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In Florida, the Cigar Trade is On a Roll

  • Ted Landphair

This woman began wrapping tobacco leaves into cigars when she was 16. In her prime, she could produce 400 hand-rolled cigars a day.

This woman began wrapping tobacco leaves into cigars when she was 16. In her prime, she could produce 400 hand-rolled cigars a day.

Little Ybor City, once derelict, is alive and thriving again

If cigars are your thing, you need to check out the city of Tampa, on Florida's west coast, along the Gulf of Mexico.

Tampa slumbered as a little fishing village while East Coast beach towns began to boom as vacation resorts in the late 1800s.

Around the same time, Key West, off the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula, became the center of the cigar industry. It had largely moved out of Spanish-owned Cuba because of tensions that would eventually lead to war between Spain and the United States. Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, who got the Tampa cigar industry rolling, was a Spaniard who sided with insurgents in Cuba, was forced to relocate to Key West, Florida, then uprooted again, to Tampa.

Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, who got the Tampa cigar industry rolling, was a Spaniard who sided with insurgents in Cuba, was forced to relocate to Key West, Florida, then uprooted again, to Tampa.

When those tensions spread to Key West, and some factories were burned, Tampa's leaders invited its biggest cigar maker, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, to relocate there. He did, importing mild Cuban tobacco by ship.

In their first year alone, workers in two little factories hand-rolled more than 1 million cigars. And before long, the waterfront neighborhood that became known as Ybor City had 250 cigar factories.

In the days when millions of men smoked cigars at work and at home, Ybor City was the undisputed cigar capital of the world, and brands like Have-a-Tampa became household names. On Ybor's Seventh Avenue is the Columbia Restaurant's hand-tiled façade. It stretches around the block.

On Ybor's Seventh Avenue is the Columbia Restaurant's hand-tiled façade. It stretches around the block.

But by the 1960s, cigar manufacturing had become highly mechanized, the government was heavily taxing tobacco products, and the importation of fine-leaf tobacco from Communist Cuba was forbidden.

By the hundreds, Tampa's cigar factories closed, and Ybor City became a blighted slum.

But it has made a huge comeback — and not just because more than a dozen small factories are rolling tobacco leaves again. Ybor City is full of bustling restaurants, nightclubs, and art galleries.

On weekend nights, as one artist told us, it's like Carnival without the masks.

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