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.
Perhaps this is how a conversation between Gavino Gutiérrez, and his friend Bernardino Gargol may have transpired back in 1884. They were both young entrepreneurs living and working in New York. Gutiérrez owned an import/export business, selling merchandise from Spain, Cuba, and Mexico, and Bernardino Gargol owned marmalade and guava paste factories in Cuba. The two decided to plan a trip to Tampa to search for guavas. They went by rail to Sanford, Florida, and then by a rough stage ride to Tampa.
Gavino Gutiérrez was born on October 26, 1849, in San Vicente de la Barquera, a beautiful little village in northern Spain near the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains. Deciding to leave his homeland when he was young, he sailed to Cuba, a popular destination for Spanish emigrants. He worked in a store on the island until 1868, when he left for New York at nineteen with just $6 in his pocket. He found employment, saved money, and eventually established an import/export business. He had been schooled in architecture and was a civil engineer–trades that would serve him well in the future.
After the exhausting trip, the two guava travelers arrived in Tampa and found a quiet village of about 700 inhabitants who spent their days fishing, hunting, farming, and cultivating citrus. The town was rustic, with the main streets constructed of wood and the rest made of sand. The residents did not seem to mind the livestock, geese, and hogs sharing the roads with them. Palmetto bushes were scattered about the land, and alligators were frequent visitors.
Advised that guava trees grew plentifully east of Tampa, Gutiérrez and Gargol packed their gear and headed towards a region known as Peru near the Alafia River. They did find a few guava trees, but nowhere near the numbers, they were told to expect. Disappointed, they returned to Tampa, frustrated that their business idea would not materialize. Gutiérrez then looked around the town and liked what he saw. Tampa possessed a natural harbor and good climate; the railroad was being built, and wild game was plentiful. Gutiérrez loved hunting, and since this was a place he could certainly get used to, he decided he would return. His mind began contemplating other business opportunities that might exist.
Gutiérrez decided to stop in Key West on his return to New York to visit a friend, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor. He boarded a paddlewheel ferry and headed to “Cayo Hueso,” as the Spaniards called this Florida island. Gutiérrez wanted to tell his friend Ybor about Tampa. Ybor was the principal owner of the Principe de Gales cigar factory in Key West. He was experiencing many labor problems with his workers and was considering moving his cigar production elsewhere.
When Gutiérrez arrived at Ybor’s home, he found another friend, Ignacio Haya, visiting. Haya was the co-owner of one of the largest cigar factories in New York City, La Flor de Sanchez y Haya. He and Ybor had been discussing the state of the cigar industry in Key West.
Gutiérrez excitedly told his friends about Tampa and all it had to offer. As Tampa’s new self-appointed ambassador, Gutiérrez explained how this area of Florida would be perfect for the cigar industry. Plenty of fresh water existed, the Plant railroad and steamships would provide transportation, and the weather was good for tobacco just as it was for Gutiérrez’s rheumatism. He urged them to visit the city as he had done and see for themselves. Tampa sounded appealing to the two cigar manufacturers. In addition to labor problems, Key West did not have a freshwater supply and could only be reached by ship.
As they toured Tampa, they knew they had found the perfect place to build their cigar factories. Ybor and his business partner Eduardo Manrara looked at some land two miles northeast of downtown Tampa. Captain John T. Lesley owned the 40 acres. He agreed to sell the land for $9,000, but Ybor felt the price was too high. Eventually, he secured financial assistance from Tampa’s Board of Trade, which was trying to attract new business development to the city. They agreed to subsidize $4,000 of the purchase price of the property. Additional acres of land would be purchased later.
With Gutiérrez’s background, he became Ybor City’s architect and construction foreman. He surveyed the land and decided the streets would run north and south and the avenues east and west. The founders discussed what to name the new cigar town and chose that of the eldest of the group–Vicente Martinez Ybor.
The first tree was cut down on October 8, 1885, as the land was cleared. Ybor and Haya began building their factories and houses for the arriving cigar makers. The two cigar magnates rushed to production because each wanted their factory to be the first to produce a cigar. Ignacio Haya’s factory, Sanchez y Haya, won the honor when his factory made the first cigar on April 13, 1886.
Many cigar makers flocked to Ybor City as more factories were built. Businesses opened to support the new residents. In a few short years, the population of Tampa grew rapidly, and its reputation as a “sleepy hamlet” faded into history.
Once Gutiérrez settled in Tampa, he sent for his wife Nellie Daley, a young Irish girl from New York whom he married on October 31, 1877, when he was 28. Together they had four children–Aurora (married D. B. McKay), Gavino Jr. (married Lolita del Corro), Maria Harriet (married Dr. L.B. Mitchell), and Adelaida (married Franciso Colado).
Gutiérrez built his family home on a property he called Spanish Park. His land extended from 7th Avenue in Ybor City to McKay Bay. In the early 1950s, Gutiérrez’s daughter, Maria Harriet Mitchell, sold a large strip of land to the State of Florida for $1 to construct Adamo Drive. The family still owns a remaining strip of the original estate along the bay.
Gutiérrez also owned another piece of property on the Palm River, nicknamed “The Creek.” On Sundays, he held outdoor fiestas and picnics for cigar makers and their families. They rowed their small boats across the bay from present-day 22nd Street and were treated to a day filled with Cuban music and food. Gutiérrez hoped it helped them from becoming too homesick for their homeland.
The small zoo Gutiérrez had on his property intrigued visiting children and adults alike. One large cage held a bear, and Gutiérrez liked to brag that the door of the cage once belonged to the first jail in Tampa. His friend and son-in-law, Tampa Mayor D. B. McKay, gave it to him. The jail door remains in the Gutiérrez family today as a keepsake.
An outdoorsman, Gutiérrez spent lots of time hunting with friends and family. Many existing photographs of Gutiérrez show him standing proudly with his hunting dogs and gun. You can easily pick him out of pictures–a robust man with a bushy red mustache and beard.
In addition to hunting, Gutiérrez loved traveling. In 1919 at 69, he decided he wanted to travel around the world. He planned a voyage aboard the ship of an old Scottish friend, and together, they set sail. His timing was not good as World War I was getting worse. When the news reached the ship, it was off the coast of Africa. Fearing for their safety, they headed to Spain for a safe port. While in Spain, Gavino Gutiérrez became very ill and died. The death of this man of vision occurred on March 8, 1919, and because of the laws of Spain at the time, the family had to wait five years before his body was returned to Tampa for burial. In 1924 Gavino Gutiérrez was laid to rest in Myrtle Hill Cemetery.
Looking back on the life of one of Tampa’s early pioneers, one must wonder how our history would have played out if Gutiérrez had not decided to search for the elusive guava. Fortunately, Gutiérrez was not disappointed by his failed trip. Instead, he 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. For this, we are eternally grateful.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2007
MARILYN L. FIGUEREDO
Marilyn was Cigar City Magazine's co-owner and managing editor until her passing in 2007. Marilyn was born in 1948 in Tampa, where she lived her entire life and, more specifically, her early childhood in Ybor City. After a successful 30-year career at Delta Air Lines, Marilyn embarked on what became her true passion: reinvigorating the colorful, multicultural history of Ybor City through the lives and personal stories of the families and individuals who made up the uniqueness of this Tampa quarter. She did this primarily through Cigar City Magazine, serving on various committees and organizations, and attending cultural events throughout Tampa. Her work alongside her niece Lisa Figueredo, founder and Publisher, was instrumental in producing Cigar City Magazine.
Marilyn's legacy will live forever throughout the pages of Tampa's first historical magazine–CigarCityMagazine
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