He re-established his factory there, hiring many of the Cuban refugees who had also fled Cuba, and started making his popular “Principe de Gales” line. Key West, however, was not an ideal location for his factory. There were many issues such as shipping to the mainland, conflicts between Spanish and Cuban workers & ready accessibility of skilled labor that made it expensive to operate there. Martinez-Ybor started to search out other locations for his factory & brand. Among the cities under consideration were Galvaston, Texas, Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama. He was very attracted to the Tampa area for several reasons. First, Henry Plant had recently completed a rail line that connected Tampa to the rest of the railroad lines in the United States. This made it easy to ship the finished cigars to market. Second, Tampa has a large port, which made the importation of both tabaqueros (skilled cigar factory workers) and raw tobacco from Cuba easy & cheap. Third, he could build his factory town on his own model, doing things his way.
Unlike today, factory towns were unique. The factory owner lived in the town and was a part of his community. He supported the town and its people, who in turn supported him. This symbiotic relationship meant that there was a deep connection of the factory owner to the townspeople. He knew them, knew their families and was invested in them – think of Henry Ford & Dearborn, Michigan or George Pullman, and Pullman Illinois (now part of Chicago). Martinez-Ybor wanted to build that kind of factory town, but also wanted to add further stability to it by offering his workers a home of their own. In many factory towns, the housing was rented to the workers of the town by the factory owners. The factory workers were never offered the opportunity to purchase the houses.
Cuban tabaqueros were notoriously transient. They never really settled down. They would go wherever the wages were highest, and often preferred to be in Cuba over all other locations. This made it very difficult to consistently produce cigars, since the art of cigar rolling is run like a guild system, taking years before someone was skilled enough to be registered as a torcedor, the highest level of cigar roller. Martinez-Ybor felt that if he offered home ownership to his workers, they would settle down & stop moving from city to Cuba to city and back. Along with building what would become the largest cigar factory in the world in Ybor City, he also built 50 wooden shotgun houses, called casitas, for his workers. He sold the houses to his workers at cost, about $400. They could pay them off through small weekly deductions of their pay.
In the beginning, Ybor City was a bit of the “Wild West”. It was first settled by men, looking for work. The streets weren’t paved, but instead covered by heavy thick sand that makes up most of the soil of Florida. Walking the streets of Ybor City at night usually required a man to hold a lantern in his left hand to see, and a shotgun in his right to fend off the alligators, bears and panthers that he would encounter. Martinez-Ybor wanted to continue to encourage settlement, so he wisely sought out other cigar manufacturers to build factories in his town. He knew that the more opportunities there were for skilled laborers in his town, the better the chance that they would put down roots. One of his original partners in the creation of Ybor City was a competitor, Ignacio Haya. Martinez-Ybor offered cheap land and a free factory building to any cigar manufacturer who would move to Ybor City, if they met certain hiring quotas. He also offered cheap land for store fronts to encourage varied businesses & more commerce in his city. All this combined to make Ybor City a real boomtown. In 1887, the city of Tampa successfully annexed Ybor City into its city limits. They did so under the guise of policing the “wild frontier” on their northeastern border, but in reality, it was to secure money for their tax rolls. In 1885, the import/export taxes collected by the city of Tampa were $683. By 1895, it swelled to $625,000 due almost exclusively to the import of Cuban tobacco and the export of Tampa made cigars.
Ybor City continued to grow and flourish into the dawn of the 20th Century. By the 1900 census, Tampa’s population was over 16,000, with a vast majority of its residents living in Ybor City, either working in the cigar factories or for businesses that supported those workers. The town wasn’t exclusively Hispanic either. Indeed, many people from other countries came to settle in Ybor City from Germany, Italy or Eastern Europe. These people came to build other businesses like groceries, softgoods or brickmaking. Although the US Immigration policy was quite strict at this time, with small islands off shore of large cities (Angel Island in San Francisco or Ellis Island in New York) to handle & process new immigrants, Tampa was very lax. People just slipped in and settled in Ybor City. When they arrived, they needed to learn 2 languages: Spanish – the predominant language of Ybor City and English – the language of the remainder of the area. In order to feel more at home, the social club became an important part of their weekly lives.
Unlike many other cities, the social clubs of Ybor City reflected the wealth of the boomtown. No small storefronts were these organizations. They build grand imposing edifices from brick that still survive today. Walking down La Septima (the 7th Avenue business district of Ybor City), you can still see El Centro Espanol or La Unione Italiana with their beautiful architecture. These clubs often filled out a family’s social calendar for months on end, with dances, meetings and civic organizations. They offered a bit of home in the foreign land. There were 6 main Mutual Aid Societies in Ybor City: the Deutscher-Americaner (German-American Club), L’Unione Italiana (Italian Club), La Union Martí-Maceo, Circulo Cubano (Cuban Club), El Centro Español, and El Centro Asturiano. Because Tampa is a part of the deep south, segregation laws existed. It was necessary to have two Cuban clubs, one for white/light skinned Cubanos and one for dark skinned. Circulo Cubano was the light skinned and La Union Marti-Maceo was the dark-skinned. Cubanos are a mixed race group, so often members of the same family might belong to different clubs. It was a strange and archaic system.
The Great Depression devastated Ybor City, as it did much of the country. Although by this time the economy of the area was diversified with many different businesses operating, the heart and soul of Ybor City was the cigar industry. Once the demand for high end hand rolled cigars diminished, money dried up in the town. People started to move away, leaving behind the small casitas and imposing brick factories. These small houses were then used by transient people as cheap rental homes. The town as a whole started to change and urban blight became an issue in the 1950’s & 60’s. The US government’s urban renewal plans did not help either. Often what happened was the older buildings were torn down to make way for some grand plan, which never got built because funding dried up. This left many open tracts of land in and around La Septima. Finally, the city of Tampa reinvested in Ybor City, building large parking garages, and encouraging businesses to open. The gentrification movement that started with artist communities in large cities with inexpensive rents took hold, and people started slowly to return to the charm and community that is Ybor City. It’s renewal is still underway. Today you can walk La Septima and see small cigar shops with their own custom blends, a small cigar factory operating as part factory, part museum/educational experience, nightclubs, smoke shops, vintage thrift stores, tattoo parlours and nightclubs. It also has a great entertainment complex with a movie theatre and various dining establishments.
Ybor City is much like New Orleans, but more personal and familiar. In the daytime, there is shopping, great food, great cigars and a relaxed easy feel. The business owners are all genuinely happy to see you. They greet you warmly and graciously. In the evening and nighttime, the city opens up. People come down to party or to dine. The lovely architecture shines. I encourage you to take a day from your Orlando theme park vacation, travel 1 hour west on I-4 to the 22nd Street exit, and then turn south to La Septima. Park in one of the many garages, and wander about. Stop into a business, speak to the owner, enjoy a cigar or a Café Cubano.
2 thoughts on “History of Ybor City”
Great write up. My grandmother used to work in one of the many factories in Ybor City. It’s really sad that even the locals now a days know nothing of the rich history and heritage of Ybor. Thanks again.
Josh, you are very welcome. I do enjoy visitin Ybor when I can.
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