He was a simple man who owned a bicycle shop in Ybor City, which doubled as a makeshift museum. He spent his time and money decorating its walls with old photographs and documents from the early days of Ybor City. His father, Antonio del Rio, arrived with Vicente Martinez Ybor in 1886 and helped build this cigar town, so Emilio had many memories.
I first learned about Emilio del Rio when I stumbled across an old newspaper clipping while researching at the University of South Florida Special Collections Library. The story ran in the Orlando Sentinel 26 years ago and was written by a reporter named Dick Burdette. He met the old man one day in 1981 and was intrigued by him and his one-man attempt to erect a museum in Ybor City.
After reading the story, I began to speak with various individuals involved in founding the Ybor State Museum to see what they remembered about Emilio del Rio.
These are some of the comments I received:
"I'm familiar with Emilio del Rio's name but never met him. If he's the person I'm thinking about, he wrote a book in Spanish about his father called, 'Yo fui uno de los fundadores de Ybor City' (I was one of the founders of Ybor City)."
"I met Emilio del Rio several times, but he was quite elderly and not very helpful."
"I just don't think he was a part of the initial steering committee for the Ybor State Museum."
"Regarding Emilio del Rio, I never met the gentleman, but several people have mentioned him."
"Emilio was quite elderly when we began the Ybor City State Museum, and he did not have anything to do with its formation."
"In his humble way, he made a creditable contribution."
Emilio's name was known, but no one remembered his involvement in founding the Ybor State Museum; they remembered him as an old man. Refusing to be discouraged, I looked up his obituary in the Tampa Tribune archives. The obituary contained typical information: family and friends' names and specifics regarding the funeral. However, I found one comment in his obituary quite interesting: Historian and novelist, founder of the Ybor City Museum.
His family felt they needed to recognize Emilo's accomplishment with his small museum and included this comment. With my curiosity increasing, I wanted to know more about Emilio del Rio's life and the museum he founded. It had to be an early museum he established–long before the Ybor State Museum was even a thought.
I began calling all the del Rios in the telephone book, trying to find a relative, but no one knew Emilio. I also asked some of Ybor's old timers if they knew if any of his family was still living in Tampa somewhere–they did not.
After many hours of research, interviewing others, and finding old photographs, I wrote this story, hoping that someone out there would call or write to tell us more about this fascinating man.
Emilio del Rio may not have been one of the primary founders of the Ybor State Museum. Still, at the very least, he was the catalyst who created the idea for the current museum in the old Ferlita Bakery Building.
I included Emilio del Rio in this issue's "Dreamers and Doers" section of Cigar City Magazine. It is only fitting that his name be remembered and recorded in the history of Ybor City and also that he be thanked for a dream that became a reality.
With permission from the Orlando Sentinel, we are reprinting the newspaper story written in 1981.
"HE DIDN'T DIE UNTIL YBOR CITY'S HISTORY WAS SECURE"
TAMPA–August 16, 1981- I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have seen the look on the old man's face. Not that he could have seen anything. The old man was blind and pushing 90, so frail and in such poor health that sometimes they didn't know how he kept going.
Perhaps it was the dream that made him cling so tenaciously to life. Maybe that's why Emilio del Rio died shortly after he attended the long-awaited opening of the state-operated Ybor City Historical Museum.
For more than 20 years, Emilio del Rio's passion was preserving a portion of Ybor City's colorful past in the form of a museum.
A couple of years ago, on a hot, muggy weekday afternoon, Emilio del Rio sat in his cool, neat, modest bungalow on this city's east side, near the Republica de Cuba, and talked about relics and keepsakes and mementos of days gone by.
Like thousands of people who live, or once lived, in this historic Cuban-Spanish-Italian settlement, Emilio del Rio was proud of Ybor City – and not without good reason. Emilio del Rio's father, Antonio del Rio, founded Ybor City along with Vicente Martinez Ybor and Jose Santo in 1886. And, if anybody doubted it, hanging on the wall of Emilio del Rio's living room was an original deed–page 11, book no. 1 and dated December 16, 1886.
By any stretch of the imagination, it wasn't the only relic adorning Emilio del Rio's home. On another wall hung a 'Graham Bell'–one of the first-ever telephones in town. In another room was an upright Edison phonograph and a bunch of cylinder-shaped records.
The place was a storehouse of photographs - irreplaceable photographs of Ybor City landmarks, personalities, and Gasparilla parades vintage 1910. Of the first car ever built in Tampa. Of old cigar factories.
And, there was good reason Emilio del Rio spent so much time searching out and preserving remnants of Ybor City's past. Emilio del Rio was Ybor City's first-ever mechanic and bicycle repairman; its first locksmith, phonograph repairman, typewriter repairman, gunsmith, and watchmaker.
And, if you got past his modesty, Emilio del Rio would own up to being a juggler, a ventriloquist, and a magician back in the days when Ybor City residents flocked to their very own carnival.
Before his sight failed him, Emilio del Rio also wrote a history of Ybor City–one version in Spanish, one in English. Even after he was forced to live in a world of shadows, Emilio del Rio refused to give up on the idea that someday, people could walk into a museum and read much of the history he lived, wrote, and saved.
Even though, if you want to know the truth, Emilio del Rio was not convinced that anyone shared his passion for Ybor City's past.
'So many people say they are going to do something,' Emilio del Rio said that afternoon a couple of years ago. 'They come, borrow my things, and lose, steal, or destroy them…'
This was why, back in 1979, even when the city of Tampa and the state of Florida began clearing the rats, debris, and winos out of the old F. Ferlita Bakery Building within view of Seventh Avenue, Ybor City's main drag, and announced plans to restore and preserve the old bakery building as a state-run museum, Emilio del Rio politely said he would wait and see.
But this time, it wasn't just talk.
The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, and in it are relics and photographs, some of them the ones Emilo del Rio saved when nobody else seemed to care.
Yeah, I wish I had been there the day it opened. I wish I could have seen the smile on the old man's face…"
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- MAY/JUNE 2007
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.
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
FOLLOW CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE