tampa home.
I knew the workers were anxiously awaiting my arrival to share with them the news in today’s morning Tampa Tribune. I would have to delay drinking my first cup of café con leche until after I read about yesterday’s daring bank robbery attempt. “Read Señor, please read and tell us what happened,” one voice yelled.
AN INCIDENT DURING THE CIGAR WORKERS STRIKE OF 1901:AN EXCERPT FROM THE MEMOIR OF LUIS BARCIA GUILABERT
Thus begins one of the most startling and fascinating memoirs I have ever encountered. I did not know the man or even heard of him, but his words were so hot and piercing that I could not put the manuscript down. He wrote in Castilian and his son-in-law had them translated into English. The English are somewhat strained, so I procured a copy of the original Castilian memoir from Barcia's grandson, John Diaz, Jr. In that typed copy, many of the letters were fused into smudges that were difficult to read. But the task was well worth the effort, for, by the turn of the century, Tampa emerged almost unrecognizable from the ashes of a cigar industry bound in strikes and turmoil. In it, we glimpse a century of society's evolution in a few pages.
I awoke early on this fourth day of April 1930 to an unusually cold day. My oil heater did little to keep the chill out of the wooden boarding house I called home. I looked down from my second-story window to the activity on the street below.
In 1886, the same year Ybor City was founded, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor. These two events are more closely linked than might appear at first glance. Between 1880 and 1890, 5.2 million immigrants entered the U.S., seeking the freedom and opportunity that the Lady in the Harbor offered. Some of these early immigrants were destined for Ybor City, and over the decades between the neighborhood's founding and 1921 (when the great tide of immigration finally began to ebb), many more came to live and work in the town that Vicente Martinez Ybor–himself an immigrant–built. This is their story, and it is up to them to say How We Got Here.
Gavino Gutiérrez used his imagination and business acumen to open the door for the vibrant cigar industry that turned Tampa into the Cigar Capital of the World.
Between 1936 and 1940, the Federal Writers Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), visited Tampa to take oral histories from residents. They collected several writings from residents. This particular writing comes from Enrique Pendás, a well-known cigar manufacturer. The narrative below contains his personal feelings regarding the politics of the time and other controversial topics. Some words are illegible, so question marks (?) or suggested words in parentheses are used in their place.
I grabbed a rung and slowly climbed the ladder to my chair on the tribunal. With a heavy heart, I pondered how I would tell the workers what I knew. As they sat in the gallery quietly waiting for me to begin reading, I heard the sharp sound of their chavetas cutting cigars. Taking a deep breath, my lungs filled with the tobacco aroma that always permeated the air. A smell that, strangely enough, I like. Combined with the scent of the Cuban coffee the workers drink, it gives me a warm feeling and produces special memories of growing up in this cigar city.
Google “Cuesta Rey,” and you get 58 pages of websites in many languages–mostly cigar stores that sell the brand. Sometimes they are listed as “Cuban Cigars” and sometimes listed under “Pre-Embargo Cigars.” The cigars are made in the República Dominicana by Arturo Fuente and distributed by the J.C. Newman Company. The Cuesta Rey cigar survived global tastes and global politics. The cigar’s original home, the Cuesta Rey Cigar Factory, did not. One of the largest and most successful cigar companies of the Cigar City Boom, Cuesta y Rey Co. employed 500 workers in its West Tampa factory beginning in 1896.
It was 1957, and I was excited about the crab enchilada dinner my parents and I were invited to at Nena and Ulysses Henriquez’s home. My brother had recently married their granddaughter, Yolanda, and our two families often gathered for big dinners. I always had fun at their house; the food was plentiful and delicious!
Sunday, May 7, 2006, Tampa's legendary cigar industry fell silent for just a moment as a sign of respect for the death of one of its last chinchaleros (tobacco stand owner)–Vincent Ruilova, age 92. He was better known as Majomia, a Spanish nickname his friends gave him, meaning impatient or restless, describing him perfectly.
Having been on strike for 6 months, Cigar workers in Tampa called a workers’ meeting and voted to continue the strike. The Tampa Tribune reported on the meeting and called closed shops “un-American.” When the strike ended 4 months later, it had been the longest and most expensive in the Tampa cigar industry.
Several of Tampa's most notable culinary creations remind us of life's difficulties. The elongated loaves of Cuban bread betray a history of hunger and rationing during Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain. The Cuban sandwich turned those thin loaves into symbols of plenty. Tampa's deviled crab croquettes tell a similar story of want and abundance.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat. -Theodore Roosevelt (1858 -1919)
In the early 1940s, Justo Fulgueira worked as a cigar maker in a Ybor City factory when a shortage of cigar molds inspired him to design a fantastic machine. He would eventually become a "master mold maker," and his reputation would be known worldwide.
Tampa's Colorful Cigar Labels are More Than Just Pretty Pictures
Cigar labels are everywhere lately. T-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, and shower curtains are decorated with images all too familiar to native Tampans. It's one way to connect with and embrace our city's legacy as the "Cigar City."
In the 1800s and 1900s, millions of immigrants came to this country hoping to escape religious and social discrimination, political unrest, and financial struggles. In the following stories, you will learn about three immigrants who believed America would provide them unlimited opportunities. Their achievements would ultimately impact the cigar industry in Tampa and the world.
Sadly, during the 19th and 20th centuries, child labor was prevalent in our country. Our children worked in mills, mines, and factories 12 or more hours a day, six days a week. Americans knew the practice existed, but whether they knew the issue's scope or depth is still being determined. But it happened, and no one seemed to care.
How were cigars made? What was the process by which tobacco was cultivated, harvested, and formed into a "Clear Havana" cigar? In this article, we'll look at the physical aspects of the cigar industry in Tampa, Florida, beginning with the opening of Vicente Martinez Ybor's factory in 1886 and through the industry's decline in the late 1930s. How did the industry develop? How did the factories operate? Who worked in them? What jobs did they perform? Though you may be familiar with the "Ybor City Story," sometimes the simple questions get overlooked.
"THE BEST OF THE BEST"
Winston Churchill liked the mild Optimo cigar manufactured by A. Santaella Cigars, and so did Babe Ruth. Tampa was one of "The Babe's" favorite places to visit–he had made his mark here on April 4, 1919, in a pre-season game the Boston Red Sox played against the New York Giants. He knocked a 587-foot home run out of the Tampa Fair Grounds, over a fence, and into a furrow in a farmer's field!
In my years of growing up in Ybor City, which was the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, there was one man who stood out head and shoulders above the population. All who aspire to intellectualism, to appreciators of art and music, and to be leaders in the politics of that day, basically a long sputtering fight against communism, had to look up to Don Victoriano Manteiga. He was our leader.