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.
Along with leading the nation in producing "Clear" or "Puro Havana" cigars, Tampa was also a leading producer of cedar cigar boxes and was home to one the world's largest box manufacturers, Tampa Box Company.
Between 1889 and 1960, several box companies operated in Tampa. While these companies often merged, consolidated, or closed due to fire, there were usually between two and five factories operating in Tampa at any time. The first box company in Tampa, A. A. Wood, opened in 1889 on 7th Avenue and 17th Street in Ybor City, eventually changing its name to Tampa Box Company in 1895. Other factories include Holway and Field, 1895; Wood and Thompson, circa 1900; N.D. Holway, 1903; Weidman and Fisher, 1909; American Box Factory, 1920; J.W. Young, 1921; and Enterprise Box Company, circa 1930. A 1956 Tampa Tribune article lists Hillsborough, Hasselo, Enterprise, and Consolidated Box companies as those still operating in the city in the mid-1950s.
The box-making process began once crews unloaded their shipments of imported cedar. A sawmill located on the Hillsborough River cut the logs into long, thin sheets. Workers then placed the sheets of cedar inside steam cabinets to remove the wood's natural oils, diminishing their overpowering aroma. The sheets were then sent to box companies, where they were fashioned into boxes and sold to cigar manufacturers.
Spanish or Cuban cedar was the preferred wood for making cigar boxes. Oils emitted from the wood are believed to impart a better flavor that helps "marry" the cigar blends. Tobacco trade journals published around the turn of the century credit the "flavoring properties" of Cuban cedar trees grown in the tobacco-producing regions of the island. During the Spanish-American War, cedar was imported from Mexico. Eventually, box manufacturers began using cedar from other regions, such as Honduras. In general, however, oils emitted by cedar help to keep cigars moist and aid in the maturation of the tobacco.
Lumber originally reached Tampa via four-mast schooners and later on steamers. Wooden sailing schooners carrying 12-man crews sailed into the Port of Tampa to unload the cedar logs, floating them down Hillsborough Bay or the Hillsborough River. One resident, describing his childhood in the early 1940s, recalled, "They used to bring in the British Honduras cedar trees, logs. They were anywhere from forty to sixty feet long. They lapped them up in the river, and we played on those. Then, they would stack them up on the side of the river, cut them up into six lengths, and truck them to the Tampa Box Factory. They made regular real cigar boxes…"
Neighborhood children liked to search through the 20-foot-high piles of cut cedar using remnants to build kites. Unlike other children around the country who may have used balsa wood, Tampa's kids used fine Spanish cedar.
The Tampa Box Factory's original 7th Avenue location burned down in 1905, and a new stone masonry facility was constructed in 1915 on 21st Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Ybor City. The one-story facility was entirely built by hand. The Tampa Box Company made boxes of every shape and size but specialized in pure-cedar boxes. They also crafted coffee, tea, and spice cans made from Cuban mahogany and other hardwoods.
In 1931, Tampa Box Company and The Weidman-Fisher Company merged, operating under Lieman (owner of Tampa Box Co.) and Weidman. Now, with two locations, one on Highland Avenue and the other on 2nd Avenue in Ybor City, the company employs over 700 workers. During its peak, the Lieman Weidman Company, still known locally as Tampa Box Company was the world's largest manufacturer of cigar boxes.
One local worker, interviewed for the Federal Writers Project in 1938, described his experience at the Tampa Box Company:
"I work in the cigar box factory. We make forty thousand boxes a day. The girls dress them boxes up mighty pretty. The factory sure is a prison, too. I kinda hate to start work because I know I'll have to keep on working steady until this time next year. We work steady all the time. The box factory don't close down like the cigar factories cause we always got orders coming in from all over the country." "…that company is making millions for the owners. Government man made an investigation last year to see how much them owners are making and they published how much it was in the papers. We saw one of them papers over here, and we read where the plant director is making eighteen thousand dollar a year. Man, we was plenty darn sore. Some fellers say 'he making all that money every year and we working like slaves for twelve dollar a week!'"
"…I been working fifteen years in the box mill. Fifteen years is a long time. We makes the leetle thin paperwood out of cedar to wrap the good cigars in; that keeps them from drying and keeps out the bugs too...there is one Negro man work there, seventy-five years old. He been working in that business for more than fifty-five years. He is the only colored man working there and he has another colored man to help. A lot of crackers from out in the woods is working there. We can't get no union started cause them crackers will work for anything…they work for enough to buy a little bacon and a sack of flour and they is satisfied."
Today, cigar manufacturers limit the use of cedar boxes to their higher-end brands. "It's hard to get good cedar," said Arthur Fuente Jr., President of Tampa Sweetheart Cigar Company in Tampa. "Workmanship is costly, but cedar boxes provide a better presentation for cigars like the Opus X." Most of the wood comes from South America, and boxes are constructed in Honduras, Costa Rica, and other South and Central American countries.
The Tampa Box Factory in Ybor City is now The Box Factory Lofts, a 53-unit residential condo development. The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation recently awarded the development its Adaptive Reuse Award and earned an Excellence Award from the Hillsborough County Planning Commission.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
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.
FOLLOW CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE