By 1939, Tampa’s cigar industry was clearly in trouble. Between 1929 and 1939, 17 factories closed, and Tampa’s cigar manufacturers employed about 5,000 fewer people than they did ten years earlier. A 1939 Tampa Times article cited “less than 20 plants which could be called ‘major.’” But in 1935, none of that mattered. In 1935, what mattered was the Cigar Industry Golden Jubilee. Over four days, the citizens of Tampa were invited to revere the industry that made the town famous.
The Tampa Times observed that perhaps Tampans were “too close” to appreciate the impact cigars had on Tampa, a sentiment that might be as true today as it was in 1935. However, the event underscored the industry’s historic influence and garnered international media attention while attracting huge local crowds and distinguished visitors.
Beginning with the Verbena celebration, the four-day event included:
Mayor Robert E. Lee Chancey requested all businesses and schools close for the parade featuring dozens of floats, some of which appeared in the Gasparilla Parade a few weeks earlier. A delegation of Cuban naval ships, including the Cuban Presidential Yacht, also participated in the event.
The opening night verbena–a Spanish-style carnival–was held at Plant Park and featured traditional folk performances from the Italian, Cuban, Spanish, and German social clubs participating. The verbena included a public wedding (the bride wore a dress made entirely of cigar leaves), a German beer garden, and each of Tampa’s ethnic mutual aid societies maintained its pavilion where scheduled performances took place every 30 minutes.
As much a celebration of the cigar industry’s 50th birthday, the Golden Jubilee was also a public relations spectacle, the last gasp of a dying era. By 1949, cigar factories employed about 7,000 cigar workers, and the number of large factories had shrunk to 18. By the 1950s, the industry was almost entirely mechanized, with less than 2,500 workers still making hand-rolled cigars.
Verbenas continued until about 1940, while other “Latin Fiestas” and events continued through the 1960s. Today, events like the Cigar Heritage Festival in December and Fiesta Day in February continue to celebrate cigars and Tampa’s Latin influence.
The photos shown highlight the spirit of the original cigar industry celebration.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2007
Manny Leto is the Executive Director for the Preserve the 'Burg in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also worked as Director of Community Outreach for the Ybor City Museum Society, then became the managing editor of Cigar City Magazine and Director of Marketing for 15 years with the Tampa Bay History Center.
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