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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018
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'Cigar City'

TAMPA - Hoping to escape labor issues, Vicente Martinez Ybor became the first Key West cigarmaker to move his operations to Tampa. On opening day, however, only irony rolled out of his factory: His workers went on strike. The Cuban cigarmakers objected to his appointing a Spaniard as foreman. So, it was the Sanchez y Haya factory that manufactured the first Tampa cigar on April 13, 1886, according to several accounts. The company was founded by Ignacio Haya, the businessman who joined Ybor in pioneering Tampa's cigar industry. By the 1920s, hundreds of factories were turning out more than 400 million cigars a year, and Tampa had become "Cigar City." Its cigars were so vaunted, out-of-town cigarmakers claimed their stogies came from Tampa, too. In response, the city council authorized factories to stamp their cigars with the city seal.
That's part of the story visitors will see and hear at the $52 million Tampa Bay History Center, scheduled to open in December in the Channel District. The three-story building, under construction for nearly a year, will take visitors from the Tampa Bay area's prehistory through the arrival of the Spanish explorers, the Seminole Indian wars, Civil War, coming of the railroad and rise of the modern city. Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants came to work in the cigar factories and related businesses, creating an unusual culture that continues to help define Tampa more than 120 years later. They built their own clubhouses in Ybor City, grand edifices where members dined, danced, attended plays, played dominoes and received health care. The doctor and medical staff were paid by club dues, making these organizations the first mutual aid societies in the United States. Mornings broke to the smell of Cuban coffee brewing and the cigar smoke of workers heading to the factories. Vendors hawked produce and crab cakes and candy. Kids came running when they heard the call, "Piruli!" the name of the spiraled candy one vendor sold. Crowds filled Seventh Avenue, especially on Saturday nights. "Tampa was an old Southern town, but it always had a little twist in our history with the Latin element," says Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the history center. "A visitor from Alabama or Virginia in 1905, they would have been amazed at what they saw." They might be shocked at a white woman working next to a black man in a cigar factory. But the workers, both Cuban, thought nothing of it. "They didn't have the same hang-ups, obviously," Kite-Powell says. The history center will cover the subject from several angles, including the perspectives of people who grew up in the Cigar City during the era. Their taped stories will be accessible at the press of a button. People will enter the exhibit through a 1920s cigar store stocked with artifacts from the era, from marketing gimmicks like pocket knives, clocks and box openers to colorful cigar label art and boxes, tins and signs. Another room will evoke the atmosphere of a factory. Visitors will learn about the cigar-making process and the traditions surrounding it. For example, the workers pooled their money to hire readers, or lectors, to entertain them while they worked. Visitors will be able to hear the voice of a lector reading Cervantes' "Don Quixote." The voice actor is retired Judge E.J. Salcines, a Tampa native who lectures on Ybor City history. In the 1930s, cigar-making machines started replacing workers in the richer factories, adding to the unemployment rolls during the Depression. Meanwhile, cigarettes were burning into profits; by World War II, when cigarette companies were sending millions of cartons to troops overseas, the cigar industry was in decline. Ybor City seemed to decline with it. Young people who left the enclave to go to war returned and bought new homes in the suburbs with the help of veterans' loans. In the 1960s, urban renewal leveled hundreds of quaint but dilapidated cigar worker homes and replaced them with public housing. Though Seventh Avenue took on a faded look, it remained much as it was in its heyday. After decades of speculation, entrepreneurs reawakened the business district as an entertainment center. Now, as in the early days, Ybor City comes to life on weekend nights.

Reporter Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 259-7609.

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