Carnival Legend - December 2008 travel blog

shot gun houses

living room

Cuban social club

New Orleans look

original factory

street car

Columbia Restaurant

snow slide

Movie Clips - Playback Requirements - Problems?

(MP4 - 5.17 MB)

making cigars


If you wanted to find Ybor City, you would need a really detailed map. It isn't a city at all, but rather a Tampa neighborhood. It is named after Vicente Martinez y Bor. He was a wealthy Spaniard, son of a father named Martinez and a mother named Bor. In the Spanish tradition, the surnames of children combine the mother and father's name, but the local Americanos didn't understand that and thought his last name was Ybor. And after a while it was.

Ybor made a fortune in Cuba manufacturing cigars. After the Cubans grew increasingly rebellious and ready to overthrow Spanish rule, he sided with them during their revolution. Then his factory burned down. Wonder who did that? So he moved his cigar making operation to Key West, but this was long before the causeway linking the Keys to the mainland was built and distribution of the finished cigars was problematic. So Ybor wanted to buy a plot near the coast in the Tampa area that cost $5,000. A railroad line had just been built there, which would alleviate Ybor's cigar distribution problems. By the time he got to the area, the price had increased to $9,000. The Tampa locals could see that the cigar making industry would bring prosperity and jobs to the area and they kicked in the extra $4,000.

Ybor went to work. Not only did he build the factory, but he also built decent homes for his workers to live in. Spaniards and Cubans were already skilled in the cigar making trade, but many Sicilians fled the poverty and crime of their island to come to a similar climate and quickly learned this skill. The cigars needed attractive packaging and advertising and Ybor brought Bavarians to his town because they were noted for their lithography and engraving. As the workers brought wives and children to the area, there was a need for commerce. Ybor traveled to New Orleans and lured Jewish merchants from the French Quarter to Ybor City and they built the stores and restaurants that made the city really feel like a city. They built what they knew and even today the main thoroughfares still have the wrought iron and balcony look of New Orleans.

Because many of the workers could not speak each other's languages and rolling tobacco is a quiet job, the factories were quite still. The workers each chipped in $,25/week to hire readers who sat above them and read aloud. The day would begin with the daily newspaper and turn to popular novels and soap opera type tales in the afternoon. The Sicilians learned Spanish as they worked. The cigar makers were well paid and the conditions in these factories compared very favorably with life in other factories after the Industrial Revolution. The various ethnic groups got along quite well, but naturally socialized most with those they could speak to. Each culture had its own social club building, which served the obvious social needs and also provided health insurance for the workers and their families.

But nothing lasts forever. As the Great Depression dragged on, buying cigars became a luxury and business suffered. After machines were invented that could do this work much more quickly, Ybor City became a deserted slum. As the gentrifiers began to bulldoze the place, the descendant of the cigar makers protested and arranged to have a number of buildings saved and restored.

Today Ybor is an attractive tourist spot during the day and looks like it could be a happening place at night. We enjoyed a two hour walking tour of the place with a man who overflowed with knowledge and enthusiasm. There were many Cuban restaurants to choose from, and we lunched at the Columbia which has been in operation since 1905 and can seat 1,700 people in a number of small dining rooms. Many of the menu items featured dishes we had never eaten before. Great fun. We were here during Santa Fest and were amused to see large trucks full of ice arrive along with a chipper. They sprayed the chipped ice on large slides and kids got on sleds to slide back down. We who had just fled the cruel winds of winter, failed to see the attraction. And come to think of it, we hate the smell of cigars as well. But Ybor city is worth a visit never the less.

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