What’s the first city you think of when you think US cigar history? Yeah, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought of Miami. I learned a while back; however, that there was another city in Florida that gave birth to the American cigar industry in the late 1800s before cigar companies started to make their homes in Miami. That city within a city was Ybor City, a small bustling neighborhood a few blocks northeast of downtown Tampa, named after Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish immigrant that had a successful cigar companies in Key West and Cuba.
Having the chance to finally take in Ybor City on a recent trip to Tampa, I saw pieces of history on every corner. From the small row-style homes that housed many of Ybor’s workers to the still present cigar culture that you can smell and savor while walking down the street. Having more “Mom and Pop” cigar shops than one could enjoy in one day, there are plenty of hand-rolled cigars for aficionados and tourist to partake in. Many of the old factory building still exist, some housing museums that detail the rich history and some being used as restaurants and retail establishments. Right in the middle of the bustling entertainment district is a statue of the man that started it all, Vicente Martinez Ybor, so we won’t ever forget whose vision and hard work helped to bring the past time we love from Cuba to the US.
Originally called “Ybor’s City”, thousands of immigrants flocked to this Tampa melting pot and prospered by working and helping to build the city and Ybor’s company…and the cigar industry in the United States. Producing millions of cigars annually in the 1880s through World War II, this small port town attracted workers from all over the southeast and the world. A true Equal Opportunity Employer, Ybor was able to not only leverage the strengths of cigar rollers from Cuba and Spain, but taught many Italian immigrants the trade and enlisted Germans immigrants to help handle administrative and box production for his cigar companies. Not only were the multiple job opportunities attractive to those fleeing their countries for a better life, but they offered the chance to work for unparalleled benefits for this time and for homes that Ybor built for the community; many of which still stand to this day. While not everyone joined in the cigar revolution that he created, many of those that took residence in Ybor City opened their own cafés, food stores, restaurants, and boardinghouses. These traditions and flavors are still seen, tasted and felt today as the district still provides traditional European and Cuban cuisines, coffee, products and entertainment.
To cap off the perfect trip to Tampa, we had the chance to visit our good friends and my Odyssey to Honduras brothers, Rick Rodriguez, Master Blender of CAO Cigars and Bruce Busch, Foreign Language Teacher extraordinaire. Sitting in Rick’s famous garage, he and his wife treated us to the best, an biggest, Cuban meal…all while enjoying test blends of cigars! I am still full to this day.
I’ve done enough talking. Here are all of the pictures I took that can tell the story of just how awesome Tampa, Fl, especially Ybor City is.