It began as one man’s vision. It became his legacy.
Vicente Martinez Ybor was born in Spain in 1818, but at 14 left his homeland to avoid mandatory military service. He settled in Cuba, where he built a thriving cigar company. Then, in 1868, fighting between the Spanish and independence-seeking Cubans forced Ybor to flee again – this time to Key West.
Ybor rebuilt his cigar business and enjoyed more than a decade of prosperity. But labor unrest and the transportation issues he faced in Key West made Ybor look elsewhere.
In the fall of 1885, Ybor purchased 40 acres of land northeast of Tampa. By the following spring, Ybor and his partners had established a company town called, appropriately, Ybor City. Their cigar factory was the largest in the world at the time.
But Ybor built more than a factory. Because he wanted to avoid the labor problems he had faced in Key West, Ybor built decent, affordable homes for his workers and paid them good wages. He encouraged other cigar companies to relocate to Ybor City. In 1887, the area was annexed by the city of Tampa.
The need for workers drew thousands from many different lands – Spain, Cuba, Italy, Germany and China. Ybor City became an eclectic mix of traditions, customs and cuisine, but residents stayed in touch with their roots though ethnically-oriented social clubs which supported and were supported by the cigar workers and their families.
Ybor died in in 1896, but the cigar industry he founded flourished. During its peak in the 1920s, half a billion cigars a year were hand-rolled here, earning Ybor City the nickname of “The Cigar Capital of the World.”
But new technology and changing public tastes would take their toll. The years following World War II saw the industry decline, and with it many aspects of Ybor City. Urban renewal struck another, near-fatal blow.
But the area has come back, big-time. Ybor City is now a National Landmark Historic District, with new businesses, new residents and a new appreciation of its heritage.
We think the man for whom it is named would be happy.
For more information about Ybor City, please visit the Ybor City Museum.
And for a chance to experience a fine, hand-rolled cigar, visit one of our cigar merchants who help keep the tradition alive.